Enabling environment: Executive summary


The context matters for capacity development (CD). It sets the stage on which actors pursue their interests and agendas – both of which are affected by change processes. And CD is change, in most cases producing winners and losers and reconfiguring the balance of influence and power in and between individuals, organizations and groups of organizations.

This perspective paper – one of five in a series prepared by the OECD/DAC as an input to preparation of the High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan in 2011 – collects evidence about how the environment can be more or less enabling for CD, how actors can adapt to or influence the context they operate in, and what the implications are when country and development partners promote CD.

The broad concept of “context” or “environment” can be  broken down in structural and institutional factors; as well as actors or stakeholders. Six areas are of particular importance in shaping capacity and CD, with concrete implications for country and development partners:

  1. The Strength of Society, State and Economy: Capacity development ambitions and approaches need to match the different realities of states, economies and societies. State formation processes matter beyond the fragile situations where they are debated at the moment, and imported notions of what states are, what they should do, and how they should do it, are at best unhelpful for CD.
  2. Informal Institutions:Understanding the informal institutions is critical for CD.  Opening the dialogue about the relative importance of formal and informal institutions, involving local knowledge sources, is essential to adapt to and/or make use of informal institutions when strengthening capacity. Informal institutions may serve pro-poor objectives and overlooking or side-lining them is likely to foster resistance and forego CD opportunities.
  3. Stakeholder Interests and Politics: Identifying the space for CD and reform requires an intimate understanding of the setting of stakeholders, taking into account the interests, power and energies of those that influence CD processes and who will be influenced by them.  The field of stakeholders is an important arena for promoting CD by forming pro-CD coalitions, neutralizing or sidelining opposition to change, and keeping external pressure for CD up.
  4. Incentives and capabilities for sector coordination: Developing the capacity of sectors to deliver often requires coordination, collaboration and communication across multiple sector and organizational boundaries. Prevailing incentives and capabilities to do this may be limited unless driven strongly from the top. Therefore, ambitions should be scaled accordingly. It may be useful to seek good enough policy coherence; and then to focus CD efforts mostly on what individual organizations have to deliver in this bigger picture. Development partners should pay special attention to avoid adding to the challenge through fragmented approaches that pay lip service only to policy coherence and alignment.
  5. The voice of non-state and state stakeholders:Incentives to organizational performance are shaped by the strength of the formal and informal voice of citizens, users, media, and check and balances organisations. Looking for means to strengthen those voices which would pressure for more equitable or better service delivery can be an important way of making the environment more enabling for CD.
  6. The quality of broader systems in the public sector:Incentives to individual performance in the public sector are shaped by core country systems (e.g. PFM, procurement) and civil service employment conditions.  Ad-hoc and narrowly conceived CD efforts should not be expected to work in environments where broader, multi-facetted reform processes addressing country systems may be required – but also much harder to implement. This often implies that incremental “muddling through” is the best alternative; testing, trying and adapting approaches along the road, and accepting that the risk of failure is high.

Country and donor actors can do better for CD when they understand the context and how it influences performance and capacity development. Successful country managers – and successful donor staff - influence what is within their reach and adapt to what they cannot influence.  That implies sometimes doing less, sometimes doing more for CD. First of all, it demands a more managerial, strategic and dynamic look at CD and change, requiring that country and development partners change the mental mode in which they traditionally dialogue about and deal with capacity issues as if it was mainly a technical issue.

There are three key messages that will help strengthen CD processes and support to such processes:

  • Make the understanding of the context operationally relevant. This entail getting roles right: it is country actors that need to factor the context in, departing from a specific CD agenda and respecting the sensitivities involved. Donors can support and broker – if they take over the context analysis is likely to stay at the margins, no matter how well researched and argued. 
  • Get CD ambitions right.Successful CD depends first and foremost on the change readiness shaped by the context, the vision and the capacity and power of those leading and managing change. This may often imply more incremental approaches, a focus on quick visible wins, longer overall timeframes, as well as flexible adaptation to exploit opportunities and avoid dead ends. 
  • Harness the leadership and management for change.Country champions need to invest visibly in CD. They need space, capacity and support when they adapt to and influence the context.  Donors need to understand the limitations of the available change leadership and management capacity, and abstain from trying to replace endogenous leadership with their own.

Taking the context into account implies recognizing – operationally - that CD is much more than a technical discipline. It affects interests, reshapes configurations of influence and power, and generates or diminishes energies of external and internal stakeholders. Successful CD requires constant strategizing, brokering, coalition building and conflict management. Dealing sensibly and pragmatically with these often thorny issues is a new challenge that in itself has to be addressed:

  • Open the dialogue and learning between country and development partners: A more frank and unpretentious dialogue about context factors, stakeholder and change readiness can help get CD and support to CD on a better footing on the road to and after Busan.