Capacity Development in Practice

Ubels, Jan
Acquaye-Baddoo, Naa-Aku
Fowler, Alan
Earthscan, 2010, ISBN 9781844077427, 360 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Lars Udsholta
Capacitate, Denmark

During the past decade, many different actors in international development have been rallying around the notion of capacity development. However, as yet more actors join hands to embrace the concept, there is a risk that its immediate appeal and potential applicability is overshadowed by a certain elusive eloquence that surrounds thinking about ‘capacity development’. As argued in the introduction, ‘uncertainty’ and ‘confusion’ remain, leading to ‘doubt and misunderstanding’. This is what the editors set out to redress in this new volume, which consists of 24 contributions from 22 different practitioners. The volume is a concrete manifestation of the decade-long commitment to engaging in capacity development as a professional discipline. In particular, quite a number of the texts make reference to experience gained in the context of SNV, the ‘Netherlands Development Organisation’, a long-established development NGO with the motto Connecting People's Capacities.
The book is organised in five main sections: Perspectives on Capacity; Establishing Your Practice; Working with Connections; Improving on Results; and Looking Ahead. The editors have chosen to make a virtue out of the fact that there is already considerable ‘definitional scrutiny and endless prolonged debate’. They see it as a ‘valuable diversity’ which ‘helps to mitigate the dominance of a monolithic “truth”, thus inviting continual enquiry and testing’, and they pose a response to this, not as conceptual quibble but rather allowing frontline capacity-development practitioners to ‘fill the gap from below’.
A range of practitioners ‘fill the gap from below’ by explaining and demonstrating what it takes to deliver on the promise of capacity development. As might be expected, the contributions vary quite considerably. Some – like the chapter by Champion, Kiel, and McLendon on ‘Advisors’ Roles' – offer templates for how consultants can understand and organise their contributions to capacity-development processes. Others showcase practical examples of how capacity evolves in real-life situations, such as the experience of Tanzanian NGO HakiElimu in promoting public accountability in Tanzania, or how SNV has supported multi-stakeholder processes in relation to value chains in Uganda.
The diversity of experience offered in this volume is one of its major strengths, and as such the book is a very useful source of inspiration for capacity-development practitioners looking for cases paralleling their own current efforts. Likewise, the texts offer rich intellectual inspiration for readers who may well have become overwhelmed by the conceptual generosity characterising the thinking around capacity development.
Despite a structure which is clear and offers its audience a guided tour through the varied landscapes of contemporary capacity development, the book does not offer an easy read from beginning to end. The individual contributions differ markedly in style and subject coverage. Some texts have been drafted especially for this volume, whereas others are edited versions of older material. The geographical, sectoral, and thematic experiences cover such a wide terrain that the evidence and subject matter occasionally appear scattered and inconsequential. Accordingly, the ‘guided tour’ that this volume offers does require the reader to have some prior acquaintance with the field of capacity development. The volume is not – and does not pretend to be – an entry-level text book; neither is it a ‘one-stop’ reference book which offers straightforward answers to any question imaginable about capacity development.
However, Capacity Development in Practice is rich in reflections – not of the ‘evaluative hindsight’ type but of the ‘forward-looking action-research’ type – and it invites its readers to embark on challenging collective journeys.