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
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
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
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.