For the development of capacities of organizations it is important to consider to which extent the enabling environment is conducive, how strong relationships with other organisations are and to which extent individuals are capacitated and empowered to act within their organizations.

Within the systems view on capacity, different levels of capacity can be distinguished: the enabling environment, the organization and the individual. These levels mutually interact through complex co-dependency relationships (see figure below).

  • The enabling environment: …the broader system including policies, legislation, regulations, power relations and social norms;
  • The organizational level: …the internal policies, arrangements, procedures and frameworks that allow an organization to operate and deliver on its mandate. It enables the coming together of individual capacities for achieving common goals; and
  • The individual level: …the skills, experience, knowledge and motivation that are vested in people.

Formal institutions or systems are well known and comprise the public sector with Ministries, Local Governments, Agencies, Commissions, Authorities, as well as e.g. democratic institutions, the judiciary, religious institutions, universities and education institutes, media, private sector and civil society. Informal Institutions are less “visible” although provide powerful incentives for or barriers to action and change. Informal institutions are culture, values, attitudes, mindsets and paradigms, dominant ways of thinking, and actual behaviours. The reason informal institutions or systems are less visible is that they require to be expressed in (verbal or written) word or behavior, before they can be subjected to analysis and (if possible) understood by individuals themselves and others.

Formal and informal systems continuously interact and evolve at the level of individuals as well as the collective. For those interested Integral Theory by Ken Wilber provides an interesting model to better understand these interactions and Spiral Dynamics Integral provides further thinking on the evolution of societal values of collective systems.

The importance of addressing institutional capacity also from this systems view with three “spheres” is that it highlights the interdependence of all stakeholders in terms of ultimate development impact. It also highlights the need to develop organizations’ and individuals’ capacity to build good relationships and partnerships for interdependent development results. The impact of joint action goes, however, well beyond achieving improved development impacts, it also creates: a) Shared vision and values; b) Supportive relationships; c) Understanding of interdependencies; d) Bridging of different realities; e) Strong sense of joined empowerment/voice, and f) Courage to bring structural constraints to the attention of higher authority.

The capacity to understand and manage different interests, to bridge power hierarchies and different realities within system relationships, as well as dealing with inherent conflicts, is thus important. This is especially relevant in terms of the gaps in realities, which often exist between national (macro) level, (meso) level and community (micro) level.

A systems view on capacity is essential in achieving transformational change and capacities for the future. Within the public sector, capacity development is still often only seen as provision of technical and functional staff training. Existing training systems are often reductionist and expertise knowledge based, which does not provide the professional competences required to fully grasp and implement new approaches. Organizational capacity strengthening is often focused on internal organizational processes, as strengthening of planning and program management systems and not on strengthening external relationships or multi-stakeholder processes. The interconnectedness of an enabling environment, a network of actors, organizational capacities and staff capacities is not fully understood, nor are the interactions between formal and informal systems and the barriers and drivers of change. This undermines the effectiveness of the often, substantial spending on training organisations make.

Capacity Development also requires a long-term objective, instead of an five-year or annual plan cycle, and more so an acknowledgement that externally created expert solutions delivered to those in need are ultimately ineffective, even destructive. Primarily, it is the difficulty of addressing issues of power in relationships, of our power in the relationships we have with people we are trying to work with. We talk a lot of the importance of ownership and participation but continue to undermine the ability of people to fully own and control their own development, often unconsciously and unintentionally. Participation is not enough. The challenge is control over processes of resourcing, planning, execution, monitoring and evaluation of impact. Unless there is increasing control over these processes by people themselves as integral to claiming of their own power, then development simply does not take place in any meaningful or sustainable way. This proposition is valid not only in the relationship between country government, ad-or donors, and its development partners, but increasingly so in the relationship between a government’s public sector and its citizens.