Capacity and Capacity Development: Coping with Complexity

Derick W. Brinkerhoff with Peter J. Morgan


What has been learned about capacity and capacity development (CD), and their relationship to achieving sustainable results? What are the implications for analysis and practice? This introductory article to a symposium on capacity and CD highlights: the benefits of viewing capacity and CD through systems lenses; the salience of politics; and the need for new approaches to the practice of CD. Outsiders may be able to assist in developing capacity, but sustained capacity results when endogenous actor-led processes stimulate the creation and strengthening of five core capabilities.

Capacity is defined as the evolving combination of attributes, capabilities and relationships that enables an organisation or a network of organisations (a ‘system’) to exist, adapt, and perform. The European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) identified five core capabilities that contribute to system capacity performance. These are the capabilities to: (1) commit and engage by mobilising resources and partners; (2) carry out technical, service delivery, and logistical tasks; (3) relate and attract support (build links and legitimacy and manage power differentials);(4) adapt and self-renew; and (5) balance diversity and coherence. CD – as operationalised by international donors – targets individuals, organisations, or the enabling environment (politics and policies).

Case studies identify three types of CD strategies:(1) externally funded CD, which stresses achieving clear objectives and managing for results; (2)incrementalism, based on adaptive and flexible implementation; and (3) emergence, a largely undirected process of collective action resulting in increased capacity. CD often combines elements of all three strategies: objectives and targets are specified at the start, with the recognition that plans need to be adapted incrementally over time as a function of changing circumstances, learning, and emergent social capital formation.

  • Proponents who favour externally funded CD tend to see CD as an activity that can be planned and treated as a project or a programme. It appears to work best under the following conditions: a shared consensus about policy and direction; available resources to pay for CD support systems; tangible objectives; the possibility of control from senior managers; a supply-side starting point; quantifiable means and ends; a focus on programmable results.
  • The incremental approach to CD tends to work best in situations where contexts are unstable and the choice of strategy is difficult to clarify. Small experiments can lower the risks inherent in large, more complex CD interventions.
  • Emergent strategies involve a shared sense of meaning and values, collective identity and a system boundary, fungible resources, basic rules of conduct, and a protected space that facilitates autonomy to experiment and learn.

The five-capabilities model and the contributions to the symposium indicate that the systemic perspective on capacity and CD is important because it increases understanding of how the ‘parts of the whole’ interact by clarifying the boundaries and links among them. It is also important to recognise the fallacy of one-best-way approaches and to pay attention to the specificities of context. Further implications are that:

  • Capacity grows through endogenous processes of self-organisation, adaptation, and emergence. Therefore, a detailed CD strategy may be counterproductive: a CD intervention may need several different approaches that explore the way forward.
  • During implementation it is possible to accommodate ’emergence’ by focusing early on identifying local champions for change, and by allowing for flexibility, learning, and adaptation within donor procedures and regulations.
  • No single factor – incentives, financial support, trained staff, knowledge or organisational structure – can explain the development of capacity. Narrow interventions such as staff training are not likely to impact performance unless they create opportunity or leverage to shift behaviours.
  • Most of the current capacity tools and assessment frameworks need to be reconsidered: intangibles (such as values, vision, leadership, management style, and organisational culture) are at least as important as ‘countable’ CD activities.


Brinkerhoff, D. W., with P. J. Morgan, 2010, 'Capacity and Capacity Development: Coping with Complexity', Public Administration and Development, vol. 30, no. 1, pp.2-10