Capacity Development

In: Humanitarianism: Keywords
Elling Tjønneland
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“Capacity” is understood as the ability of people, organizations, and society to successfully manage their affairs. “Capacity development” is the process whereby these actors as a whole unleash, strengthen, create, adapt, and maintain capacity over time. “Promotion of capacity development” refers to what outside partners–domestic or foreign–can do to support, facilitate, or catalyze capacity development and related change processes.

Capacity development thus involves much more than enhancing the knowledge and skills of individuals. It depends crucially on the quality of the organizations in which they work. In turn, the operations of particular organizations are influenced by the enabling environment–the structures of power and influence and the institutions–in which they are embedded. Capacity is not only about skills and procedures, it is also about incentives and governance. Capacity building is thus not just a neutral and technical issue, it is also a highly sensitive political issue.

Country capacity is the key to development performance, and therefore also to efforts to accelerate economic growth, reduce poverty, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This applies to both generic capacities (e.g. the ability to plan and manage organizational changes and service improvements) and specific capacities in critical fields (e.g. managing response to a humanitarian crisis) ( OECD 2006).

Capacity development is a major challenge for humanitarian actors. In reviews of aid effectiveness, the development of capacity is invariably recognized as one of the most critical issues for both donors and recipients in countries of intervention.

In May 2016, the World Humanitarian Summit emphasized the importance of a localized response to humanitarian crisis–although the concept of “local” was poorly elaborated (Apthorpe and Borton 2019). Despite the clear importance of local actors and the growing role of “grassroots humanitarians,” the international humanitarian system was built by and for international actors, multilateral organizations and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The complexity of modern crises called for a review of this approach. National governmental disaster management agencies and other relevant ministries, local humanitarian responders, NGOs, and Red Cross or Red Crescent societies are now seen as key pillars of an overall humanitarian response. This has led to a renewed emphasis on direct support to local humanitarian actors–financial and in strengthening institutional capacities ( ICVA 2015; OECD 2017).

Humanitarian aid was largely exempted from the principles of aid effectiveness that were developed after the adoption of the United Nations Millennium Goals and culminated with the 2005 Paris Agenda for Aid Effectiveness. A central pillar of this agenda was to empower and strengthen local institutions and to channel funding directly to them. The 2016 Humanitarian Summit was an effort to address some of these issues. However, progress since then has been modest, especially in relation to “localized response.” There is still insufficient focus on empowering local communities and local organizations and on providing capacity-building support. An early study–Eroding Local Capacity–examined the interplay between international and local actors operating in the humanitarian arena in Africa (Juma and Suhrke 2002). This study noted that although all sides emphasize the need to build local capacity for humanitarian action, the results are not substantial. Even long-term, semi-permanent emergencies have generated little local capacity to assist and protect the victims of violence, displacement, and related deprivations. In some cases, whatever local capacity did exist has been overwhelmed by the international aid presence (Bank, Hulme, and Edwards 2015). Multiscale capacity-building projects in humanitarian logistics and access to technology (Breman, Giacumo, and Griffith-Boyes 2019) are further key challenges for national and international humanitarian organizations and donors.


  • Apthorpe, R. , Borton, J. (2019) Disaster-Affected Populations and “Localization”: What Role for Anthropology Following the World Humanitarian Summit? Public Anthropologist, 1(2): 133155.

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  • Bank, N. , Hulme, D. , Edwards, M. (2015) NGOs, States, and Donors Revisited: Still Too Close for Comfort? World Development, 66: 707718.

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  • Breman, J. , Giacumo, L.A. , Griffith-Boyes, R. (2019) A Needs Analysis to Inform Global Humanitarian Capacity Building. TechTrends.

  • ICVA (International Council of Voluntary Agencies) (2015) Partner Capacity Assessments of Humanitarian NGOs—Fit for Purpose?

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  • Juma, M.K. , Suhrke, A. eds. (2002) Eroding Local Capacity. International Humanitarian Action in Africa. Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.

  • OECD (2006) The Challenge of Capacity Development. Working Towards Good Practice. DAC Guidelines and Reference Series. OECD.

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  • OECD (2017) Localising the Response. World Humanitarian Summit. Putting Policy into Practice. The Commitments into Action Series. OECD.

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