Measuring Absorptive Capacity (MAC). A new framework for estimating constraints.


This policy brief describes a new framework for measuring absorptive capacity in international development, peacebuilding, and stabilization efforts. Absorptive capacity is the form and amount of foreign aid and attention that recipient communities, institutions, or societies can receive without suffering significant social, economic, or political disruptions.

Conventional measures of absorptive capacity focus on the degree to which a recipient can spend donor funds according to donor requirements. In more sophisticated conventional approaches, the focus is on recipients' technical capacity to plan and implement programs or projects (\"interventions\") according to donor standards, sometimes defined in partnership with recipients.

Conventional prescriptions for overcoming the constraints on aid absorption tend to assume the standards, requirements, objectives, or designs of donor-funded interventions are \"correct\" and that recipients' technical implementation capacity is what needs to be improved.

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has recently completed research on the sources of absorptive capacity, however, and found that absorptive capacity is not an objective feature of recipient societies but a byproduct of particular donor-recipient relationships. More formally, absorptive capacity is an artifact of particular theories of change underlying the design and intent of particular donorfunded interventions.

As such, absorptive capacity cannot be measured in isolation: it exists only in relation to a particular intervention and therefore can be measured only on a model of that intervention. Moreover, improvements to absorptive capacity can be made by adjusting not only the implementation capacity of recipients, but also the delivery capacity of donors and the design or intent of the intervention itself.

The CSIS framework, Measuring Absorptive Capacity (MAC), provides a method to model the donor-recipient relationship in a way that identifies absorptive constraints associated with either recipients or donors. This makes it possible to test whether the design and intent of a particular intervention are consistent with social, political, economic, and technical realities on the ground. In other words, it helps answer the question: Can this particular intervention (as currently designed) work in this particular place?

This policy brief describes the MAC framework step by step and explains how CSIS uses it to assess the constraints a proposed or ongoing intervention might face in a particular place. The MAC assessment involves three sets of tasks:

  • Model the intervention
  • Test the model
  • Revise the intervention


Lamb, R. D. Measuring Absorptive Capacity (MAC). A new framework for estimating constraints. Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington DC, USA (2013) 10 pp.

Measuring Absorptive Capacity (MAC). A new framework for estimating constraints.

Published 1 January 2013