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

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