Capacity-building revisited – what do Western consultants really have to offer?

Nilda Bullain

There is one sentence in the weaponry of NGO activists in the non-North-Atlantic part of the world that will hush even the most determined American or British development professional. The sentence goes: ‘You don’t understand because you don’t know the local circumstances.’

While the American backs off and ‘keeps smiling’, the British person backs off and bows his/ her head in acknowledgement of the ultimate argument. Rarely have I heard a development professional answer: ‘But it’s YOU who doesn’t understand, because you have never lived in a true democracy.’

Why do Westerners believe they have something to contribute to the development of the rest of the world? The answer is a very simple one: because they’ve seen it work, in their own environments, in their own lives. We don’t need to start listing the deficiencies of the Western democracies, from the Florida recount to Enron to Le Pen and Pim Fortujn. There will never be a perfect system. The primary question is how society deals with the imperfections. And if we look at civil society and the non-profit sectors of the US, Canada or Western Europe, we have to admit that there is something deep down that still makes it work better than any non-Western quasi- or non-democracy.

The values of Western democracy

What is deep down is not the ‘ultimate fundraising handbook’ nor the ‘how to recruit the CEO of your organization in ten efficient steps’. It is not the ‘compact’ between government and NGOs nor the ‘social audit initiative’ of the business sector. It is, rather, the system of values, principles and convictions that drive the actions and expectations of people in Western democracies – the belief that the value of human life and the dignity of a human being is above question; that the freedom of the other person is not to be impinged upon; that honesty and mutuality should be the basis of relationships; that corruption is bad; that self-interest is good but conflict of interest a problem; that accountability is important – and so on, and so on.

I am aware that many people feel that Western societies do not live up to these values themselves, and that Western societies also have values that cannot be praised. Nevertheless, having lived in a Southern and an Eastern society and having worked in several countries where those values are missing at the most basic level, I can say that the key to a successful development programme lies in its ability to introduce change in the local community without compromising those values.

Transferring the values

Much has been said and written about why and how capacity-building (CB) programmes work – and there have been many failures to learn from that could feed into that discussion. In order to better understand these processes, we will need to change the focus of the glasses we are wearing. How do we transfer values instead of models? Enable people to introduce values or attitudes locally in the face of strong resistance? Help find the right solutions when none of what we know works under the local circumstances? These are some of the questions we should ask when designing a CB programme.

Let’s take a brief look at CB itself. There are many definitions of this term and I would like to emphasize just one aspect of it: that in this process we capacity builders are trying to help others to solve problems and effect change in their local communities. In other words, CB is more than ‘teaching’ or ‘knowledge transfer’: it also poses the aim of using that knowledge for the benefit of the ‘learner’ and/or their environment.

This has many consequences for the profession itself. For example, it will be up to the ‘capacity builder’ to judge whether or not the work being carried out locally by the learner and their organization as a result of the CB process is effective and of good quality. We capacity builders assume that we have something that ‘works’ (such as freedom of association, resource mobilization possibilities for NGOs, incentives for people to give to NGOs) in a certain environment and we want to see the same things working in other local environments. We do not question the goals, yet we are sometimes willing to question the necessity of the underlying values and principles that make these goals possible.

Below, we will look at some issues that are key to the success of a cross-cultural (North-South, West-East) CB programme.

Two fatal mistakes

There are two types of ‘fatal mistake’ capacity builders – especially Western consultants – make.[1] One is to rely on a superficial approach of suggesting ready-made solutions. Wanting to transfer the solution itself rather than the basis for the solution often creates confusion and can even lead to the opposite of the original goal. For example, introducing full tax exemption for the economic activities of NGOs in a country where the business sector is underdeveloped will very likely lead to an immense level of abuse.

The other mistake is to take a laissez-faire approach and let the local circumstances drive every solution. If the capacity builder does not understand the importance of the core principles of a solution (eg the accountability of NGO boards), s/he will succumb to the pressures of the local environment and implement solutions that are contrary to the goals of the envisioned change – for example by agreeing that board members can in fact be paid in countries where people are poor.

Neither of these approaches will lead to effective CB as neither the ‘transplant’ nor the indigenous solution is likely to be effective (which is why many CB programmes fail in developing countries).

The role of the learner

An indispensable component of a successful CB programme is the person of the ‘learner’, ie the person/s who will work with the capacity builder to implement their commonly set  goals. It should not be the Western capacity builder who ‘fights the fight’ in the community. It should be those from the local community who understand the importance of the envisioned change. If there are no such people, there is very little, apart from humanitarian aid, that the Westerners can offer.[2]

The learner must understand both contexts as fully as possible. This means that the capacity builder and the learner should have a common language to communicate in, and this is likely to be English or another West European language – the language of the capacity builder. The capacity builder can of course learn the local language, but this will not substitute for an understanding on the part of the local learner of the culture of the Western capacity builder.

The learner in cross-cultural CB programmes – who often becomes the local capacity builder – is like an interpreter who needs to transfer not only the meaning of words but also the meaning of institutions, structures, mechanisms, management solutions – hence, among others, the language requirement. Even if the capacity builder comes from the local environment, because they are trying to introduce values foreign to that environment, they will also need to be fully aware of the Northern/Western culture and how it works, and try to make the local learners understand it as fully as possible too.

The know-how of adaptation

This leads us to perhaps the most neglected element of successful CB, the know-how of adaptation. Many development professionals I have talked to emphasize that everything depends on the person running the CB programme. But has anyone ever investigated how these successful people are accomplishing results? There is one very important common feature of those who are successful in CB: they understand, instinctively, the art and technique of adaptation.

This is a crucial ability. It is no use for a Romanian NGO leader to spend weeks learning how to do fundraising in the US and then be unable to use any of the methods in Romania. The process of adaptation will involve trial and error and constant reflection and analysis. In CB, assistance has to be offered on an ongoing basis until the ‘learner’ is able to carry out the reflection and analysis on his/her own and can accomplish the goals for which the whole process was designed.

Letting the learner go

It is crucial also to be able to determine the moment when that autonomy is reached. It is impossible to give an objective measure of when an organization becomes sustainable, but it is possible to give a more or less correct assessment of its potential to become sustainable. It may be impossible to wait until a group of people who have learned professional advocacy and lobbying actually change impending legislation to the benefit of NGOs, but it is possible to assess their potential ability (and willingness) to do so. At the moment when that potential is seen from both sides, the capacity builder has to get out of the picture, let its ‘creature’ go.

All in all, what the West can offer are its own best practices, good examples and underlying value systems; and, in addition to that, a professional CB approach that will make it possible for local learners to change their own lives. In other words, the West should offer values, models based on those values and professional assistance in adapting the models. If things still don’t work out, it is only us, Southern and Eastern capacity builders, who can take the blame for not delivering the level of quality required in this profession.

1 A capacity builder can be a single consultant or a team of people or a whole organization, either local or international, depending on the specific programme.

2 There is much to learn from the experience of Transparency International, an international NGO that opens an office in a country only where there is local demand – however great the need to fight corruption might otherwise be.

Nilda Bullain is Senior Legal Advisor at the International Center for Not-for-profit Law and Chair of the Board of the Civil Society Development Foundation Hungary. She can be contacted at

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