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Building the case for capacity building

Marc Shotland 5 December 2019

IDinsight-facilitated Training of IAPRI Researchers on RCTs in Lusaka, Zambia, October 17th, 2019 ©IDinsight/Sipho Muyangana. Slide credit: Frank Hoekman, J-PAL LAC

In a post last month, my colleague, Madhav Seth, eloquently highlighted some challenges that arise when building government capacity to strengthen its monitoring and evaluation (M&E). In this series on capacity building, I will share why we offer trainings on M&E in the first place and how we can approach capacity building more deliberately, strategically, and effectively. In this post, I’ll talk about who “does” capacity building and what it is, and how we can shift our traditional approach to do it more effectively. In the next post, I’ll dive much deeper into the why — the objectives. In subsequent posts, I’ll go into more detail on how to achieve those objectives.

Many organizations, governments, and donors highlight that they need outside capacity building to use evidence to inform their decisions, and several research organizations have stepped up to design and deliver training courses to meet the demand. For example, capacity building is one of IDinsight’s core services (accompanying impact evaluation, process evaluation, monitoring, etc). Among others, we have delivered training for UNICEF in the Philippines and Kenya, the Indaba Agriculture Policy Research Institute (IAPRI) in Zambia, and are planning a large capacity-building initiative with UNDP of government ministries in the Philippines, in collaboration with Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA). At the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), where I was previously Director of Training, capacity building is one of their three pillars of work (along with Research and Policy). One can also find evaluation training from CLEAR South Asia (hosted by J-PAL South Asia), IPA, The Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA) (specifically, for IADB staff and government collaboratorsBRAC researchers, and scholars in East Africa), Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and HKS’s Evidence for Policy Design (through BCURE), the World Bank DIME group, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), and many other multilateral and bilateral organisations.

Why are we and the rest of these research organizations delivering trainings? Capacity building can be a costly activity that requires a lot of effort and time for all parties involved, so ideally our objectives are ambitious enough to outweigh the costs. Yet it’s hard to believe that simply gathering the leadership, management and/or staff of implementing organizations, sitting them in a room for a few hours or days, lecturing them about research, and possibly going through some case studies and group work, will be sufficient to achieve any broader goal of strengthening M&E practices to improve social impact. So honestly, what are we trying to achieve? What is the objective?

Taking a step back, “what is the objective” is exactly the question we ask our clients when discussing the evaluation of their programs, policies, or initiatives (which I’ll lump into the generic term, “interventions”). We ask about the challenge they’re trying to address and why it has persisted over time. We ask about the outcomes they’re trying to achieve. We try to understand the theory of change: how we will get from the status quo to the desired impact. We ask how their program will help facilitate that change, and what else needs to fall into place for that to happen.

We should ask the same set of questions when thinking about capacity building. Because just like the programs that our clients implement, the capacity building we provide is an intervention.

If we understand capacity building as an intervention and approach it with the intention of having an impact, there are a handful of steps we expect to take:

  • We need to identify the target population of the capacity building.
  • We must understand the need we’re trying to address — the problems we’re trying to solve, or the opportunities we’re trying to leverage.
  • We need to set out reasonable objectives — outcomes we aim to achieve that would likely be unattained absent capacity building.
  • We need to understand the stakeholders — not just the champion who commissioned us to deliver our training, or the participants whose minds we expect to change and skills we expect to build, but also the network of stakeholders who will be influenced by this work, enabling or limiting its effectiveness.
  • We need a theory of change. That means developing the curriculum to change participants’ knowledge and attitudes as well as their real behaviours. We also need to understand the assumptions, or more realistically, the complementary activities needed to make an impact happen.

Borrowing from the frameworks I helped develop at J-PAL, I categorize participants into three groups: consumers of evidence, facilitators of evidence, and (potential) producers of evidence.1

  • Consumers are those who need to find and interpret evidence, for example, policymakers within governments and other implementing organizations, and their technocrats, experts and advisors.
  • Facilitators advocate for evidence use, and often commission evaluations. Facilitators are often donors, although large implementing organizations may also require and promote evidence use in-house. But advocates can exist anywhere within governments and organizations.
  • Producers are internal or external evaluators or researchers.

Understanding our different audiences can help capacity builders develop more targeted curriculum and activities that speak to the goals and needs of each group.

I like to categorize our objectives into three buckets: strategic, learning, and impact goals. These categories are somewhat arbitrary, and are definitely not mutually exclusive, but they are sorted by increasing levels of both intensity of effort and the maturity of our theory of change.

  • Relationship objectives are mostly about advocacy, marketing, and customer relations — explaining the benefits of evidence-informed decision-making and convincing our audience why the capacity builders can help get them there. It can also begin to prepare them for working with a researcher and what the evaluation journey would likely entail.
  • Learning objectives include the knowledge, skills, and mindsets we expect our target audience to attain.
  • With impact objectives, we expect to see real changes in outcomes — a measurable increase in evidence generation and use that would persist well beyond the research partnership. Increased evidence generation should lead to better policies and ultimately, social impact.

Looking at the different categories of objectives can help us prioritize and then segment and sequence our activities to achieve them.

In my next post, Capacity building objectives, I’ll go into more detail on each of these objectives, as well as how to tie them to the different target populations to better target your activities.

  1. 1. Thank you, Hira Siddiqui, for helping me develop this framework.