Lacking the capacity to develop it

Capacity development. Nowt new, albeit a strange term adapted from the private sector. Capability is the one I remember and it makes a hell of a lot more sense to me. We may hear about competencies and competency frameworks, which works too, but the ‘capacity’ part makes no sense to me. It speaks to space available and therefore has a value, especially in sector renowned for doing a lot, quickly, in changing and challenging contexts on sometimes extremely low resource. But it doesn’t speak to skill, for me. Capability is the word I’m used to and it makes a lot more sense also. Whatever you want to call it, we’re talking about knowledge and skill development, usually through a combination of 1:1 coaching, group training and experience. That old magical 70:20:10 thing that, as per any model really, can and has be used to justify stasis and a lack of investment. If 70% of learning is on the job, organisations can just focus on that. And they can tell people just to do their work. Et voilà. Job done. 

Us in the humanitarian sector seem to rely more heavily on either documentation or figuring it out as we go. Occasionally punctuated by big formal workshops like large bricks thrown in to a pond whereby the ripples quickly subside and no waves are made. That’s part of a wider issue we (but not only we) have. We seem only able to muster the energy for large slabs. Unsystematically dumped and disconnected from anything ongoing. As has been made abundantly clear, I subscribe to more connected, ongoing, holistic approaches. That little and often aggregates to greater change. That large slabs’ impact are as abrupt as they are short-lived.

What has become clear is that coaching, the imparting of knowledge between people is a skill we have yet to master. Technical advisor visits are brief. Leaving behind reports on what was done. Bold but broad recommendations. And all within the same dynamics that inhibited development before. Like the storm I’m looking at now. Lighting, thunder, movement and excitement. Then quiet and stillness as the lake concurs.

So as capacity development has found cold convenience, we face a sincere and familiar problem. Just as has been criticised before with regards to gender. Foreigners teaching more progressive gender dynamics give the false impression that these foreign lands have already cracked it. Sorted. Done. Go on, jog on. Similarly, foreign organisations attempting to do capacity development, especially around ‘standards’ and ‘soft skills’ seem overwhelmed by the convenience to ignore their own low standards and lack of soft skills. I am talking specifically about the capacity to do capacity development.

How many times have you heard an exasperated foreigner shout “I’ve told them this before!” or “we’ve been through this before.” – “yeah, once…in college…to you” (that’s an obscure Shaun of the Dead reference – my glad tidings to anyone who got it). But seriously, it’s usually once. And it’s told. Hear anyone wax lyrical about the frailties of education systems and, among others, you’ll find critiques around one-size doesn’t fit anyone approaches. Being taught by rote whereby repetition glances off people’ minds until the minds themselves are eroded by persistence. If you want to get into the other side of the spectrum – what seems to be considered good in Northern practice – it’s participatory, using multiple forms of media and method. It’s to exercise the brain rather than to imprint on it. It’s about stimulation. Beyond the occasional annual workshop (which still has a relatively uniform approach), when do we ever see this in our worlds?

“I’ve shown them how to do it already”…. Once. And it was show. I did it and they watched. And that’s it. If we saw any form of education, training or otherwise, such as this in a different context we’d belittle it as archaic. Especially if we were the recipients. Imagine what we’d be like if we saw our children, nieces and nephews receive that. And by that I aim only to trigger some emotional engagement about education as a broader process, not to infer any child-like attributes of the intended recipients of capacity development. Not that the latter would be novel from what I have seen. And that is another hugely important and expansive topic to come back to another time. But we’d deride such educational methods as short sighted. As instructive, directive, dismissive. As unstimulating, disengaging even. But we do it. Maybe because we don’t know better. Maybe because we learn it from others. Maybe we don’t realise what we’re (not) doing. Maybe nobody taught us how to do it well. Either way, none of that makes it good enough. 

The fact that there’s a lot of people with a leaning towards impatience, direct line of sight and action in humanitarian settings is and should be no surprise. The fact that the sector hasn’t had much investment in management skills training is also unsurprising. And as tempting as it is to say people need some massive crazy workshop, as much as that is our field’s natural response (well, that and nothing) it’s impractical, isolated and as such, limited. Ongoing coaching from senior staff and others. Role modelling. Reinforcing, regaling…yeah, it’s the 5 Rs again. Holding ourselves to higher standards and providing the support to attend to them. These are the starting points. If we – as foreigners – are going to pretend to be bringing technical expertise, the least we could do is to aspire to demonstrate it. The dynamics, and presumptions beneath them, in all of this are frankly harrowing, and I am sure that I have both challenged and perpetuated them both in this article and in real life. I’m not comfortable with that. However the credibility of this critique is not (in my opinion and aspiration) undermined by its level of hypocrisy. I hope it stands inevitably connected to it, and if anything, emboldened by it.

Lacking the capacity to develop it

What becomes clear, at least to me, is how much of what I’m spouting is rooted in a philosophy of sorts. So I’ll try to explore and be up front about it so that you can see whatever is written with some greater perspective. So that you can critique it and connect it to wider influences. And you can reject or accept them as you wish, and change your mind about that as you wish too. This is my current slice of a philosophy. It’s not mine because I designed it through some great reading and introspection. It’s the collection of philosophies whose particular sum has become – or has always been – my perspective. The framework, the lens through which I see and from which I see most of these posts coming from, and a lot else:

  • Negatives are not wholly always negative. They can be necessary. They can be teachers, balances and they can directly lead to positive experiences. Accepting the damage they cause is as important as seeing the opportunities they create.
  • Nothing is permanent. As UG Krishnamurti said: “The demand for permanence in every area of our existence is the cause of human misery. There is no such thing as permanence at all.”
  • Understanding our own ignorances can be our greatest quality. Grasping the already known for fear of ignorance is oxymoronic. And moronic. Understanding only comes from accepting that you don’t.

You can see how they overlap. How, to understand your own ignorance, you need to get more comfortable with your lack of perfection and with life’s lack of permanence (what as once known, has since changed for example). To see change, unknowns and unexpecteds as the opportunity to develop as well as to freak the funk out. To love both those imposters just the same. That’s the goal.

But why are these points the ones that float to the top given how immensely complex any complete perspective must be? Because we are naturally and culturally biased to see things differently. We’re repeatedly slapped with instagram-grade wisdom and it tells us the following:

  • Reject negativity in its entirety: “you’re great, the world’s beautiful, everything will be fine.” To get all Bob Dylan, you probably are great, most of the time. The world is beautiful, some of the time. Everything wont be fine, but some things’ll work out grand. This is linked to it being someone else’s fault / responsibility / job and other reflections of self attribution theory as a whole.
  • “Some things never change”: we clutch at permanence because it makes us feel like we understand and that we’re in control – and we do so because we’re terrified (and on some level recognise) that we don’t know and we can’t control most things.
  • “You can think too much”: keep things simple, it makes them much more manageable – even if that’s by definition, a self-fulfilling prophecy, as opposed to being open to the full gamut of reality.

So it becomes clear that my articulated philosophy is not absolute. It is reactionary, as am I generally. If I’m feeling kind, it’s knowingly and unknowingly relational. It is the perspective that I need to counterbalance what I feel are short-sighted and potentially destructive perspectives. So maintaining my ‘principles’ is really an act of maintaining a balance that I have deemed appropriate. It may well not be for you, but that’s the beauty of it. My experience – and luckily my bias – is not your own. No should my perspective be. That’s variation. That’s uniqueness. It’s utterly beautiful. What starts to become clear is that, for me, it is the unflinching and unquestioning grasp on positivity, limited knowledge and permanence that concerns me. And so it appears my attempts in this blog are to leverage away the fingers from their fierce grip, to loosen the hold, and to get people excited about what a more complex, confusing but complete, view of the world can do. And no, I don’t have anything like a complete view of the world. But I’m trying to come to terms with its possibility.

Casting a shadow on complexity

Chemistry lessons. Apart from the explosions, fire, smells and my secondary school teacher’s classic lines and asbestos hands, one thing stick with me. The greater the insight the greater the ambiguity. First we learned about molecules. What? Tiny things that make up everything? Sounds far fetched but I’m heavily incentivised to concur. Tiny bloody things. But not the smallest. Because then, perhaps a year later, we learn that they’re not the smallest things. They’re in fact made up of atoms. Eh? Smaller still? Well, again, far fetched, more so even, but OK. We continue. Then we learn that not only are atoms not the smallest, but they’re made up of 3 types of standard equipment – neutrons, positrons and negatrons, I mean electrons. And they’re all the same. And they’re tiny. And the core of an atom, the nucleus is crazy wicked heavy even though it’s tiiinyyy. And the electrons move in circles…pause…no, ellipses. What the actual hoopla is this jiggery pokery, this bally hoo, this sorcery of the mind. Well, it’s complexity at work. It’s as close to a parable as I’ll ever write. And now some cheeky jokesters wanna talk about quantum mechanics where particles’ locations relate to probability. It’s totally beyond me if you hadn’t already guessed by that pitiful attempt at a description.

But why am I spouting all of this tom foolery. Well. Because I’ve written a lot about complexity. A lot about how I see everything as part of an effectively infinite connected web of movement and interaction. And then I talk about simplistic models. And that juxtaposition needs addressing. I think they can sit together, and I’ll try to explain how I hope they can, and how I see them becoming effectively mutually exclusive also.

As I hope I’ve clearly inferred or explicitly discussed, the need for models essentially stems from our limitations as computational devices. We can’t hold that much complexity at once. We need it sorting, packaging, labeling. Then we can figure out where that information should go, as a grouping. We resultantly make inforred but mildly homogenising decisions every time this is done. When moving house, the most organised of us will sort items perhaps by theme, perhaps by room. Because moving everything individually is hugely laborious, so, out of pragmatism, we organise, group, label. We categorise. And that means that each box, as a grouping, arrives at the best destination. Knives end up in the kitchen. Books in the living room. Lovely. Here’s where I’m gonna get fruity. 

The problem I have is that conceptually, unlike moving house, we keep things firmly in their boxes, their labels and their categories. To continue the analogy: the great thing about moving house is then you unpack these items into their specific places. They can move freely from room to room, temporarily or more permanently. Their packaging was for a purpose. Once that purpose is served, they are no longer just a part of the kitchen box. They are only temporarily a target of homogenisation. They are only temporarily a member of a reductionistic categorisation. They are then freed from that paradigm and as such, treated with respect as individual items. 

When it comes to analysis, both formal and informal, I think this unpacking is rare. There is a justification for the categories, and they are held dear, allowing temporary pragmatism to bleed into longer term reductionism. And that’s just not fit for purpose and, for me, it’s not good enough. I hope that any model or method I provide is only temporary in its pragmatism, and specifically that they are seen as categories that operate as a layer on top of complexity, and not a replacement for it. Consider scattering rice on a table and placing cookie cutters over them. Those cookie cutters act as groupings, as categories. What I see most doing is to scatter the rice, place the cookie cutters and then wipe away the rice, keeping only the cookie cutters in place. A more helpful approach is trying to hold them both in parallel and seeing categories for what they really are. They are artificial tools of simplification so that we compute large amounts of information. 

Let me give another example. Mental health. Categorisations, specifically diagnoses, operate similar to the cookie cutter / rice approach.  They are human-made – and therefore artificial – groupings of symptoms as we can perceive them. Everyone’s mental health is a complex myriad of factors, and, like everything, is complex, dynamic, pluralistic and relational. But to ease analysis, to provide more focused research, to be more prescriptive about treatment, we use these categories. Again, it’s pragmatic. But if we focus too much on the cookie cutters, the categories, we start to blur out the rice. See individuals as individuals, and understanding their relation to categories, that makes sense to me. See them as merely shapes to be placed within singular categories. That’s a concern.

I’m not sure how much that needs to be brought back to any industry-specific context or category, however if nothing else it provides some of the underpinning thinking behind a few of these rants. Such as Vulnerability Criteria and other such categories that perhaps were once designed to illuminate topics, but now seem to mainly cast shadows. As Virginia Woolf wrote: “A light shone here required a shadow there”. Whether it is intentionally required is another conversation, but the simplest interpretation has the most expansive application. It’s a lesson of consequence and causality. So yes, this comes back to Newton’s third law of humanitarianism – of Taoist proverbs – of the need to consider the practically negative impacts of principally positive intentions. It’s all starting to come together. And I do love it when a plan comes together.

Casting a shadow on complexity

Into the Furnace, Fueling the Fire: the Luxury of Insight

So here’s another superficial hypocrisy. A neat model to harness all this infinite complexity I like talking about. That said, if there were ever any model that I thought had value, it is this one. I like the models I’ve shared, hence why I’ve shared them. It’s a lot easier to do so safe in the knowledge that they aren’t ‘mine’ – they didn’t come into existence in some vacuum inside my heed. This one is no different and leans heavily on work done by Dan McClure and Thoughtworks. I’ve translated it to more resonant language, tweaked it, assessed it in a different light and added some applications and detail, but the inspiration, the root of it all, definitely comes from them.

A part of me would like to call it the AKALA model – in honour of one of my heroes, or AKILI cos Swahili words of aspiration have long been all the rage and, well, why not disappoint? So unnamed it shall remain. Let’s see if à lack of a bodged acronym will lead to its inevitable downfall.

If you, like me, have a brain that can’t hold huge amounts of information, this model might just help you package it in a way that becomes more useful. Effectively that’s all any model does, but let’s hope it does so here too. This one is the basis of the last two M&E strategies I’ve developed and I think the opportunity of its use is much further reaching. I know – it’s not usual to have this level of opinion nestling with positivity. Full o surprises, me. 

All of the various interpretations of M&E, MEL, MEAL, PMEAL, DMEAL, CRM, CEA, Accountability, Programme Quality, Evidence, Learning Impact, Management Information, Performance etc. etc. etc. they all should subscribe to this. And no, that’s not one of those opinion things. It’s fact. There are (guess how many) 3 objectives within that medley of aspirationally analytical specialisms listed above:

  • Accountability – of the programme to various stakeholders (including donors, beneficiaries, non-beneficiary community members and partnees) to ensure that we are transparent, that they are informed and more importantly, involved
  • Adaptation – of programme (including M&E) activities to ensure that they achieve and maintain relevance, are responsive, and – ultimately – impactful
  • Knowledge – of programme context, performance, progress and change to provide learning for existing and future programmes, be that in your claNGO or another

What fuels them? Well, insight. Yep, a novelish term to add to the long list of others that long lost their specificity and utility. Insight is the central tenet that drives the other three. You could easily call it Learning should you so wish, but either way it involves the proactive pursuit of insightfulness. Perhaps we could call it both – gathering and garnering learning/insight that fuels accountability by proactively seeking participation and listening to feedback. That fuels adaptation by informing programmatic decisions. That fuels knowledge by collecting information in a systematic way that can thusly be analysed and shared.

That’s M&E&A&L&P&D. That’s all it is. If you can create ways in which you generate insight/learning that fuels those three elements, then, yours is the specialism and everything that’s in it. The focus, for me, is not on the outputs, but the fuel, the fire in the middle. How do you feed this furnace? It’s pretty convenient to be honest. The same principles can be used to categorise incoming information – the insight itself: 

  • Accountability: beneficiary / community / stakeholder feedback – what are our key stakeholders (those we should be accountable to) telling us about our programme?
  • Adaptation: programme teams’ experiences / colleagues’ feedback / specialists’ insight / programme data – what are our teams and data telling us? What has been their experience? Their opinion of influences and causality on the programme?
  • Knowledge: external sources / reports / evaluations / alerts / coordination groups – what other sources of information can we look at and into that can help improve our programme?

As a framework, it’s genuinely not a terrible way to start. Ensuring that quarterly review meetings, for example, you have those types of data, those insights available. That they rely on hard data as well as opinion and experience. That you have quant and qual together, ideally filling the gaps the other leaves. And if you want to get super fancy, cross reference those against Context, Performance, Progress, Change to create an analytical framework of sorts:

Information / Insight




And if you’re at that level of complexity, why not add another layer and frame the outcomes, actions and learnings around such things as well:





So now you have a framework for what information to bring to this table. Plus a framework for how to shape the actions. For once, I’ll even give you a specific example of how I’ve used this as this is a special case. You can see how various lenses are applied and populated in alignment. Because that’s the kind of strategy I like. An accordion. On a level, simple, resonant, guiding. On another, layered, deep, detailed. It means that you can describe what you’re doing in a sentence or a book. For me, I aim to build M&E&A&L&etc. teams, functions and systems that develop the insight necessary to fuel accountability, adaptation and knowledge. It feels right to me.

Behaviours:Quality -> ListeningResponsiveness -> ActingInsight -> Critiquing
Outcomes:Enhanced community engagement and accountability practices that enable more informed programmingEnhanced evidence-based adaptation and review that fuel programme reflection and responsivenessDeepened and formalised insights into focus quality areas, sectors and sub-sectors that lead to better quality programming
WHAT WE DOSeek to generate feedback loops
Feedback to communities / closing the loop
Develop more qualitative insights
Work with CRM to bolster feedback as well as complaints
Use data to inform decision making
Inform quarterly review meetings
Provide prompt data and insights to act upon
Develop more analytical insights in reports
Develop longitudinal comparisons
Make knowledge accessible through style/format and proactive sharing
HOW WE DO ITCuriosity, listening, voice
Providing opportunities for opinions to be voiced
Ensuring that we respond with clear communication
Pace, responsiveness, flexibility
Delivering rapid and usable data and insights
Reflective, thoughtful, collegiate
Providing angles, well caveated and evidenced insights
Thought provoking and action oriented (the ‘so what?’)
Skills / People Qualitative data collection and analysis
FGD Facilitation
KII Interviewing
Identifying what is interesting / usefulDeeper analysis
Processes / ToolsQuote (& consent) collection
Focus Group
Quarterly M&E reporting
Priority planning / work plan (as a team)
Qualitative analysis
Reflection / analysis tools (prompts of angles / checks)

Into the Furnace, Fueling the Fire: the Luxury of Insight