Gina writes:

Multiple choice quiz: What does capacity-building mean?

  1. I have no clue, but I use it all the time because I work in development and using it makes me look smrt.
  2. Something about teaching a man to fish instead of sharing your fish with him.
  3. An ongoing, iterative process whereby individuals, groups, organizations and societies enhance their ability to identify and meet development challenges by coordinating their efforts through participatory facilitation.

I think 3 might technically be right, but I can't quite get past the bullshit to see! 2 is a simplified version of the definition. Yes, capacity-building is the act of teaching someone HOW to do something rather than to do it for them. In the development world, this is like the Holy Grail of project planning.

It's been on my mind lately and I thought my ramblings might be of interest to some of this blog's audiences.

Capacity-building is one of VSO's key approaches to placements. We volunteers are trained to concentrate on transferring our skills to our coworkers in the partner NGO. This is why you don't see Corey and I out in the field very often; except for needing to understand the work that's done outside of the office (and wanting to be out there experienceing amazing stuff), there's not much that we can do out there to help our coworkers become better at their jobs. Though it's not as exciting, it's more useful for us to help in the office with report-writing skills, computer knowledge, and other things that affect future funding and the organization's ability to do and show their good work (and make the individuals themselves better development workers, for any future NGO they work at).

When you start work at an Indian NGO, however, it's difficult to get started building capacity immediately, telling people what they need to change and why. Especially as a younger person (both Corey and I) and as a woman (me, of course!), there's a relationship-formation process that has to happen before any foreigner can be critical and fill the role of "trainer". The key "ingredient" to speeding up this acceptance or even seeing it happen at all is the support shown to the volunteer by the NGO's director (called the "secretary" here). For my first year, the director did not publicly convey his belief in my skills, so capacity-building was next to impossible. When I left and started working at SPREAD instead, the director showed subtle signs of approval that the staff picked up on from the first day. It wasn't long before they started to come to me with questions.

Just yesterday was a small but meaningful victory for me. My coworker Prasant had asked me, on his own initiative, to develop a "documentation improvement plan" for him. I wrote some tips on how to ensure better English and better organization in his reports and how to include more relevant and useful data. When I sat with him yesterday to go over it in detail, he called in another staff member who is at an equivalent position (project manager) and also submits English reports to funders. Ajaya came into my office and the three of us ended up having a full hour, almost uninterrupted impromptu report training! It felt great to know that they respected my knowledge and were taking the time to gain skills from me. Small wins here in India...

Here's a "dramatic reenactment" of me training Prasant. It was taking today and not yesterday, but that really is how things work; people just sit with me at my desk and we work on my laptop on reports.

I'll mention that capacity-building is a "goal" for VSO volunteers, but that it's rarely possible to have a placement with 100% capacity-building activity. Usually there's a project or two that a volunteer does mostly indepently, like designing a website, developing templates, or developing a database to track information. These projects help to form the relationship that's necessary for capacity-building. They also fill a gap in the organization, because no one at the NGO has the skills to do it and hiring an external consultant it too expensive. And they provide long-time value for the organization.

What we volunteers try NOT to do too much of is provide direct service delivery, like writing proposal and reports (me) or fixing computers (Corey). Since we won't be around forever, we're supposed to train someone at the office to do it, connect the office with a capable service provider (i.e. computer repair shop), or just accept that the English or design might not be the same level that we could produce, but that's it's at least truly coming from the permanent staff.

The concept of capacity-building isn't that profound, but it's an idea that we keep in mind whenever we face a task. Is there a way to integrate some training in this task? What skills can I teach the people around me that will make them better at their jobs for years to come?