Disrupting the Capacity Development Debate at Global Health Mini-U

Rebecca Simon

Former Manager of Strategic Communications

During USAID-funded Global Health Mini-University last Monday, the Leadership, Management & Governance (LMG) Project held a one-hour session on capacity building, kicked off by new LMG Project Director Jason Wright and facilitated by Carole Douglis.

Mini-U capacity development panel. L-R: Anupa Deshpande, Barbara Tobin, Reena Shukla, Jason Wright. Photo: Becca Simon/MSH

After an icebreaker to gauge participants’ familiarity with capacity development, panelists presented introductory remarks on capacity development for global health. Reena Shukla from USAID presented the donor perspective, stating USAID’s preference for working with local organizations to promote local ownership. Barbara Tobin from Management Sciences for Health (MSH) discussed the implementer’s approach, which involves juggling donor requirements, organizational capacity, and the needs of beneficiaries. Anupa Deshpande from the LMG Project and MSH spoke about the importance of monitoring and evaluation, saying it is both an art and a science to measure capacity, and urged the audience to focus on what a capacity development intervention is truly trying to achieve.

After the panelists made a few brief points, a representative of a civil society organization asked why there wasn’t a local organization represented on the panel. She explained that civil society organizations (CSOs) are on the receiving end of capacity development packages that focus on single issues and don’t take a systemic view. She said that capacity development usually arrives as training, but if a training is viewed as a failure because trainees move on, the organization is often blamed for having weak capacity. Finally, she reminded the panelists that every donor has different requirements and solutions. People running CSOs are already busy trying to fulfill their missions, so she asked: can’t donors coordinate with each other to come up with more comprehensive capacity development plans?

A representative of a civil society organization asks a question during a capacity development panel at Global Health Mini-University. Photo: Becca Simon/MSH

This question prompted an honest conversation about how the global health community can better streamline capacity development with local partners for better health outcomes.

For example, USAID is developing joint audits with other donors to reduce the strain on local organizations. In Kenya, the FANIKISHA Project solicited applications from national NGOs for capacity building support. Organizations were required to describe what capacity they needed—financial and human resources, management systems, leadership and governance skills, and/or advocacy—what their desired results were, and how they had already built their own capacity. This way, the CSO was in the driver’s seat, and the donor and implementer had an honest assessment of what the organization truly needed.

When it comes to measurement, Deshpande advocated for a qualitative component in order to obtain a more comprehensive picture of capacity development, adding that the question will always remain: How much capacity development is enough?

Panelists and audience participants discussed the need for more systems thinking. Those working in capacity development are not typically those providing service delivery, so, how can we link capacity development to health outcomes?

Tobin emphasized the need to train teams instead of individuals, since individuals can leave an organization and take precious knowledge and skills with them. Teams—especially those who have identified an issue they want to work on—are better able to focus resources on an issue and ultimately measure progress.

An audience participant reiterated that local CSOs need to be the ones to identify the root cause of gaps in capacity if we want to measure long-term effects of capacity development interventions. That way, the organization can see the issue as “our problem” and address core issues.

At the end of the one-hour session, it was clear that donors, implementers, evaluators, and local organizations need to work together to develop capacity that will ultimately improve health outcomes. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to capacity development, but the most important first step is to engage the local organization and collaboratively identify the gaps that are hindering progress.

Only by disrupting the way we currently think about and program capacity development interventions can we truly unblock the path towards better health outcomes.

Want more Mini-U? Check out Storify stories by @GHMiniU and @HFGProject.