Theoretical ambiguity of capacity and capacity development

January 12, 2015 by Jana Repanšek

In order to better understand the best approach to our work, I some years ago studied in detail theory and concepts of capacity development. I found out there is a substantial amount of literature available that discusses various approaches to capacity development (CD) covering practice, policy, and theory. Universities and research institutes that have traditionally been centers for generating and disseminating knowledge with a significant focus on theory and concepts have—interestingly—not played a significant role in helping develop an understanding of CD in the international development cooperation arena. Instead, this understanding has been “normative,” driven by multilateral and bilateral donors or outsourced consultants. A literature review confirms this view.

Lusthaus et al. (1999) point out that most CD literature has emerged from development agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Substantial work has been done by international agencies (e.g., OECD, UNDP, World Bank), bilateral donors (e.g., GIZ, USAID), NGOs, and consulting firms.

This could explain why some experts suggest that CD practice does not have sufficient grounding in theory and conceptual frameworks (Taylor and Clarke 2008) or are of opinion that systematic (academic) research began only at the start of the 21st century (Baser and Morgan 2008). Lusthaus et al. thought in 1999 that the concept of CD was in its infancy and that definitions were still forming. In fact, the term emerged from 1980s and became a central purpose for technical cooperation in 1990s. Then it was seen as complimentary to concepts such as institution building, institutional development, human resources development, and so forth.

According to Binkerhoff and Morgan (2010), both capacity and CD still suffer from many varying definitions and approaches that contribute to their ambiguity. There is no single, widely-accepted definition (Morgan 2006), also because researchers tend to identify capacity-related issues by using terms and concepts from their own disciplines (Mackay et al. 2002). Whyte suggests that CD remains a “black box” (2004), and Lopes and Theisohn claim it is resistant to blueprints (2003). Capacity is still today an “ill-understood” concept (Watson 2010).

Many definitions of capacity and CD answer the “what” question. However, to address capacity or the lack of it, one has to also find answers to the “how” questions that address a process (Binkerhoff 2008, Binkerhoff and Morgan 2010) or more precisely respond to the lack of capacity. If developed capacity is a development goal and “an end,” while CD as a process is “a means,” how do we know that the means will lead to the desired end?

Knowledge on how to identify capacity gaps and improve capacity remains uncertain (Grindle and Hilderbrand 1995). Practitioners, policy makers, and theorists have been trying hard to design methodologies and frameworks that would help identify capacity gaps and provide tools for designing interventions that would respond to these gaps. In addition, they have put much effort into answering a question of how we know that the desired end has been attained. Here much attention has been put into monitoring and evaluation of capacity and CD (Mackay et al. 2002, Watson 2006).

I will in my next blog write about how capacity development is importantly linked to change management.



This text has been adjusted to a blog format and mostly taken from Repanšek J., 2011. Application of the “Capacity Development Results Framework” to the “Building Capacities for Policy Design and Implementation” Programme. London: University of London.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the CEF.



Baser, H. and Morgan, P., 2008. Capacity, Change and Performance: Study Report. Maastricht: ECDPM.

Brinkerhoff, D.W., 2008. ‘The State and International Development Management: Shifting Tides, Changing Boundaries, and Future Directions’. Public Administration Review, 68(6), 985-1001.

Brinkerhoff, D.W. and Morgan, P.J., 2010. ‘Capacity and Capacity Development: Coping with Complexity’. Public Administration and Development, 30, 2-10.

Grindle, M.S., 1997. ‘Divergent Cultures? When Public Organizations Perform Well in Developing Countries.’ World Development, 25(4), 481-495.

Grindle, M.S. and Hilderbrand, M.E., 1995. ‘Building Sustainable Capacity in the Public Sector: What Can Be Done?’ Public Administration and Development, 15, 441-463.

Lopes, C. and Theisohn, T., 2003. Ownership, Leadership and Transformation: Can We Do Better for Capacity Development? London: Earthscan/UNDP.

Lusthaus, C. et al., 1999. Capacity Development: Definitions, Issues and Implications for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation. Montreal: Universalia, Occassional Paper No. 35.

Mackay, R. et al., 2002. ‘Evaluating Organizational Capacity Development’. The Canadian Journal on Program Evaluation, 17(2), 121-150.

Morgan, P., 2005. The Idea and Practice of Systems Thinking and Their Relevance for Capacity Development. Maastricht: ECDPM.

Taylor, P. and Clarke, P., 2008. Capacity for Change. Sussex: Institute of Development Studies.

Watson D., 2006. Monitoring and Evaluation of Capacity and Capacity Development. Maastricht: ECDPM Discussion Paper No. 58B.

Watson D., 2010. ‘Measuring Capacity Development’ in J. Ubels, N.-A. Acquaye-Baddoo and A. Fowler. Capacity Development in Practice. London: Earthscan.

Whyte A., 2004. Landscape Analysis of Donor Trends in International Development. New York: Rockefeller Foundation Human and Institutional Capacity Building Series No. 2.