New thinking on technical assistance to resolve knowledge and capacity gaps


Identify emerging thinking on how best to use technical assistance (TA) to resolve knowledge and capacity gaps in both donor organisations and governments in LMICs. Where possible identify: development outcomes, potential negative implications, key thinkers, appropriateness, effectiveness, lessons learned and case studies. In particular, try and identify cases studies looking beyond 'filling gaps' to developing knowledge and capacity in the longer term, and also at using TA to help develop, procure and manage advisory services.


There is a wide and diverse literature on technical assistance, much of which refers to addressing knowledge and capacity gaps in lower- and middle-income countries. This report identifies some novel or emerging approaches which appear to move away from the traditional approaches that commonly centre on short-term filling of capacity gaps and being primarily donor-driven.

Emerging approaches tend to emphasise empowerment and leadership by the beneficiary country, use of their country systems, and exchange of experiences as peers. There is a greater focus on longer term impacts and sustainability, and greater involvement of Southern countries as providers of skills. As these newer approaches have only been implemented quite recently there is generally a lack of rigorous evaluation material that assesses their impact.

Beyond enhancing knowledge and skills, as traditional approaches have done, these newer approaches have also improved implementation know-how, raised awareness, enhanced networks and strengthened coalitions.

Key findings

Twinning and Peer-to-Peer approaches: As opposed to donor-driven technical assistance, twinning or peer-to-peer approaches emphasise the collaborative nature of the approach. These have usually involved middle-income countries as the beneficiaries and in some cases the providers of technical skills. An example is the European Commission Twinning approach where the quality of the expertise was seen to have been highly appreciated, and with synergies, rather than overlaps, with alternative technical assistance programmes. Amongst the World Bank Peer-to-Peer approaches there have been partnerships where both partners commit themselves to jointly agreed, measurable capacity development targets. Such activities are considered to have helped enhance knowledge and skills and enhanced networks, though rigorous evaluation evidence is limited.

Think tank development: To respond to knowledge gaps there have been attempts to build the capacity of think tanks in developing countries. The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) Think Tank Initiative is a multi-donor initiative that supports 49 institutions in 22 countries to develop research methods and skills, communication and outreach, and organisational development. The African Capacity Building Forum (ACBF) supports a number of organisations to build capacity including African think tanks. In both cases, anecdotal evidence suggests the supported think tanks have delivered positive outcomes, though rigorous evaluation is lacking.

South-South and Triangular Cooperation: There has been a growth in learning and sharing of technical assistance between developing countries (South-South cooperation) but little as yet between traditional donor countries, emerging donor countries and developing countries (triangular cooperation). The Knowledge Sharing Programme and the South-South Experience Exchange Facility have produced some evidence of positive impacts from knowledge exchange. They have been most effective when the knowledge exchange is context-specific, key participants have been identified, interaction has been promoted, and results monitored. The New Economic Partnership for Economic Development (NEPAD) initiatives include regional sector policy frameworks (e.g. on agriculture and infrastructure), African Peer Review Mechanism (on governance), and the NEPAD Capacity Development Strategic Framework (on various capacity development issues). There has been little evaluation of the impact of these initiatives. The Public Expenditure Management Peer Assisted Learning network has allowed public expenditure management professionals in various governments in Europe and Central Asia to form communities of practice for budgeting, treasury, and internal audit. This network enables the sharing of skills in an independent way.

Other emerging approaches: There are other emerging approaches which are yet to receive widespread implementation or be clearly articulated as a strategy by an implementing organisation.

The emphasis of technical assistance has generally been on training though some (e.g. Pearson 2011a, 2011b, 2011c) argue there should be much greater emphasis on understanding and improving learning and learning processes, and that it is important to create ‘a learning organisation’. This requires an understanding and insight into local and organisational culture, its history (especially if there has been recent conflict) and the culture of the development practitioners themselves. Some contend that encouraging creativity can encourage positive approaches to learning.

The Public Technical Assistance approach is driven by European donors. This approach aims to enhance technical assistance through, for example, the deployment of civilians, and expansion of the EC Twinning programmes approach. The extent of implementation of this approach is unclear. Despite the articulation of a European Commission “Backbone” Strategy to increase beneficiary country ownership and avoid parallel implementation units, there has been little progress in its implementation. Certain analytical tools, such as the Rapid Assessment and Action Plan (RAAP) toolkit, can help identify in a rapid and responsive way capacity development needs and how to address capacity weaknesses.