Challenging Capacity Building: Comparative Perspectives

Kenny, Sue
Clarke, Matthew
Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-230-23323-2, 269 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Sylvia I. Bergha
International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam

The editors of this volume are both based at Deakin University in Australia, where Kenny is the Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights, and Clarke is the Deputy Head of the School of International and Political Studies. The book is aimed at an audience of development practitioners as well as academics, and its fairly accessible language means that it should reach a practitioner audience quite effectively. However, in geographic terms, all the case studies are from Asia, Australia, Ireland, the UK, and the USA, and thus the volume does not cover experiences of capacity building funded by huge inputs of aid in Africa and Latin America.
In their introductory chapter, the editors usefully discuss the rise of capacity building as a practice – and even as a ‘fetish’ – in both developed and developing countries. They highlight the concept's strong focus on agency, derived from neo-liberal and new managerialist principles such as individualism and competition. The editors also track the historical trajectories of community development and capacity building, and ask whether they are actually synonymous terms – a central question which is later taken up by some of the other chapters in this volume, especially the chapter contributed by Ife.
The five general themes addressed in this book are well chosen to critically interrogate the assumptions and practices of capacity building. First, the book highlights the concept's terminological confusions but nevertheless considerable normative force, especially when it is linked to ‘community’. Second, the case studies in the various chapters illustrate the neglect of structural and political factors and resources in capacity builders' analyses of constraints on local development. Furthermore, the case studies pick up the strong orientation towards addressing ‘deficits’ in most capacity-building programmes.
The third theme alludes to capacity building as a ‘de-politicising’ practice, as the dominant approaches to capacity building frame essentially political decisions as technical tasks or procedures. Thus, the practice becomes aimed at the mastery of predefined skills, rather than empowerment leading to social justice or deeper democracy, and in turn it is facilitated by top–down methods of decision-making. Fourth, the chapters in this volume highlight the focus on organisational development and training, favouring passive over active ‘Freireian’ learning. Further criticised is the division of capacity building in the ‘north’ versus the ‘south’, and the fact that capacity building can be seen as a vehicle for the continuing colonial project by industrialised countries. The final theme is the danger of ‘localism’ inherent in capacity building. The term ‘localism’ in this context refers to the argument that capacity building focuses on ‘the local’ as a homogeneous entity and has an anti-diversity bias, although new ‘cosmopolitan’ modes of capacity building through transnational activist networks have arisen more recently.
The editors' concluding chapter is very useful, because it presents a set of questions that both academics and practitioners should ask regarding the orientation, approach, rationale, and expectations of a capacity-building project. For example, what is the normative, theoretical, and political framing of the project? Is it initiated in a top–down or a bottom–up manner? Is it deficit-based or asset-based? What type of participation does it envisage? And what are the rhetorical and real rationales for establishing the project or programme – ranging from improving organisational efficiency to local empowerment? For example, Randy Stoecker in his chapter on the US model of capacity building argues that ‘community capacity building is a form of capitalist social control’ (p. 217).
The main shortcoming of the book is the lack of links between the various chapters. Several supposedly more empirical chapters in the second part of the book go over the same theoretical and historical background as many chapters in the first part of the book, leading to unnecessary repetition. Instead, more primary data from fieldwork could have been included to give substance to the sometimes superficial case studies, whose methodological foundations are not always made clear and transparent. (Michelle Share's very interesting chapter on three urban-regeneration case studies in Dublin, Ireland, is an exception here.) It would have been useful if the questions raised in the concluding chapter had been developed more explicitly into a common analytical framework to structure the case studies.
As the editors put it, the book sets out to consider the idea of ‘challenging capacity building’ in three ways: first, critiquing and challenging conventional ideas and meanings of capacity building; second, examining how it is a challenging endeavour for development practitioners; and third, investigating how it can challenge existing arrangements by genuinely empowering communities. While the book successfully addresses the first two objectives, the third one is dealt with only in vague terms. The editors conclude that ‘while the arguments presented by some of the authors in the book would suggest jettisoning the term and replacing it with the older term “community development”, “capacity building” can offer a specific lens, which if set up critically, can underscore the idea that development is about deliberative processes, collective self-determination and the realisation of human rights’ (p. 256). However, the contributions to this book do not really discuss in depth what such deliberative processes would look like, or what exactly is meant by ‘democratic deliberation’ (another term used in the conclusion), or even ‘empowerment’ itself.
The value of this book thus lies mostly in critically reviewing and structuring a vast literature, and providing the basis for new research and innovative development practices, as suggested by the third expressed aim: to challenge capacity building on the search for alternatives to existing arrangements. Such research would take as its main starting point the perspective of the people whose capacities are meant to ‘be built’– something which this book accomplishes only in part.