Reflections on Capacity Building and Community Change

Note to Readers: I originally prepared this week’s Soundings as remarks I delivered as a keynote address at the Global Leadership, Empowerment and Diversity Summit held in Arlington, Va. on October 18-19, 2017. I have edited them lightly for publication. MOS _____________________________________________

Reflections on Capacity Building and Community Change

The organizers of this conference have asked that I address “Economic Development and Capacity Building” and, for me, that title implies a focus on developing nations. It also suggests the need for some sort of change—that would be the development part—and the need for means to achieve it—the capacity building element. In addition to denoting change, capacity building and development also entail learning. They do so, at least implicitly, as to learn, one must reflect on where one now stands, consider how a possible idea or course might shift that stance and what it might portend for you against some set of criteria, rational and otherwise, and then take steps to adopt new actions, behaviors and values to realize a new path. All of those things demand conscious cognition. So, it follows that capacity building for development requires at least that a targeted population adapt in new ways to its present circumstances. For example, when a nongovernmental organization (NGO) or government introduces water by pump and sanitary facilities to a community that had neither of these, the question is not merely one of information, but of systematically helping an affected population become aware of those technologies and how they can change the quality of their lives, and the rationale for each in their lived circumstances. None of these steps is automatic when one has had no knowledge of those possibilities before, and it can be easy to reject the new as alien, and to revert instead to what is known and long accepted. Development history is littered with examples of just this story and permutations of it in any domain you might wish to consider; agriculture, education, sanitation, housing and so on.

On reflection, it might seem obvious that development requires adaptive change on the part of the targeted populations in more than merely technical ways, since how one lives one’s life and views one’s place in the world do not stop at one’s workplace door, wherever that may be. Change of any sort, in this view, will likely require reflecting on existing values, norms and mores and reconstituting and reimagining those in light of the suggested innovation. Sometimes this may be easier than others, but it is rarely a matter of simply promoting a change, arguing it will make community or individual life more efficient, and seeing the initiative widely accepted and adopted.

Indeed, if change is disruptive, we might not expect it to go easily. Those advocating for the horseless carriage, as early automobiles were called, were derided as starry eyed and more than a bit dizzy, when cars were first introduced. Even when the new-fangled machines began to prove their capabilities, many people were slow to adopt the innovation as they perceived it a threat to their known way of life.

Just so. Much change that developers/capacity builders would bring to a community not only disrupts residents’ processes of accomplishing tasks, but also how people conceive of those undertakings in the light of how they make sense of the world. Bringing trade to communities that had only known barter and subsistence does not just yield “development” in some technical connotation, but literally destroys the only way of life that residents in such communities had ever known.

I am not being romantic about untouched cultures. Rather, I am making the basic point that all development is likely to require cultural change, and that shift is likely to be adaptive in character to varying degrees. That means a supposed “technical” capacity-building endeavor, such as bringing drip irrigation or new stove technology to communities, cannot simply be mechanical, nor a matter of sharing relevant information, since each addition changes the way residents see and reside within their life worlds.

If this is true, and all of the evidence I can find suggests that it is, then it follows that our dominant approach to technical assistance and capacity building for development must be rethought. That logic, rests on neoliberal assumptions, now roughly 50 years old, that prize efficiency as the central or core form of valuation of anything, and argues that markets should be employed for as much social decision-making as possible. But decades of pressing those claims in development has yielded mountains of failure, even as it has systematically devalued the cultures and beliefs of those it has targeted. More, it has so prized efficiency as to lose sight often of its consequences for justice in the affected societies. That should not surprise us, I suppose, since if one argues change is technical and merely requires some form of brief education, why would one be concerned that innovation might yield broader and deeper consequences? And indeed, that assumption has long been held, and is still regnant, for many engaged in development today.

There is an important corollary to the point I have made that almost all change is adaptive. At least in democratic societies, such shifts must first be adopted by the individuals affected by them. That is, ultimately those targeted to adopt a new “innovation” and whose capacity we wish to build, will arbitrate whether and how that change is realized. As such, their needs, behaviors, values, fears, prejudices and expectations will leaven how they perceive a change. And that fact will determine whether it is adopted and diffused or partially accepted or resisted and so on.

But, of course, if developers need to work to include the constituency whose capacities they would build in their efforts to design innovations, that itself is a deep challenge, as any of you who have sought to offer participatory space in projects in which you have been involved could attest. A whole host of factors mediate the relationship between would-be change agents and those selected for assistance, including whether they can come to a measure of trust, can come to shared understanding of purposes, can clarify potential desired implications and those devoutly to be avoided, and so on. None of these efforts is automatic and none are purely technical, but all are vital and all must be contextualized to the lived experiences of those targeted. Only those individuals can definitively suggest what that means, notwithstanding the good will and empathy and good intentions of those seeking the change, i.e., the developers or capacity builders.

That fact implies that real-world capacity building is, in fact, still more complex than what I have outlined thus far, since communities and their needs are rarely homogeneous and there are also multiple influences at play on whether individuals in a community can or will be able and willing to adopt a new belief or changed behavior or process or the like. Women in many cultures, for example, are often simply not permitted to play any but specifically assigned and often subservient roles. Western style health initiatives may first need approval from traditional healers before they will be trusted by the residents of communities in many nations. Likewise, it may take many pilot projects to persuade farmers that a new technology, seed or planting style is worth the risk of not knowing its likely harvest outcome compared to existing practice. I could multiply these examples, but I hope it is clear that those whose capacities we seek to develop are not individualistic automatons. They are instead a part of social structures and it is the sinews of those constructions and the ontologies that underpin them that often drive their reaction to offered change. And most of those mediating claims, developers cannot determine and ethically, perhaps should not seek to shape even when they can, if they wish to honor the dignity of those whom they purportedly are seeking to serve.

While I might deepen and develop this discussion further, I hope it suffices to show that

  • Capacity building cannot and should not be conceived as a technical enterprise driven by efficiency claims alone and when that is so, it will most likely fail;
  • In any case, populations are unlikely so to regard change;
  • Individuals should not be seen as lone, but social actors whose actions are likely to be shaped by the dominant values and norms of the local societies of which they are a part;
  • Those ways of knowing the world are often profoundly held and “sticky,” so most capacity building is unlikely to be accomplished along rationalistic pre-planned log frame/PERT (program evaluation and review technique) chart timelines.

Finally, capacity building must be said to have implications for justice in the communities it affects because it will shape social relationships within them, another and compelling rationale for involving aid beneficiaries in efforts to plan change interventions in their communities even as that fact complicates immensely the tasks and project and ethical responsibilities of the would-be capacity-builders, who must now work with affected populations and not merely deliver a “product.”

Taken together, these characteristics imply that capacity building must be considered very differently from today’s still dominant view that it should be planned by technically superior Westerners and delivered to “needy” recipients and evaluated against a criterion of efficiency alone. It also contravenes the reigning view that projects can be linearly implemented and their length and character planned alone by those offering them.

In lieu of these characteristics, one might expect capacity building to be

  • A messy process of mutual social learning characterized by fits and starts and, as often, by misapprehension as understanding;
  • Evolutionary and adaptive in character;
  • Charged with equity and ethical concerns;
  • Mediated by a host of cultural and political factors, including of course, questions of social power and privilege.

I think this complex portrait of capacity building, albeit brief, comports with the reality of such initiatives as professionals pursue them in the field. Hopefully, increased awareness of the realities of these dynamics will engender a greater sensitivity among those seeking change and a deeper understanding of the needs and vulnerabilities of those whom they would serve. It seems that just and ethical behavior demand no less and that, in any case, and simply as a practical matter, effectiveness requires it as well. In an article published in 1957, Martin Luther King argued in the midst of the civil rights struggle in the United States, that those pursuing change needed to “wage the struggle with dignity and discipline.”[1] And if they were able to do so wisely and courageously, the result would be a “bright daybreak of freedom and justice.”[2] A useful conclusion for these remarks today is to suggest that those seeking to build capacities for community change would do well to exhibit the same tenacity and perseverance and the same abiding regard for human dignity that King so powerfully articulated.



[1] King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” Christian Century, February 7, 1957, Accessed October 12, 2017,

[2] King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Nonviolence and Racial Justice.”