You must always ask, ‘Capacity development for what?’ – Interview with Dipa Bagai

The first in our series of interviews with practitioners, we chatted with Dipa Bagai, a capacity development specialist who has more than 15 years of experience across a number of UN agencies and the Indian Civil Service. She is currently a Capacity Development Specialist with UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia-Pacific Region.

TiP:         Thank you for chatting with us today!

DB:          My pleasure!

TiP:         We’d like to discuss some of the ‘gaps’ in capacity building in development programming. But first, perhaps you can share with us how you view capacity building as a process, and how you would define the concept?

DB:         I have more than 15 years of experience in development programming in government, at all levels, and despite the support for a country’s development agenda from partners, such as international and national NGOs, foundations, development agencies, and in some cases the private sector, it is government institutions that carry out the bulk of development activities because that is where ‘scale’ is – and scalability in development is very hard to achieve.

In this case, capacity building is critical for the leap from a project to scale up. Individuals need to be put in a context where their capacity can be built up and used – this is capacity development.  In this way, a focus on institutions allows the capacities that are built to be contextualized and institutionalized in a far more effective way than simply focusing on the individual actor.

TiP:         In theory, capacity building should first understand who needs capacity, and why. However, in practice, capacity building rarely starts with these questions. Capacity building often consists of a package of trainings and potentially some follow-on activities imported from a project in a similar context or sector.

DB:         Typically, when a project is being planned, development agencies look at a problem and want to solve it with a development intervention, but don’t address the institutional infrastructure to underpin it. Putting systems in place is the most important action. Very often, capacity development advisors carry the concept of an ideal system, conditioned by their own experience, knowledge and cultural context. This is known as ‘isomorphic mimicry’ (see For example, they may ask ‘Why isn’t there ministry X or Y?’ They want to transpose a system and build up from zero. But there is a detriment to this: we need the best fit, not a good fit, even when you approach it correctly (with a focus on institutions and systems). For example, in the Pacific, most countries are very small, with administrative systems based on cultural and colonial histories. You can’t create systems in the image of systems you’ve seen in other countries – they’re neither relevant nor effective. Unfortunately, leadership in ‘recipient’ countries tend to be so conditioned by external (isomorphic mimic) advice that they do not think about what is best for their country – they don’t focus on building up indigenous capacities based on local knowledge that allow for local solutions to local problems to be identified.

TiP:         Is this why capacity building projects often start from ‘0’? There is generally little awareness of what has been done previously, or even concurrently by other projects, despite so much emphasis on development effectiveness, etc.

DB:         Yes. To be specific, capacity development presumes certain capacities are present and uses those to enhance the delivery of a specific institutional mandate. Capacity building, on the other hand, is the process of building a system and the capacity of the individuals who have to handle or run the system. So, you must always ask, ‘capacity development for what?’ Then you see where the gaps are, and can undertake capacity building to fill those gaps.

You start with a capacity assessment of the system. You need to engage all parties involved in delivering a mandate or providing a service, or creating or maintaining infrastructure. All parties need to examine the contributions they need to make to a process, and what they need to do in order to make an effective contribution. That’s when capacity building and capacity development is internalized, and the probability of sustainability of results is much higher.

TiP:         How do you measure capacity? So many projects have ‘# of people trained’ etc., as an indicator, which doesn’t tell us about capacity per se. What types of indicators and methods to do you advise, particularly in those hard-to-measure fields like governance or gender equality?

DB:         So much more work needs to be done in this area. However, you can break down the components of capacity development into determining what is the most critical for an organization or institution to deliver on their mandate – specifically, how to be good or better at the job they are supposed to do, and recognizing that capacity development is for a purpose. For example, if the mandate is to deliver a ministry’s budget, do people in specific departments understand that the budget is for a purpose? Are they able to make the links between specific jobs and those who are affected by it? A good example of this is in the education department. Does the person releasing the budget understand that it is used for teachers’ salaries and school supplied? The importance of the release of the budget and paying of salaries impacts on the commitment of teachers and the quality of education that children are receiving.

Basically, there are four parameters to measure capacity, keeping in mind that this approach is a work in progress. 1) measuring effective institutional arrangements (is the correct system in place?, does the system respond to what you need to do, not an ideal concept?); 2) measuring accountability (accountability to the people receiving a service, and accountability to those who you are reporting to); 3) leadership; and 4) knowledge (there should be stability; resilience and adaptability. Can the department withstand changes in government? How many months do people stay in one job? How many people are equipped to do a specific job?)

These discussions need to happen at the highest levels, in a sustained way. But we are constrained by the limited scopes of the projects we work on. So we breakdown measurement to see the incremental changes, which we must presume will translate into big change in the long term.  Thus, we end up falling between two extremes: do we measure capacity development from a long-term perspective, or limit ourselves to the project cycle and thus end up measuring the number and type of trainings that were carried out?

TiP:         Following up on this, does it bother you when projects measure capacity with ‘# of people trained,’ or ‘# of trainings held’?

DB:         It’s a huge detriment because then you are left with the question of ‘what is the effect of these trainings?’ You can train thousands of people but it means nothing if there is no system to utilize the knowledge gained. Measuring capacity goes beyond projects… so measuring numbers is a huge stumbling block because we are unable to make the connection between what the training is for and what we hope to achieve.

TiP:         What are some of the standout lessons you have learned over the course of your career?

DB:         The biggest lesson for me on capacity development is that the whole system needs to be attuned to the idea of capacity development as something that contributes to the effectiveness of an institution (the example of the education department I mentioned earlier is case in point). Secondly, we need to start learning internally from the system rather than always importing expertise from outside. Finally, you have to recognize the number of actors and influencers who determine the effectiveness of capacity development. It is not a linear process (ie: individual to organization to system). We have to consider the role of social media and civil society. Governments can now be overtaken by events (such as the role of social media and civil society in pushing the violence against women and transparency agendas in India). So it is important to harness their power to move capacity development agendas forward.

TiP:         Thank you so much for your time!

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