Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Thoughts on Capacity Building

One concept that has consistently crossed my mind while working in Tanzania is capacity building.  Searching that term returns articles that show the uncertainty that surrounds this concept in international development.  Everyone sees the need to engage in capacity building, but the means to accomplish or even measure this remain elusive.  Many times in this project I have thought about the ability of my recommendations to contain an element of this elusive concept.  One thing that is clear to me after working here for several months is that there is a clear difference between designing a system that works well in a controlled pilot phase and creating solutions that will work across the country even after an organization leaves.  When I first looked at my project and reviewed other approaches taken to solve similar issues, it seemed the difficulty in jumping from pilot to full scale was often linked to “capacity building.” After spending a couple months on my project, I continue to think about how to address capacity in the context of being able to confidently scale up a project.
As difficult as pilot projects can be, in many ways they are easy.  By fixing many variables at the outset of the program and investing resources at a significant rate to address the problem, it is often easy to show the potential of a certain product, approach, or process.  The problems really start to arise after a pilot is deemed successful and needs to move forward.  In order to feel extremely confident of successes similar to the pilot, then replicating the same level of investment and variable control would be needed to generate expected results, although these resources are typically not available.  I think this is when “capacity building” starts to enter planning.  If only we could train people so that they think the same way we did when we ran the pilot or even to follow the process we developed over the course of the project, then we could see this succeed on a large scale.  This way of thinking seems very limited and sets up even capacity building for failure.  Just as pilots encounter problems that lead to redesigns, going for scale introduces a significant number of new variables that probably require even more understanding than the pilot.  To think that a training program or following a process developed during the pilot will lead to success at this point seems very optimistic.  I think that capacity building should be rethought and certainly moved to a different place in the pilot to scale method.
Instead of looking to add capacity in the transition from pilot to scale, I think looking at capacity constraints should be a critical component of pilot design.  Understanding the local educational system, talent pool, typical compensation, and staff flexibility available for full-scale projects should lead to decisions on how to best structure and design pilot projects.  For example, using locally trained doctors and nurses in a pilot project might make sense, unless the number of locally trained doctors and nurses was insufficient to meet the needs at full scale.  Could doctors or nurses support greater coverage? Can shop-owners be trained?  Can a certification system be developed?  Will the national government accept specialized training?  Waiting until midway through a successful pilot program is probably too late to address the staffing issues.  I think capacity building would better served after doing a thorough capacity assessment.  Incorporating capacity building into a pilot would then determine the potential success of a program using available talent.  Bemoaning the lack of suitable candidates seems a poor excuse for lack of scalability of a pilot project.  Spending more time developing the framework for a successfully scaled project and integrating the capacity needs into the pilot might create fewer successful pilots through fewer controlled variables, but it just might increase the rate of success in transitioning pilots to full-scale projects. 
Capacity building is one of many really hard issues to solve.  The requirements to understand many of the critical components of a successful system can be enormous.  Having the resources and time to plan a pilot project can be hard especially for organizations with many goals and stakeholders.  Despite the difficulty of incorporating capacity increases into a project plan, the organizations that successfully included capacity building tended to have greater success and often created new opportunities not available previously.
Since capacity building isn't exactly photogenic attached are a few pictures from a recent weekend in Zanzibar:

Aerial view of Dar
Rural Highway in Zanzibar
Fishing Boats at Low Tide in Zanzibar

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