Mbabane, Swaziland | 5 Feb 2014
What does “capacity building” mean?
I ask not only in the interests of fun — it is also a very serious question.
Before you stop reading (because one’s eyes can glaze over these two words, capacity building) please allow this slippery little phrase to sink into your brain. As the words nestle into the frontal lobe of your mind’s muscle, what comes into view? What picture springs into your head?
Each time I hear capacity building I get a different image. Sometimes it’s the image of a building company called Capacity. Capacity Building Pty Ltd.
Other times it’s the image of a skyscraper — The Capacity Building.
This building looks like the Empire State Building in New York, though The Capacity Building — owing to its spare capacity — is mostly empty.
And sometimes it’s the image of a three-day workshop on “governance and strategy” for human rights NGOs, possibly sponsored by international aid agencies who come in their droves to stay in nice hotels and write about poor people from the hotel bar.
Rarely is the image that of helping to create jobs or save lives or simply teaching practical skills. Perhaps this is a problem with my imagination. Maybe I have refused to re-define capacity building in my own mind. But I suspect something more is at play.
The blurry definition can cause some problems for someone who spends more time than he cares to admit hearing this phrase at “workshops” or reading about it in chunky (not to mention pricey) research reports. It can cause problems, because if the image of something central to your job is unclear or throws up varying and vague definitions at once, how is one to pursue a concrete course of action?
When you ask people what capacity building means, it can lead you into a rabbit-hole of overgrown jargon — a confusing and scary place of abstract and fancy words.
Much like other NGO and management jargon such as strategise or mainstream, when you ask 10 people what capacity building means you are likely to get 10 different responses. If you’re looking for a bit of confused enjoyment, try it out. See what comes back. And look for that moment of uncertainty in the eyes of the responder just before they begin their lengthy attempt to look smarter than they are.
Some have called this phenomenon “intellectual vanity”.
It’s a strange thing, because on their own each word has a solid meaning.
Capacity: the ability or power to do, experience, or understand something.
Building: establish and develop; and increase the size, intensity or extent of something.
But when the words come together the meaning becomes less clear. What’s more, there is a niggling question — somewhat removed from the question of language — that can’t be ignored.
How much of the money given to capacity building projects makes it to the people who need it most? How much of the millions of dollars spent on well-meaning projects — reducing hunger, sanitising water, providing medical aid — makes it to those who are really struggling?
This is not an original question or a new problem. And the flip side of this question must also be asked: How much of this capacity building money is sucked up by theoretical workshops, promotional material and “fund raising” trips?
This is not just a question for NGOs in the developing world. In many ways, it seems NGOs in poor countries learn their bad habits from NGOs in rich countries. And while language (the words) and money (how it is spent) pose different problems, if the language was clearer would it not lead to a clearer distribution of money?
That question may go some way in answering why people who wish to misuse funds hide behind vague words. (Or the people who use these words really do believe in their worth, otherwise known as drinking the cool aid.)
But behind these jargon words, hidden behind the thick scrub of academic papers and keynote speeches, lies an inherent potential for something better. Capacity building can be something more practical if it can be transformed into what it is meant to be: Helping people to help themselves, then getting out of the way.
This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland