Current thinking on capacity development (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 960)



Please summarise the latest thinking on capacity development, summarising the main debates, successes and challenges identified in the key literature of the last five years.


Capacity development (CD) emerged in the 1990s from a reassessment of earlier approaches to technical cooperation. (Pearson 2011b, p. 10) It is now “gaining greater prominence in international discussions on the performance and future of development cooperation” (Keijzer et al. 2011, p. 7) and continues to be identified as key constraint in development analysis and political statements. (expert comments ) International declarations such as the Accra Agenda for Action (2008), Cairo Consensus on Capacity Development (2011), and the Busan 4th High-Level Forum (2011) have recognised capacity development as an important component of mainstream development thinking.

Capacity development is increasingly recognised as a multi-dimensional, multi-actor process (Ubels, Bokhoven, and Acquaye-Baddoo 2011; Pearson 2011a, p. 12) that goes beyond the transfer of knowledge and skills at the individual level to include organisations, sectors, systems, and the enabling environment in which they all exist. Current thinking emphasises the significance of politics and governance, the need for country-led and country-owned CD, the need to strengthen and use in-country resources more effectively, the need for more South-South co-operation, and a focus on sustainable outcomes. (Pearson 2011a, p. 12)

Several organisations have compiled collections of case stories illustrating capacity development successes arising from these approaches, including the Learning Network on Capacity Development which maintains a catalogue of more than 600 case stories ( drawn from UNDP, the Task Team on South-South Cooperation, Princeton University’s Innovations for Successful Societies project, and more than a dozen other organisations.

Although there is an emerging consensus, there is still some lack of clarity around the concept of capacity development, and developing a clearer common understanding underpinned by shared principles and values is still seen as an important objective. (Pearson 2011b, p. 16) The lack of consensus “has left many agencies and particularly DFID with the impression that the concept adds little if anything to development effectiveness.” (expert comments)

The multilateral agencies currently showing the strongest interest in capacity development are the EU, World Bank, and UNDP, along with the Dutch, Australian, German, and Norwegian bilaterals. The UK uses many of the principles but talks more about political economy and institutional strengthening. (expert comments) The OECD appears to have disengaged with the subject and has no staff working on it. (expert comments) Few developing countries have a comprehensive CD component in their development plans or sector strategies. (Pearson 2011a, p. 12)


Lucas, B. Current thinking on capacity development (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 960). Governance and Social Development Resource Centre, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK (2016) 13 pp.

Current thinking on capacity development (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 960)

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