The World Bank blog had a great post last week that takes an interesting view on one of development’s shibboleths: capacity building. Rich Mallet breaks down the concept a bit and notes how, in practice, it usually involves resources and technical training. But he draws on some work by ODI and others to argue that:

capacity is a relational concept. That is, capacities are developed through social relationships, and the nature of those relationships has profound consequences for the ability of an agent, an organization or a system to get things done.

(Emphasis mine.)

I don’t think I’ve seen it put quite this way before, but the framing resonates. The capacity of a system hinges on the social relationships within it. Mallet looks at the national, district and community levels, focusing on cross-sector relationships, the relationships between service providers and users, and the relationships within bureaucracies. This last one is especially interesting.

More generally, I see relationships as critical to understanding capacity at the organizational and institutional level. After all, that’s what we’re usually talking about under this heading: building capacity of a given organization, whether that’s a government bureaucracy, an NGO, or something else. The term “capacity building” has become synonymous with workshops and technical trainings, because we often assume that the capacity of the institution is just the sum of the capacities of the individuals within the institution, or maybe because we see the capacities of individuals as the greatest constraint to the capacity of the institution, even if we see other factors as relevant. Or maybe just because trainings are easy and everyone likes free lunch.

Making use of the relational nature of capacity in order to build an organization’s capacity means thinking harder about how organizations actually function. Big changes that restructure org charts or reallocate budgets seem dramatic, but they only deal with the formal, documented processes and systems of an organization.

The informal channels of influence and discourse are just as significant in determining outcomes. These informal elements are all about relationships — where people have lunch, how someone got hired, who used to work where, etc. So much of an organization’s capacity lies in these informal networks. Yet they are typically opaque to outsiders and even many insiders, which can mean they get ignored or assumed to be unimportant by change agents.

Understanding the relationships that exist requires a much deeper embed with an organization than a mere skills needs assessment of staff. And changing those relationships takes much longer than a day’s workshop.

  1. David Jacobstein June 18, 2014 at 7:55 pm

    This aspect of capacity is really important; this also helps capacity development move from a best practice model to really locally-tailored work, and focuses external assistance on brokering relationships and facilitation rather than training and skills transfer. This fits very nicely with much of the thinking embodied in the USAID Local Systems Framework ( and findings of the LCD Learning Agenda on capacity development ( Seems to be a growing recognition of the importance of relationships and systems, though we’re in the early stages of digesting how to provide assistance (and track its contributions to outcomes) given that reality.


  2. […] 2. Capacity, institutions, and relationships | Find What Works – Dave Algoso “The capacity of a system hinges on the social relationships within it.” Anyone who has been engaged in capacity building will know that it’s often not what it’s built up to be. We concentrate on improving individual expertise/skills (often through death by PowerPoint) without thinking about how stuff actually happens – i.e. when people discuss ideas (formally and informally) and then take action. I’m trying to work out the implications of this for my own work. […]


  3. Capacity as a relational concept illuminates the ideas of Henri Lefebvre’s production of space. In this sense, “capacities” are not a naturally developed social relationship, but rather one that is produced for capital accumulation or institutional power. I agree with Dave, that social relationships are key to understanding the “capacity” of an institution. However, the larger question I think this post is engaging with is who are the “actors” that constitute these social relationships and how are they affecting the institution/organization’s ability to achieve local development.


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