Reductionist and systemic perspectives to capacity development

April 30, 2015 by Jana Repanšek

In my previous blog I discussed how capacity development is linked to change management. I touched upon two strategies for managing change processes: (a) change approaches that are based on rational-logical models of change (these deal with situations of “hard complexity” where “people issues” are low), and (b) change approaches where politics, power and leadership take a prominent role (these deal with situations of “soft complexity”).

These two different approaches inform two systems models of change: hard and soft. While the hard systems model of change is in line with the reductionist analytical approach to CD, the soft systems model of change supports a systemic perspective to CD.

Let’s look into reductionist and systemic perspectives to CD.

Reductionism is a mechanical, rational (Taylor and Clarke 2008), and technocratic (Watson 2010) understanding of CD. It focuses on separate component parts of human activities (Morgan 2005; Binkerhoff and Morgan 2010). These components (such as roles, structures, and resources) form building blocks of capacity and are separately analyzed. One variable can control another and can influence behavior of the whole. The whole is the sum of its parts. The system is closed, deterministic, and predictive. It is detached from its context, which is not taken into consideration. According to Morgan, reductionists are of opinion that activities are simple, sequential, and step-wise (2005). Planning and control are important, and lack of clarity is seen as a serious impediment. Relationships between cause and effect are linear and can be operationalized through results chains.

Like reductionism, the systemic perspective focuses on components. However—and this is very important—outputs are products of the interrelation among these components (Binkerhoff and Morgan 2010). Relationships are non-linear and complex. The complexity arises within the system itself—where politics, power and culture play an important role—and because of the system’s interaction with its environment (Horstman 2004). Recognising the environment and context is critical (Grindle and Hilderbrand 1995; Taylor and Clarke 2008). Processes are emergent and therefore hard to plan.

Reductionist and systemic approaches to CD seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. The former emphasizes causality, order, and control, while the later emphasizes messiness, murkiness, and risk (Morgan 1998). Questions have been raised, however, whether too much focus has been thus far put on a false dichotomy (Binkerhoff and Morgan 2010), with suggestions that a combination of both approaches could give best results (Watson 2010).

To meet accountability concerns and show that they are producing value for money (Lusthaus et al.1999, Watson 2006), donors have thus far tended to use the RBM approach to design, implement and evaluate CD interventions. This approach accepts the reductionist viewpoint. Kusek and Rist (2004) claim that it promotes good governance, accountability, and transparency and that it responds to challenges that practitioners face in effectively managing for results. With the RBM approach a step forward was made from focusing on inputs and activities to focusing on outcomes and impacts. Emphasis is given on expected results, key stakeholders, risks, and indicators (Hatton and Schroeder 2007).

The LFA is an analytical process and a set of tools that respond to the RBM approach and reductionist understanding of CD. It was conceptualized as an engineering tool for planning, project management, and assessment (Horstman 2004). In late 1960s it was adjusted by the USAID and became widely accepted by the bilateral donor community in 1970s and 80s. It has been in use by the EC since 1992 and the World Bank since 1997, which is relatively recently (EuropeAid Cooperation Office 2004; World Bank 2005).

According to the EuropeAid Cooperation Office’s guidelines, the LFA was introduced to respond to three main concerns: to improve planning which had been before too vague without clearly defined objectives, to clarify management responsibilities, and to facilitate evaluation (2004).

Despite many supporters of the RBM and LFA—with some emphasizing that they should be used even more aggressively (Hatton and Schroeder 2007) —many theorists, policy makers, and practitioners pointed to their conceptual deficiencies. Hatton and Schroeder (2007) admitted that more attention should be paid to include development beneficiaries in the process and to the long-term nature of development cooperation. The RBM and LFA have thus far mainly catered to donor accountability concerns for project execution. They maintain strict timelines that are overwhelmingly short-term (Lusthaus et al. 1999). In addition, complexity and rapid change erode LFA’s linear thinking (Horstman 2004).  The LFA tends to support a “blueprint” approach and does not allow much flexibility. In addition, analysis of risk is weak and there is often little formal assessment of external contextual factors and of other actors (Binnendijk 2000; Morgan 2005). However, despite these deficiencies, the donor community has not decreased its reliance on these approaches, as they emphasize “measurement” of results and address the “accountability dilemma” (Watson 2006). As a result, most CD interventions still adopt an instrumental or technical approach rather than systemic perspective (Lusthaus et al. 1999).

Morgan points out that systems thinking proponents are very dissatisfied with the LFA, ‘which is seen as a symbol of an inappropriate tool based on outdated assumptions and designed mainly to meet donor control requirements’ (2005, p.26). Indeed, RBM and LFA have not been able to incorporate intangible elements of CD (Binkerhoff and Morgan 2010) that therefore remain largely unrecognized (Grindle 1997). These intangibles are, for instance, values, vision, leadership, management style, and organizational culture. Special emphasis is given to the concept of ownership. They address relationships among systems’ component parts and those of systems with their environment, which the reductionist LFA fails to do.

The issue of ownership in CD has been especially closely examined. It is strongly linked to a question whether the donor community can “let go” and decrease its control ambitions that respond to accountability concerns (Watson 2006). Although the World Bank in its LogFrame Handbook (2005) emphasizes that LFA promotes collaboration and ownership, there are opinions that a systemic approach is able to better address the endogenous nature of CD as already stated above. According to Lopes and Theisohn ‘only home-grown policies based on local capacities are sustainable and potentially successful.’ At the same time they also conclude ‘that there is no “one-size-fits-all” economic development model, applicable to all situations and all national realities’ (2003, p.xii).

In my three blogs on theory and concepts behind CEF’s approach to capacity development I discussed (a) theoretical ambiguity of capacity and capacity development; (b) how capacity development is importantly linked to change management; and this last one (c) reductionist and systemic perspectives to capacity development. They provide important conceptual frameworks to our understanding of how capacity is developed.

An excellent overview of CEF’s approach to capacity development and the way we work is given in our last CEF Annual Report 2014 (pages 8—15; Playing the Role of a Knowledge Hub in Pubic Financial Management and Central Banking for South East Europe) and in this learning blog site written by a number of our learning experts.



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.



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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.

Hatton, M.J. and Schroeder K., 2007. ‘Results-based Management: Friend or Foe?’ Development in Practice, 17 (3), 426-432.

Horstman, J., 2004. ‘Reflexions on Organizational Change’. In: L.C. Groves and R.B. Hinton, 2004. Inclusive Aid: Changing Power and Relationship in International Development. London: Earthscan.

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

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