"Capacity issues have fitted awkwardly into the structured, bureaucratic processes of public aid agencies, specifically those to do with time frames, financial management, risk assessment, planning, programme design, control and prediction, and implementation and reporting. The current emphasis on achieving and demonstrating results has come to be the latest development objective which has posed a trade off with capacity-issues. (…) Most funding agencies have assumed that supporting capacity development required no special individual or organizational skills or dedicated internal units, as has been the case with gender, the environment or performance management. The assumption was that capacity issues were already mainstreamed, albeit informally. Yet, perversely, capacity development turns out to require expertise in areas such as political analysis, management theory and practice, and change management, which has always been in short supply in such agencies.”

In the past six months, I have seen around a hundred proposals and reports, and descriptions of a few dedicated projects, in which different international organisations state their intent to develop the ‘capacity’ of national organisations elsewhere, or claim to have done so.

One conclusion stands out: Rarely is there a clear concept of ‘capacity’. The word is used as vaguely and ambiguously as ‘partner’, and seems more a tick-the-box insertion in the plans and reports, than something that is thought and worked through. That is all the more worrying, given that international organisations for decades have been raising funds for the ‘capacity-development’ of national and local organisations. And continue to do so.

Here are 12 attention points, and questions to ask, when developing an intervention with a capacity-development component, or assessing proposals and reports that include such:


1.      Whose initiative is this?  No one can develop somebody else’s capacity against their will. Who ‘asked’ for capacity-support? Who determined the focus, or the priorities, who the entry point? If national organisations only ‘go along’ with an international initiative, because they want to maintain a good relationship and keep the funding flowing, the potential for sustained impact will be limited at best.

2.      Past experience: This may not be the first such effort. Does this new capacity-initiative draw on and learn from the history of ‘capacity-development’ efforts with this organisation? How?

3.      Precision: Is it clear whose capacities are to be strengthened, for what? Be precise.

4.      Effectiveness: Does the ‘capacity-development effort’ go beyond ‘training’ and ‘workshops’? By themselves, these are not effective to strengthen individual competencies and institutional capacities. Accompaniment and individual and organisational mentoring, combined with a culture of reflection and learning, are needed to effectively translate the learning into enhanced practice.

5.      Individual competencies do not add up to institutional capacities: Is a distinction made between the development of the ‘competencies’ or ‘skills’ of certain individuals and specific teams, and the institutionalisation of such competencies (which, in international organisations, is referred to as ‘mainstreaming’)? Does the planned engagement include efforts towards institutionalising capacities? How?

6.      Framework for organisational capacities: If the objective is to strengthen organisational capacities, is there a decent framework about what makes for effective organisations, to guide the engagement? Does it focus on function rather than form? Does it appreciate that organisations in non-Western societies have different societal histories, may function differently, and will evolve according to a different logic? Does it appreciate that, even in Western societies, most of what shapes organisational life happens below the surface and is not easily visible?

7.      One function among others: If the purpose is to strengthen a particular function of an organisation with a multi-purpose mandate, is attention paid to how this functional capability fits within the whole? For example, if the purpose is to develop ‘humanitarian’ or ‘emergency response’ capacities of an organisation, i.e. the capacity to respond to crisis fast, effectively and with the required skills and minimum standards, how will that capacity be maintained if such crisis situations occur only very occasionally?

8.      Collaborative capacities: Is attention paid to ‘collaborative capacities’, not just within but especially between organisations? Many problems are too complex to be tackled by one organisation alone, effective collaboration is required. Sometimes collaborative efforts become the major driver for individual organisational development

9.      Maintaining capacity: Is attention paid to the strategic problem of maintaining ‘capacity’? National organisations are not just interested in ‘developing’ capacities. A major concern is ‘maintaining’ capacities. Their funding can be too uncertain, their staff turnover too high (including the best staff being recruited by the international organisations that first invested in the development of their ‘capacity’). So is attention paid to the financial sustainability of the national/local organisation, and what it has to offer to attract and retain qualified staff?

10.  The ‘capacity to build capacity’: Capacity-development is a dedicated field, and area of expertise. Those who practice it need particular competencies that include, among other elements, a diversity of frameworks to draw on in the assessment and structuring of their support, the ability to ask catalytical questions, strong interpersonal, inter-cultural, and communication skills (including deep listening). Does the proposing agency have those competencies? What evidence does it offer?

11.  Focus on outcomes, not inputs: Is there a clear vision of what ‘success’ will look like? What do we expect to see if the desired capacity has been ‘developed’? How will this be assessed, by whom?

12.  Change in the collaboration: What will change in the relationship between the international and national organisation, if certain capacities of the latter have been ‘strengthened’? If nothing changes, then what was the point?


[i] Baser, H. & P. Morgan 2008: Capacity, Change and Performance. Maastricht, European Centre for Development Policy Management p. 116-117



LOCALISATION: The Partnership Chronicles Part 1

“The fact that we are not money-hungry confuses people.

Partnership” is one of the most abused words in the international cooperation jargon. It stands for any and all collaborations, whatever their nature and quality. Donor governments are ‘development partners’, national and local non-governmental actors are invariably ‘partners’ of international aid agencies.

While the quantity (rather than the quality) of funding to national organisations is the attention area in the post-World Humanitarian Summit ‘localisation’ agenda, aid-recipient organisations have long argued that they also want a profound change in the quality of relationship. They want to be treated as ‘partners’ and not as ‘sub-contractors’.

In this blog, the first of two, I explore some of the practical aspects of collaborative relations between international and national agencies. The orientation is mostly towards civil society organisations, but similar issues exist in inter-governmental relations, as can be seen from the declarations resulting from the successive ‘High Level Panel’ meetings, particularly since Paris 2005.

EPISODE 1: Domestic Workers?


Not so long ago I was listening to the director of an African NGO talking about the attitudes and practices from international agency staff, he and his organisation had repeatedly been confronted with:

  • Occasionally they would find themselves suddenly approached with the request to immediately sign up to a project, that the international agency needed to get going quickly. Pressured to decide very fast and not convinced by the project design, he often had said ‘no’. He typically explaining the negative response as a l’ack of spare capacity’ so as not to offend the international agency. Then silence would ensue. When subsequently encountering those who had so urgently approached him, generally they would not even acknowledge that the exchange had happened. The interaction had been purely instrumental.
  • Similarly, they were occasionally also asked to quickly sign up to a ‘bid’ for a tender. Since the deadline to submit the bid was invariably around the corner, there was no time to discuss details and terms of the collaboration. He was simply told that ‘could be worked out later’, when the funding was secured. It was obvious they were simply approached because the donor agency wanted to see international agencies bidding together with national ‘partners’.
  • With some other international agencies, there was a joint project. The terms of inequality were clear: The international agency determined how many staff the national agency needed for the project as well as their salaries. Money transfers were made only monthly, typically delayed because his NGO had to produce the expenses reports which then had to be first approved by the international agency. Though he is the director of his agency, he would always deal with mid-level programme staff from the international agency – their director always had other priorities. Many of the international agency staff would know all the salaries and benefits of the national agency, whereas they knew nothing about those of the international agency. All contracts invariably had a clause specifying that any litigation would be under the laws and in the courts of the international agency’s headquarters.
  • Though there was a joint project, the national agency was only offered ‘direct project implementation costs’. None of their core support costs were covered, though they knew that the international agency itself took an (undisclosed) ‘management fee’.
  • When he questioned the unfavourable terms of cooperation, he was told that unfortunately the rules were made by the international agencies’ headquarters, or came from the governmental back donors. So nothing could be changed, no scope for negotiation.
  • When he asked for some dedicated capacity-development support, he was told that they would ‘learn by doing’ in the cooperation.

Experiences similar to the ones of this African NGO, have also been described repeatedly for the interaction between Syrian and international agencies (both also have better collaboration experiences!). They are confirmed by the prevailing understanding of ‘partner’ as an ‘implementing partner’ – not a (joint) ‘decision-making partner’ or ‘learning partner’.

They are not radically different from that of many ‘domestic workers’, often people that have come from another country, and women: the rules are set exclusively by the ‘employer’, who has more or less the power to change them unilaterally.

EPISODE 2: A Forgotten ‘Great Charter’?

Such unpleasant relationship should surprise, given that in 2007 the Global Humanitarian Platform agreed on following Principles of Partnership (PoP): Equality, Transparency, Results-Oriented Approach, Responsibility, Complementarity.

Its explanatory paragraph for ‘complementarity’ is particularly interesting here: “The diversity of the humanitarian community is an asset if we build on our comparative advantages and complement each other’s contributions. Local capacity is one of the main assets to enhance and on which to build. Whenever possible, humanitarian organizations should strive to make it an integral part in emergency response. Language and cultural barriers must be overcome.”

It also issued a companion document: “Ten Practical Ways to Use the PoP” and how to monitor and report on them. Strangely enough, the guidance does not suggest a periodic, reciprocal, assessment of the quality of the relationship. Surely this is a situation that calls for such, using score cards or another such tool, as basis for a constructive dialogue?

I am not the betting type, but in this case I am prepared to stake some money that few people know about the PoP, let alone use them.

EPISODE 3: The ‘Deal Breaker’ Song.

Also not so long ago, I was listening to the director of a South Asian NGO describing why they had recently said ‘no’ -three times- to offers of project work from international agencies.

‘Coffee first’: Not surprisingly, she was emphasising the necessity to first build relationship, and to explore the challenges in the environment and whether there was a common vision about what to try and address, and how: “We don’t want to start the conversation with ‘the project’, we may end the conversation with that. We first need to build relationship and can talk about what the issues are, only later can the money question come in. Our ultimate goal is positive change, not the delivery of projects, or maintaining an office or keeping our cash flow going…our even own institutional survival.

‘Unlearning’: She was also talking about how difficult this seemed to be for many staff of international organisations: “it is hard for an international organisation to land on a local one that doesn’t seek to play the game; people need time to unlearn old habits.

‘Relation before negotiation’: As she put it eloquently: “partnership is a conversation about how together we can affect positive change, not a negotiation over resources.

With the rest of her colleagues, they had set minimum requirements with regard to behaviours and terms of collaboration, and decided no longer to waste time or look for collaboration opportunities where it quickly became clear that the international agency was not meeting those: the ‘deal breakers’.

Her being a musical person, we started playing around with phrases and musical lines to compose what might become a real hit: “The Deal Breaker Song.” (Please compose your own, post on YouTube and circulate the link!).

EPISODE 4: Reverse Risk and Capacity Assessments.

Hollow Crowns in all Realms? There are widespread problems among national and local agencies, governmental or not. Positions are obtained through political patronage; NGOs and governmental ‘initiatives’ are created to exploit the ‘aid market’; many CSOs suffer from the founder-director syndrome, failing to institutionalise and democratise. Several are ‘family businesses’. The accounting can become indeed ‘too creative’. They need to get their house in order.

At the same time, we can often see ‘wastage’ of public funds by international aid agencies (multilateral, bilateral and non-governmental). Some of them also have directors who have been in place for longer than the two terms Presidents normally are constitutionally allowed. And there definitely are more cases of fraud or misuse of funds than are allowed to become known publicly.

Reciprocal Risk Assessments: National agencies considering partnering with international ones, are also running potentially significant risks. Here are some:

  • Losing control over its direction, by beginning to implement the strategies, programmes and projects of the international agency;
  • Losing the connection to its own constituency, as the international actor becomes a stronger influence;
  • Investing less in collaborative efforts with other national actors as the collaborative energies are oriented towards the international one;
  • Counterproductive speeding up of ‘project’ design and implementation because the international aid machinery is geared towards ‘fast food’ and has no tolerance for ‘slowly cooked dishes’;
  • Being left alone for ‘post-project care’, when the international partner has disappeared because its funding ended;
  • Dependency on continued foreign funding, also because less effort is invested in developing domestic sources of funding;
  • Vulnerability to volatile funding, with sometimes too fast scaling up, followed by a need to rapidly scale down;
  • Shift in fundamental staff motivation, from service to their own society to predominantly career and salary considerations;
  • Decreased visibility as the international agency takes credit for the work achieved, and innovations made; 
  • Reputational risk of being seen or being portrayed as an agent of foreign interests (also because of the back-donors to the international agency);
  • Security risk when communications of the international actor displease certain domestic actors, who might direct the backlash at the national one.

National organisations are well advised to conduct reciprocal ‘risk assessments’!

Capacity-development for international actors: There are also ‘capacities’ that can be found in national/local organisations, that international ones could learn from. For example:

  • ‘People driven’ and ‘community-responsive’ programming
  • Programming with a strong cultural and social fit
  • Political capabilities: navigating the political space(s)
  • Making a dollar go far
  • Finding creative, innovative solutions in complex and resource-scarce situations
  • Managing disruptive change.

This is not totally extravagant: In the early 90s, 13 Dutch development CSOs invited ‘southern’ consultants to assess their performance. During 2011-2012 two Dutch development CSOs also asked ‘southern’ partners to participate in their own organisational assessment.[i] But it is certainly not the prevailing practice.

Beyond Money: There are some international agencies, both faith-based and secular, whose mission is simply to strengthen and support national/local capacities. Their ties with ‘partners’ can persist even when there is no money. That is admirable.

Yet even then questions can be asked about transparency and equitability: Some years ago, I came across a case of a national organisation running on the volunteerism of its staff for more than 18 months already. Though the long-standing political instability had not been resolved, there hadn’t been a major crisis for two years, and foreign donors had gone elsewhere than this country of low strategic interest. The long-standing international partner maintained an active relationship. But it did not reveal that its director was earning a salary roughly twice that of the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. And that it had moved into more prestigious and far more expensive headquarter premises. The question of whether it could reduce some of its expenditure and share the savings with the national partner was not raised.

Giovanni Bisignani said: “If one of the partners in a partnership is losing his shirt while the other is counting his money, it is no longer a partnership.” What do you think?

EPISODE 5: Alice in Wonderland?

So what might a really ‘equitable’ relationship look like? Well, national agencies might

  • Conduct risk- and capacity-assessments of the international agency; 
  • Demand details of its organigram, staffing numbers and salary scales;
  • Check the depth of commitment and possible conflicts of interest in its governance structure;
  • Question how long the director has been in position and whether leadership is sufficiently institutionalised;
  • Request specifics about its current and future business model(s);
  • Commission an audit or an inquiry when there is a founded concern over wastage or financial mismanagement;
  • Vet its potential donors for programing in their country or region, in light of political risk management;
  • Have a full say in every strategic decision related to the work in this country or region;
  • Check every public communication about the joint programme before it goes out;
  • Provide the international agency with capacity-development support;
  • Expect to be present at every donor meeting; and expect their senior staff to give fair priority to its meeting requests.
  • What else?

Nothing of this should sound outrageous as it is what international agencies typically request and expect from national agencies. Yet it is far from common practice. We can go two ways: We significantly limit our use of the word ‘partnership’ and/or we step up to practice more equitable relationships. Both are options, but let’s start by being clearer of what we want and where we are.

In a next blog, I will explore the concept of ‘partnership’ and its use in international cooperation from a more conceptual angle. Stay tuned.

[i] It Takes Two to Tango. PSO & INTRAC Praxis Note 62, 2012







LOCALISATION: Meanings & Trajectories

The ‘humanitarian system’ wants to change, and change big time. Though having provided much needed practical assistance to millions of people over the past half century, there is a sense that it is no longer entirely ‘fit for purpose’.  ‘Localisation’ has come out of the World Humanitarian Summit process, as one of the important pillars of that change.

As local as possible, as international as necessary” has become the strap line that signals the broad goal and meaning of ‘localisation’: The default mode for crisis response shouldbecome one that relies on national and local capacities (‘nationally owned’ and ‘nationally led’), only supplemented by international action if and for as long as needed.

What, however, does this mean in practice? In this and subsequent blogs, I share some reflections about the implications of ‘localisation’, and some of the challenges that we are likely to encounter.

1.     Key Dimensions of Localisation.

Going through the rapidly growing literature of reports, blogs and stated commitments that relate to ‘localisation’, we see four major areas of change emerging:

·       Visibility: Greater recognition and visibility for the efforts, roles, innovations and achievements of local actors;

·       Capacities: More effective support for stronger local and national capacities & less undermining of those capacities e.g. by hiring away the more qualified local staff;

·       Funding: More direct and better quality funding to local actors: The commitment at the World Humanitarian Summit is to increase direct funding to local actors from less than 1 % today to 25% by 2020. Local actors also demand better quality funding, longer term, more flexible, and covering core costs;

·       Partnerships: Better, more genuine, ‘partnerships’ and less sub-contracting relationships.

These different aspects of ‘localisation’ are related but not identical. The translation into practice of each will require different changes and can benefit from its own milestones. They may also happen at different speeds: If I am an INGO with 90% funding from institutional donors and 10% from my own fund raising, I may be able to better profile the local actors in my communications and fundraising materials, but not to provide them with better quality funding if my ‘back donors’ don’t enable it. Another agency may be able to provide more direct and better quality funding, but may not be well qualified to offer significant support for overall organisational development.

One of the really interesting questions is whether there can be ‘partnership’ without money transfers? If the answer is ‘no’, then the transactional nature of the relationship remains the corner stone. If the answer is ‘yes’, then we can think better about what other ‘added value’ a national actor can see in an international partner.

2.    Why Localisation and Why Now?

Listening to the conversations, two justifications are often invoked: ‘first responders’ and ‘comparative advantage’.

First responders’: The argument runs that we should invest in stronger local capacities because the ‘first responders’ to a crisis will invariably be ‘local’ (to the level of family members and neighbours), and because local/national actors will stay whereas international responders at some point will leave.  While correct, this argument is also a bit puzzling. As we have seen with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the massive influx of Syrian refugees into neighbouring countries, the 2015 Nepal earthquake etc., sudden onset ‘disasters’ can be of such scale that they overwhelm the local and national capacities to respond. That is when international support becomes justified and sometimes absolutely necessary. Let’s remember that the WHO was severely criticised for not responding quickly and robustly enough to the Ebola outbreak.

Comparative advantage’: Local actors understand much better the context, the cultural sensibilities, speak the local language(s), are better able to navigate the local environment.  A valid observation, which is precisely why the international agencies that establish their own presence, quickly start hiring the most qualified ‘national’ staff. Not an argument then, it seems, that would compel radical change. Moreover, while local actors better understand the context, they can also be part of the context: something that becomes particularly delicate in times of conflict, when the international agencies are very concerned about ‘neutrality’ and ‘impartiality’.

Both justifications do not seem to explain why ‘localisation’ is suddenly the ‘next big thing’. The comparative advantages of local actors, and their being the ‘first’ (and longest-lasting) responders are nothing new. This has been the case for the past half century. So why ‘localisation’ now?

Are there not deeper reasons why the ‘international humanitarian system’ (that some would simply call the ‘relief industry') should change? Such as

  • The system is overstretched: It is no longer able to finance and respond operationally to the explosion of needs around the globe. So we need many more national and local actors to step up. That would be a very legitimate and understandable reason: but it also changes the ‘tone’ or ‘colour’ of the conversation: Now the ‘international system’ is not saying: “hey, sorry that we didn’t acknowledge this earlier, but we have now (yes we know it has taken us an eternity) come to acknowledge and appreciate your roles and capacities, and want to get better at supporting you”. It is actually saying: “hey, we are overstretched and can’t handle the global burden of humanitarian needs anymore, we need your additional capacity and have to ask you to share more of that burden, please.” From a local actor perspective, the difference in message is important and will influence how I respond to it. After all, as a local actor I am well aware that the term ‘localisation’ is a bit like ‘empowerment’: It makes you wonder what happened in the first place, to make that someone has no power, or that the action is not ‘locally-led’?
  • The system is unhealthy: it is overly centralised and bureaucratic, it encourages competition rather than collaboration, its ‘technification’ and ‘professionalisation’ are taking the humanity out of it: affected populations are no more than ‘big data’.
  • The (underfinanced) system is wasteful: There are too many ‘fundingmediaries’. More fundamentally, by not effectively strengthening local capacities, it has to mobilise time and again at great cost, in response to the next crisis. The international agencies, rather than complementing the national efforts, come in with a too heavy footprint, tend to take over, in different ways undermine local capacities, and continue doing so for too long. Hurricane Matthew’s impact in Haiti, a few days ago, will be an interesting case: international capacities are needed to bring in enough food and other supplies quickly. But after many years of repeat waves of international presence, has more Haitian capacity been built?

All of this is not cost-effective: If there are major disasters in e.g. North America, Europe, China or Japan, there simply is not a ‘second tsunami’ of international agencies: overall the national capacities are enough to deal with the situation. Why don’t we simply say that ‘localisation’ is the investment, globally, in national capacities to manage crisis situations effectively. Just as all societies need to have the capacities to meet their own water or energy needs. Isn’t that a more strategically convincing argument than the reference to ‘first responders’? Unless of course we mostly want to see more ‘burden sharing’ i.e. the dominant players in the ‘international system’ are really looking for more ‘no-entry’ and ‘quicker exit’-strategies because they no longer have the will and ability to stay on?

3.      Which Local Actors & Who is ‘Local’?

While the ‘Grand Bargain’ document from the World Humanitarian Summit does not specify the nature of the ‘local actors’, conversations in INGO circles tend to focus on local ‘civil society’ ones. So what is the place in this for local and national authorities? After all, when we have a major disaster in aid-providing countries, flooding in Germany, a hurricane hitting the eastern board of the US, an earthquake in Italy, a refugee influx in Belgium, it is governmental institutions that lead the response. Major support roles tend to be played by the Civil Defence and national Red Cross or Red Crescent society, further complemented by NGOs and other voluntary associations.

In a conflict situation humanitarian actors may be more cautious about strengthening governmental capacities, as its neutrality and impartiality may be compromised. But much disaster risk reduction actively involves governmental institutions. And with increasing urbanisation, city authorities often play a major role.

There is also the thorny issue of who is ‘local’? Two of the tension-points here are diaspora-led organisations and national franchises of international NGO alliances. Diasporas are important not only for their remittances. Several diaspora members have set up their own operational organisations. Their familiarity with the mind-sets and ways of working of the 'internationals' may give them a competitive advantage over 'national' actors. While they sometimes claim to speak for their own society, non-diaspora local actors do not necessarily agree and see them as just another intermediary. The situation is also muddled by international civil society alliances and confederations creating more and more national franchises, sometimes approaching a national CSO to change its identity and become part of the international brand. Does enhanced work with them count as ‘localisation’? For the moment, other national and local organisations don’t agree: they see them as internationals-in-disguise, competing with them for limited funding.

4.   Different Trajectories.

Progress on ‘localisation’ is not going to be similar, and comparable, across the board. We can see different scenarios which will lead to different trajectories and speeds. Some key factors influencing the translation into practice are likely to be:

  •  The type of international organisation:  Developing meaningful partnerships with local actors, will come more naturally to international agencies that have a strong foundation in ‘solidarity’, and whose default mode is working with partners. The current signatories to Charter4Change are not a representative sample of the international relief actors. International agencies whose reflex is to be 'operational’, and whose business model is largely dependent on this, will find that real partnerships go ‘against their grain’.  UN agencies talk easily about partnership, but have sometimes a mandate and sometimes an unnecessary tendency to be and remain centre stage.
  • Governmental and non-governmental partners: Working with national and local public authorities is different from working with national civil society actors – or national/local private sector actors. Governmental entities can more easily assert an ‘authority’, but strengthening their institutional capacity may be harder than that of non-governmental actors.
  •  Prior History in the Context: You would expect the ‘localisation’ of relief to be easier and more advanced in places with repeat (or chronic) crises such as the Philippines, Bangladesh or the eastern DRC. Localising a major relief effort may be more demanding in response to a rapid onset (as different from a slow onset) disaster. Or where the prior collaboration was largely around development and/or conflict transformation; take Nepal prior to the 2015 earthquake or West Africa prior to the Ebola outbreak as examples. It will be more difficult where there was hardly any history of prior collaboration, such as in Syria. 
  • The various strands of ‘localisation’: As mentioned, progress in the different areas: visibility for the local actors; better capacity-support; more equal partnerships; and more direct and better quality funding, will require different actions and may happen at different speeds.  For each of these we can ask: What needs to be stopped? What can continue but needs to be changed? What do we need to do more of? What do we need to do that we haven’t done before?

These different trajectories will make it difficult to assess whether, across the ‘system’, there is meaningful progress in the next five years. It may also provide many opportunities to drag the feet and find reasons why change is happening only at a snail pace. We will have to develop refined ways of reviewing progress, and assessing whether constraints invoked are legitimate or overstated?

5     Who Determines the Balance?

As local as possible, as international as necessary” is both a powerful and a deceptive catch phrase. Because who determines whether the right balance was achieved, and whether that balance evolved appropriately, as the situation evolved? My observation, over 25+ years of work, is that the international agencies’ strong footprint may be warranted at particular moments in time, but often continuous for far too long. Sometimes national governments make the point when they start restricting the number of work-permits for expatriates, telling the international agencies that by now they should have trained enough nationals to be in charge. How do we assess this more pro-actively, with enough nuance and without excessive subjectivity?

6    Beyond the ‘Humanitarian’ Sector?

Finally, there is no reason why ‘localisation’ should be limited to the humanitarian sector or the relief world. Support for national capacities and encouragement of national ‘ownership’ are also part of development cooperation, conflict reduction and peace work, trade negotiations, research etc. Already twenty years ago, an ODI colleague was embedded as an adviser in the delegation from an African country to rounds of technically complex and tricky international trade negotiations. I would be surprised if they don't fully handle these now on their own. All of my involvement with conflict reduction and peace work has been with ‘local capacities’, for the simple reason that it is inevitable:  outsiders can help create some enabling conditions but only the people of societies in conflict can make durable peace with each other. We now have African and Asian-Pacific Evaluation Associations, and need to work more with and, if needed, further support national and regional capacities to conduct policy- and practice-relevant research.

For some 50 years international development cooperation has been shaped by Western actors because they were the main providers of ‘aid money’. Perhaps ‘localisation’ signals, and will accelerate, a more international ‘international’ system?  That is partially frightening, because a whole industry has been built on this in Western countries. But it may be inevitable - and will also open up powerful new perspectives and alignments.  



EXPERT ADVISERS: Other Competencies Needed to Strengthen Institutional Performance

I’d been in Kabul not even 48 hours. I knew already that this was a time and a place where things could happen very quickly, where bureaucratic decisions were being taken in an instance by youngsters unencumbered with history, where government departments were being run by foreign administrators barely old enough to run their own bath. Decision-making here was unimpeded by the demand to consider and reflect on experience.”   Zia Haider Rahman


Zia Haider Rahman’s book ‘In the Light of What We Know’ (2014:141) is a novel. But it is hard to avoid the impression that, where Afghanistan is the setting, he draws on first hand observation.

In an earlier blog I have explained why much ‘training’ does not contribute to sustained organisational capacity development. Here I look at the other big approach to this objective: what in Official Development Assistance terms is called ‘technical assistance’ (TA). This consists overwhelmingly of the deployment of ‘thematic-technical expert advisers’, to help aid-recipient public institutions perform better.

TA is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Yet by now many evaluations, reinforced by academic research, show that the overall effectiveness of TA in contributing to better functioning governments, is limited at best. International actors often put the blame for this on the recipient countries. Closer and more objective inquiry shows that there are also long-standing problems resulting from the prevailing bureaucratic cultures of the ‘donor’ or ‘development partner’ agencies. And that the competencies of the ‘expert-advisers’ deployed are not always sufficient.

What sort of situations can expert-advisers find themselves in, and what competencies do they need?[i]


Whether you are a British customs officer deployed to strengthen the Sierra Leonean border police, an American oil specialist seconded to the Iraqi Ministry of Oil, a Dutch general working with the Burundian army, a Swiss specialist on federalism advising the Somali government or a Turkish banker helping to establish and develop a modern banking system in Afghanistan, you find yourself in a much wider landscape that will influence what and how you can do. Some important dimensions of that landscape are:

The political economy of international cooperation: Be it Mali, South Sudan or another country with a large international foot print, you will find a bewildering multitude of actors all wanting to strengthen the national institutions, many of them operating with their own agendas and priorities.

The political economy of the national public sector.  Similar disconnects may exists within the national public sector, preventing the effective pursuit of a coherent national strategy.

The hidden organisation: Organisations are like ice-bergs. Most of their real functioning lies below the surface and does not necessarily correspond to the formal structures, policies and processes. 

Certainly those expert advisers with a more strategic than operational mandate, need to develop some understanding of the undercurrents in this landscape, and how to navigate those, if they want to have a chance of being effective.


Expert advisers can find themselves with a given mandate, role and position. Ideally this has been thought through carefully, and agreed in genuine partnership with the national institution where s/he will be deployed. In practice, that is not always the case. The initial conditions may be constraining rather than enabling. Consider some factors for example:

  • Who really wanted the adviser and why? The national entity, because they recognise a real need for external expertise and not because they must take the foreign adviser to access the aid money? Or the bilateral or multilateral ‘development partner’, who wants the national entity to reform in a certain direction and/or puts in an adviser also to keep an eye on the aid money?
  • Other advisers: Many advisers are not the only or first one in working with a national public sector institution. How will you relate to the other international expert advisers working with the same institution? In principle you work towards the same goal, but do you follow the same pathways, give similar or complementary advice? Do you have similar interpersonal styles? The same sense of urgency or patience? Or are advisers, like historical courtiers, competing for the ear of the principal national counterpart? And how do the foreign advisers relate to the national policy advisers, who may not come along with a purse in their brief case?
  • ·Where do you sit? Do you sit in the office of an international mission (probably with a back-up generator and hence uninterrupted air conditioning, internet access and printing facilities)? Or in the office of your national counterparts? Being with them can help develop the relationship, mutual understanding and collaboration. But it may also increase the temptations for the ‘adviser’ to be more of a ‘do-er’.
  •      8 x 1 is not the same as 1 x 8: The 2011 World Development Report observed that significant and lasting positive changes in governance take on average between 17-27 years. What time frame are you given? Many advisers are deployed on annual, renewable contracts, some even shorter than that. This may suit the budgetary cycles of the entity who pays them, and their own interest. But by the time they begin to get some understanding of the landscape in which they find themselves, and have developed good relationships with a broad set of key actors and stakeholders, their term is up. As Alwin van de Boogaard, who was an adviser in Burundi for eight years, points out: Eight consecutive annual plans (let alone 4 to 6 different consecutive advisers) is not the same as a general plan that from the outset works with an 8-year (i.e. medium-term) time horizon – and a continuity of adviser.

Advisers may be able to create a bit more room for manoeuvre here than when it comes to the overall political economy. But they will have to work on it consciously. And it requires other skills than the technical-thematic expertise for which they were selected.


This being the setting, it is clear that advisers need certain ‘political capabilities’. For ‘political advisers’ this is of course well recognised. But not for the ‘technical-thematic experts’. A variety of reasons probably explain this. One of them is the belief that the institutional fragility and underperformance of the public sector elsewhere, is essentially a problem of ‘knowledge’. So we can solve it by offering ‘knowledge experts’. Perhaps another reason that if we wanted ‘knowledge experts’ who are also decent ‘political animals’, we wouldn’t have that many to offer? Or they might not be so open to serve the political interests of their home country?

There are other necessary competencies, many of which go unrecognised or are undervalued:

Broad and reflected comparative experience. There are still ‘expert-advisers’ who know extremely well how a certain government institution works in their home country. But have no broad comparative perspective and are not necessarily familiar with the learning from comparative experience. One of the consequences can be divergent paradigms and contradictory advice. As a senior military from a Western country told me, who had been working as an adviser with the top command of the Afghan army: “The Americans were building an ‘American’ style Afghan army. The British a British-style one. Other countries advised along the lines of their national armies. Nobody was building an ‘Afghan’ army.” Different development partners sometimes supply different types of equipment to the same national counterpart institution. Who then find themselves with additional maintenance and repair problems. So too, different organisational (and political) paradigms will reduce the functionality of the national institution they want to strengthen.

A real ‘expert’ adviser has to be familiar with different approaches from different countries, say for the financing of health care, and can explain to the national counterparts what the underlying logics and consequences of each are. None of them has to be a model to be copied. National actors can use that diversity as a source of ideas to craft their own institution. You would also expect an ‘expert’ adviser to be well familiar with the critiques and learning from wider comparative experience, say for example on the reintegration of ex-combatants, so that known mistakes are not repeated. That is not necessarily the case.

Shift from ‘do-er’ to ‘adviser’. Some, not all, experts have been do-ers. They are acting members of their national police force or army. They normally work as e.g. auditors, prosecutors or departmental managers in their home country’s tax revenue office. We can excel as do-ers, but feel uncomfortable or ill prepared to act as mentors or facilitators. Relinquishing control and resisting the temptation to take over and do it yourself – because it will be done quicker and better- can be a difficult attitudinal change.

Strong interpersonal skills. Daniel Goleman has drawn our attention to ‘emotional intelligence’, and to ‘social intelligence’. In essence this means: self-awareness and self-management, awareness of the other and management of the relationships with others. Effectiveness in our work is not only a matter of rational intelligence and argument. It also dependents on how we relate to and work with people. In which the one element that we potentially have most control over, is ‘how’ we are. Being an effective adviser, just as being an effective leader or change agent, requires conscious investment also in personal development.

Cross-cultural competencies. When I started meeting my wife’s family in India, she impressed on me several behavioural do’s and don’ts. Always showing respect to elder was one. Another, never to point my foot soles at someone else: as they carry the dirt from outside, this is very insulting. Remember the Iraqi who threw his shoe at George Bush Jr? Losing your temper in Asia is generally seen as extremely bad and shameful behaviour. When the Japanese negotiate, they seek to establish a relationship and a win-win situation. They need to adapt to Western styles of negotiation that often aim at a win-lose outcome. Small things in the eyes of some, but not for others, that can have a big impact on the overall relationship.

There are other, deeper cultural differences that have been identified through research, for example by Geert Hofstede and others building on his work. How many of us working in other societies would be able to comment on the differences in ‘power distance’? Or whether they are ‘low’- or ‘high-context’ communication environments?

There can also be big differences between institutional sectors: the public, private and not-for profit sector speak different ‘languages’ and often seem to operate according to a different logic. This can make it difficult to establish cross-sectoral partnerships. As the military got more involved in international humanitarian action and reconstruction, they and NGOs had to get used to very different institutional cultures. But there are also differences in institutional cultures between organisations in the same sector: e.g. among military contingents from different countries, as every Force Commander of a multilateral peacekeeping operation knows, and between NGOs. The ‘culture’ of MSF is not that of Worldvision.

When working in the Ogaden, I regularly found myself the mediating interface between Somalis with their ‘egalitarian’ social behaviour, and Ethiopian Highlanders with a hierarchical, deferential one. Effective advising also means learning to sense different societal and institutional cultures, and find a good fit, mostly working with the grain rather than against it.

Change processes. Technical-thematic experts are deployed to contribute to improved institutional performance. That usually requires ‘change’. But like most of us, few have a practical framework to understand and guide ‘change processes’. Only one phenomenon stands out: resistance from the other, typically the national colleagues. Foreign advisers are usually blind to the often profound ‘resistance’ to change in the international development partners, and possible ‘resistance’ in themselves. We rarely analyse the very different reasons that can underpin ‘resistance’. Perhaps the development partners have created ‘reform overload’: too much too fast? How many experts have a conscious repertoire of tactics to try and reduce / overcome resistance, and an understanding of how ‘change’ at a larger scale -and over a longer period of time- actually happens? One thing is certain: it will not be ‘according to plan’.

Different types of advice. Too many advisers still operate with the belief that they can or always must provide ‘solutions’. In some instances, this can be appropriate. There certainly will be the expectation and pressure, from both the home and host country, to do so. Is that not what ‘experts’ are for? And yet, in practice we then often end up imposing external models, that may not be the best fit for where the national institution is now, that are not owned and will not be sustained.  

As I mentioned in an earlier blog (‘Complexity, contractors and consultants’) advisers can also provide the national counterparts with ‘options’ to choose from, or simply ideas to consider. Or recommend a process that brings into a collective reflection the range of key stakeholders and experts, to collectively work through the diagnosis and develop solutions that can get broad support and will be workable.

Sometimes this happens, taking the form of a somewhat larger ‘policy community’. Recommending a process that would involve the wider public, or citizenry, is exceedingly rare however, and would probably be considered quite ‘extravagant’. And yet, that is precisely how a healthier governance relationship, between people and authorities, can be created. In Guatemala, a number of Guatemalan civil society organisations were actively part of the policy community working through the challenges of security sector reform and democratic security though there was no broader public involvement. In Burundi, a key adviser to the security sector managed to mobilise some public engagement, to get the security personnel to understand how they are perceived and what the public expects from them.

If we don’t encourage public participation in institution-building and public policy development, then our international cooperation de facto encourages technocratic elite- rather than more participatory governance.


Expert advisers can also expect to be confronted with different moral and effectiveness dilemmas.

Some common effectiveness dilemmas:

Ø Rhythms and speed: The formal planning, budgeting and implementation schedules of international and national actors do not always align. But beyond ‘formal time’ there is also ‘political’ and ‘social’ or ‘anthropological’ time, which may have a critical influence on the actual effectiveness of the effort. Whose ‘time’ and ‘rhythms’ will the advisor follow? Does s/he ‘step in’ and ‘step up’ by becoming more ‘hands on’ in order to move things forward, or does s/he stay with the often slower rhythm of nationally-driven capacity-strengthening and institutional reform? When does this become acceptance of a problematic ‘status quo’?

Ø Local solutionsinternational standards: Does the advisor encourage and support ‘local solutions’ (that, for the time being, are the ‘best possible fit’) even if they fall quite short of what are held to be ’international standards’?

Ø The right to learn through trial – and sometimes error? Does the advisor ‘allow’ the national actors to ‘experiment’ and to ‘learn-by-doing’, including to ‘learn from mistakes’, even if s/he is very sceptical that their proposed move will produce results?

Ø What responsibility regarding sustainability? Does the advisor encourage the creation of internationally driven and –supported structures and procedures, even if it is clear that they will not, in the medium-term future, be sustainable with national resources and skills only?

   Some possible moral dilemmas:

Ø Advisors may find themselves in situations where they have to work closely with people that are suspected or known to be responsible for serious human rights violations and to have ‘blood on their hands’. But who – for political purposes- have been co-opted in the current governance structure. Are they unwittingly complicit in perpetuating ‘impunity’?

Ø Advisors often find themselves in a situation where they have to answer to multiple bosses, or at least multiple stakeholders: minimally their national counterpart(s), their field- or mission-level superiors, and possibly their home government who mobilized them in the first place. International actors may ask them for insight information about what is being discussed and happening within the national entity they are working with. The latter may suspect them of ‘being spies’ for one or more international actors, and may even deliberately try to ‘test’ the advisors on this. Where do their loyalties lie, who do they see themselves as most accountable to?

Are you ready to be an expert-adviser in another country?

[i]Pioneering work to better prepare expert advisers was undertaken by Nadia Gerspacher of the US Institute for Peace. Together with Jan Ubels and Nora Refaeil, we built on this work and took it further in the development of a course on ‘Effective Advising’. For a more extensive discussion of these issues, see my papers ‘Value for Money?’ and ‘Jill and Jack of all Trades’.



Capacity development’ (CD) has been a long-standing feature of international aid-based cooperation. The two most prominent modalities of CD-support have and continue to be ‘training’ and the provision of technical-thematic experts as advisers.

The demand of local and national agencies in aid-recipient environments for greater ‘localisation’, may trigger a new wave of CD. But have we learned from experience?

Reports that capture the views of the new Syrian non-state agencies that have emerged since the uprising, about the trainings they received from international agencies, suggest we haven’t. Their critical comments relate to attention points identified more than a decade ago, e.g. by Anderson & Olson (Confronting War 2003) or Sprenger (The Training Process: Achieving social impact by training individuals? 2005).

I.              Why Does So Much Training Have Little Impact?

Why does much training, of people-in-practice, not lead to the desired changes in the participant’s behaviour, and has little to no impact on collective capacity? The most common reasons relate to the participation, content and learning approach.

a.       Participation.

§  Poor selection: The participants are not necessarily people that can influence their teams or wider organisation, or they are not motivated to do so: the main interest is their personal development, perhaps to foster their individual career;

§  Lack of critical mass: The re-entry problem is well known: when I return to an environment that continues with ‘business as usual’, I cannot apply the new insights or skills I have learned in a training course and I quickly give up trying. Even a participant in a position of influence will struggle to introduce some changes until there is more of a critical mass of colleagues who have been through the same learning process;

§  No ongoing support: Even with space to try out the new learning, there is no ongoing support when our learners hit an important question or run into a problem;

§  Staff turn-over: Trained staff leave the organisation to go elsewhere. Or we create our own loss of return-on-investment by moving them to another position where they cannot or must not use their acquired learning. How often have we seen that with colleagues trained as ‘trainers’?

b.      Content and learning approach.

§  The content is experienced as too theoretical and too general: it doesn’t resonate with the particular context and challenges that participants are struggling with;

§  Training courses are fragmented aggregations of topics, delivered by different people whose inputs are not harmonised substantively nor pedagogically;

§  The delivery does not respect principles of adult learning: too many lectures, panel discussions and other formats that are not interactive and do not address the priorities and concerns of the participants;

§  Participants are not able to practice their learning during the learning event: they may have gained some awareness, perhaps some theoretical knowledge, but not ‘skill’;

§  The learning doesn’t engage the whole person: Trainers and participants stay at the rational-intellectual level. But there is no deep learning without deeper engagement. Yet, there is a difference between a carpenter who is technically good, and one who is also passionate about working with wood and takes pride in her work. You can see the difference between an aid worker who is technically good at food distributions, and one who also remains aware of the real purpose: protecting the nutritional health and dignity of fellow human beings who find themselves in extreme circumstances. Just as a trainer with a hierarchical mind set cannot truly train on participatory methods, because s/he has herself difficulty relinquishing control.

II.   Making Training More Impactful.

a.       Content.

The content needs to speak to the priority concerns and the contexts of the target audience. That can only happen if it becomes more demand than supply driven.

This is easier when training-in than training-out-of-context. When running security management training courses years ago, it was much easier to train e.g. threat assessment, threshold of acceptable risk, acceptance strategy or incident analysis on location, in Tajikistan or Indonesia for example, than in the UK with participants from many different contexts. On location we could directly apply the frameworks with the participants. In the UK course we had to explain that there was no generic answer sheet, because all generic advice still needed to be filtered through ‘situational judgment’. The point is relevant in general: Finance training for aid agencies operating in south-central Somalia or Yemen will have to take into account what is feasible in those contexts: Three independent quotes and receipts for every expenditure might not be realistic. Just as ‘feedback’ or ‘complaints handling’ mechanisms for populations dealing with aid agencies, need to find a practical expression that will work in a given context.

One important caveat here: we do not always know what we don’t know and may not appreciate the importance of something until we gain more insight in it. If one day the violence in Syria stops, we know from experiences elsewhere that there will be, as example, major disputes over land, housing and commercial property. Even if that scenario is nearer, there may not be demand (or even supply) for learning about how to handle this, until it has already become a widespread problem. Just as we may not express a demand for training in e.g. participatory budgeting or participatory polling, because we simply don’t know that it exists and how it can be relevant and beneficial for us.

b.      Learning approaches.

Application and practice are central. Providing frameworks, explaining underlying principles, illustrative examples from other settings are all relevant. But the purpose of effective learning is to go beyond awareness and ‘theoretical’ knowledge, to skill: the ability to do.

That means case studies, exercises, role play etc. enhanced by constructive feedback. There is no learning like guided, experiential learning– and repeat exercise to improve.

You can’t learn facilitation skills or get better at public speaking, without practicing (and observing yourself in action on video), You can get better at negotiating with armed actors wanting to block your relief convoy, if you have been able to try it out repeatedly in role plays with different scenarios and interlocutors. You cannot learn to become more comfortable using different leadership styles based on their situational appropriateness, without rehearsing in a safe space, or working through real-life events with a coach or other trusted sounding board.

Language can play a role: When training Libyans in facilitation skills, I was assisted by my Lebanese colleague who would translate or lead directly in Arabic. We deliberately provided regular time for things to proceed in Arabic, as even excellent translation cannot capture the finer nuances and deeper differences in outlook between Libyans having lived 40 years under the Qaddafi regime and a European.

Deeper learning requires the training to cover less, and leave more time for practice. Self-evident as this may seem, most training courses do not adhere to this. Simply because practice, repeat practice, conversations and learning in different languages with some translated summary, take time. And many of us, those seeking training, the trainers or those sponsoring the training, don’t want to invest too much time in ‘training’ or ‘being trained’.

c.     Role shift.

When our focus shifts from the ‘delivery of supplied training’ to the ‘learning of the participants’, the ‘trainer’ becomes more of a ‘learning facilitator’. 

Effective learning facilitators in our international cooperation context have to be much more than ‘trainers’: We need to be able to grasp the context the learners operate in, and what trajectory has brought them, their programme, organisation or network, to where they are now. We need to be able to provide relevant illustrative examples from other contexts, but be ready to explore with the participants what might be the most appropriate approach in their particular situation. This definitely must happen for a training/learning event ‘in context’. But major steps in that shift are also possible for an ‘out-of-context’ learning event.

What does a learning facilitator do differently from a classical trainer?

  • More and different preparation: Learning facilitators want to know beforehand who the participants are and where they come from. This is about more than biographical paragraphs.  As much as possible, they want to have an idea of why they seek a particular training, what their most important questions are. When they can design the course, they may ask participants to send in advance a brief ‘case study’ of a relevant situation that they are currently struggling with, or an important unresolved one from the past. Participant cases can then be integrated in the learning programme, also through peer-learning. When participants come from the same organisation or a few operating in the same environment, the learning facilitators want to learn about the organisation(s) and that context in advance.
  • An integrated learning programme: ‘Buffet style’ courses cover a lot of different topics and are ‘delivered’ by a diverse set of trainers or resource persons, without real effort to create a thematic and pedagogical integration.  As a participant I too have enjoyed sampling a variety of different dishes from different cooks. But it never added up to a memorable ‘dining experience’ that took me to the next level. When my purpose as course director is to give my participants a real learning experience that is relevant to the actual challenges they face in their professional life and personal development, I need to create a programme flow with thematic integration and pedagogical variation, enough time for ‘practice’, and some flexibility to respond to emerging demand. If I use different resource persons, I will extensively engage with them in advance, to ensure the best ‘fit’ of their content and educational approach to the particular participant profile and within the larger programme;
  • Flexible lesson/course planning: We don’t want over-prepared sessions that force participants to follow the lesson ‘plan’. We also don’t want an approach that is highly responsive to participant questions but vulnerable to criticism of being too ‘unstructured’. My best solution so far is to prepare, trying to anticipate what might be key questions for participants based on what I know about them, but also considering relevant attention points or learning they may not have thought about (yet). Early in a session, I will ask participants what their big questions are regarding the topic.  Then we can together asses what my preparations enable me to engage with, and what not. If participants want to spend more time on a particular issue or exercise, then the necessary trade-off is explicitly discussed with the group. They need to share the responsibility for how we make the most of this learning opportunity.
  • Connect: Even for a session of 90 minutes, I will try and learn people’s names, and connect briefly, before, during and after, to at least some of them. My being more fully present invites them to do the same, so we are ready for a joint learning journey.

What other characteristics have proven relevant and valuable for me as learning facilitator? My own practical and broad comparative experience:  It helps to identify with the challenges my co-learners face, and to quickly pick up important aspects of a context. Also experience as a facilitator, working with groups, including their emotional dynamics. A growing skill in asking catalytic questions that help the others think deeper and more creatively about solutions they haven’t yet seen. And an acceptance that the collective intelligence and wisdom can likely to be more than what I have in my suitcase of answers and solutions.

III.        Beyond Individual Training: Team learning and organisational capacity.

More relevant content and more experiential approaches will improve the individual learning. But the ‘theories of change’ that assume this will then quite automatically translate into better professional practice and broader team or organisational competency, have been constantly proven wrong. There is no robust evidence that ‘training of trainers’ offers the solution here.

Where the aim is to strengthen broader capacity and not just that of individuals, the approach has to change radically. Significant shifts are required not only from ‘trainers’ but also from three other key stakeholders:

§  Organisations looking to strengthen their capacities have a broad organisational commitment to it, and a strategy. Training moments can be part of that. But the overall organisational learning and development also takes place in many other ways: by recruiting people with strong learning abilities; identifying some organisational learning priorities; managers or team leaders inquiring as often about learning as about finance and workplans etc. Where a focused learning event is needed, a critical mass of key people is identified, and a training/learning facilitation provider that can tailor its offer to the particular context and client.  Many real world challenges also require organisations to collaborate if they want to have some scale and impact. Different organisations operating in the same environment can therefore aggregate their demand, share the costs, and subsequently benefit from easier collaboration because of their shared learning.

§  Training institutions can continue to have a core repertoire of fairly standardised training courses. But overall they get much better at tailoring their role and input to the needs of particular clients, and much of their training takes place on or near location. Some form of blended learning can become a powerful combination: Information and knowledge can be shared through e-learning. This is then followed by face-to-face facilitated learning with an emphasis on practice and fit-for-context. Structurally, we probably need less providers of isolated training courses, and more institutions that are able to offer or facilitate a longer-term ‘learning and development’ accompaniment, in a more mentoring style.

§  Those sponsoring training significantly reduce funding of one-off training courses, and invest more in longer term capacity-development strategies, with accompaniment and organisational mentorship.

Now we are ready to shift from ‘outputs’ in terms of numbers of courses and participants, and start working towards ‘outcomes’ and ‘impact’.


LOCALISATION: "As local as possible, as international as necessary". alternative approaches to capacity-development.

1. Substituting rather than Supporting Local Capacities.

One of the alleged reasons why international relief agencies in most crises continue to ‘take over’ from local governmental and non-governmental actors, is the alleged ‘lack of capacity’ by the latter. That observation can be partially correct: Local agencies that can drive, coordinate and delivery assistance are themselves often affected by major natural disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti or Nepal, or the wars in Yemen and Syria. Overwhelmed local capacities justify international support. The problem occurs when the latter actually further undermines local capacities by hiring away all the best local people to boost their own, and by taking over the decision making. And when this situation persists not just for months but often for years. ‘Support’ for local capacities has become ‘substitution’. Is there really no other way? Here some ideas, underpinned by practical experiences, for different ways of operating.

2. Unpacking ‘Capacities’.

Generalised conversations about ‘capacities’ lead nowhere. Let us consider what are some of the major and frequent ‘capacity challenges’ that relief providers in time of crisis face:

Meeting donor requirements: The administrative requirements of bilateral and multilateral donors are notoriously complex, and in recent years have only become more demanding. Irrespective of how good you actually are ‘on the ground’, if you can’t write the proposals, budgets and track records according to the required formats and standards, you will not even be considered for funding. Writing skills are almost more decisive than your actual capacity to ‘do things’. Later you need to be able to meet the often diverse reporting requirements and be able to handle sophisticated evaluations.

Technical-thematic expertise: If you want to register people in need or run nutritional, immunisation or water and sanitation programmes, you need the technical expertise. If you want to protect women from gender based violence, or the rights of children not to suffer the consequences of armed conflict, you need some thematic expertise but also much socio-political skill.

Scaling up – and scaling down: Often large populations are affected, and larger relief operations are needed. Scaling up rapidly – increasing budgets and staff but also the management oversight over bigger operations- poses significant organizational challenges. Sometime in future, the situation will have stabilised and needs are less acute, or funding levels decline, and you will be faced with the reverse organizational challenge of perhaps equally rapidly scaling down.

Understanding and navigating the specific environment: All environments have complex social, cultural, political and economic dynamics that are affected by the crisis and by the crisis response. We need to learn how the local populations see ‘the world’, assess the intended and unintended impacts of the presence and provision of assistance in that situation, and avoid attempts to benefit from it in ways that we do not find acceptable. We also need to build or maintain a broad network of collaborative relations as most challenges are too big and complex to be handled by one agency alone.

Operating with conflict-sensitivity: Providing assistance in troubled environments comes with the responsibility at least not to put oil on the fire of existing tensions and conflicts, nor to create new ones. This cannot happen without the in-depth understanding of the ‘context’ mentioned and a close monitoring of intended and unintended impacts of your presence and actions.

Many international relief agencies have strong competencies in the first two capacity challenges: meeting donor requirements and technical-thematic expertise. Some have the organizational experience with rapidly scaling up and down, though many others will also struggle. More often than not, they are not strong at understanding and navigating the specific context with conflict-sensitivity. Does such 'competencies picture' justify the substitution of local capacities? We don't think so.

3. Alternatives to Substitution.

Suppose the international relief industry operated very differently, and would always make ‘supporting local capacities’ a strategic objective next to saving lives and protecting basic rights. Here are three possible components of what such scenario might look like:

a. Seconding very qualified staff: Rather than hiring away the best local people, international agencies second highly qualified staff to local organisations to boost their capacities where they are most challenged. They essentially have an advisory support role, on technical, thematic and managerial issues, but can lead on donor required paperwork if it includes also training and mentoring local staff. This is not as easy as it sounds: To bring real value, such seconded international staff needs to be very experienced, but also have necessary ‘soft skills’: strong interpersonal and cross-cultural skills, the ability to make the shift from ‘do-er’ to ‘adviser’, being a mentor more than a trainer, knowing how to deal constructively with perceived resistance etc. This is not different from the ‘technical assistance’ that is often provided to national governments. It also requires the local organisation to be willing to learn and develop, and make the most of this opportunity. And to accept the inevitable salary differentials, as long as the seconded person provides real value-for-money and does so with the required sensitivity.

b. Systematic and extended training: Sometimes there simply will not be an existing local capacity or one with the potential to grow. Many years ago I joined the Afghanistan Vaccination and Immunisation Centre. It was set up by French doctors who, contrary to the prevailing ‘wisdom’ in the few medical agencies then working in rural Afghanistan, believed that Afghans were capable of running something as technically complex as an immunization programme. From day one, they started a training center. Afghan doctors were further trained as trainers for this particular health operation. Afghans, recruited in Afghanistan and not the refugee camps, were trained as vaccinators and cold chain technicians. The best of those became supervisors, the best of those again became epidemiological surveyors etc. Others were trained on administration and finance etc. It was often too dangerous in various provinces for expatriates to monitor. But after prolonged working together, there was real trust in the Afghan supervisors and surveyors. In truth: I have never seen any other programme since, that so systematically invested in the development of local capacity from day one.

c. A two-way learning office: Early on in every major crisis, an ‘independent’ learning office is established with carefully selected national and international staff. It’s role is to make available and understandable relevant information (standards, learning, methodologies…) from international experience, but also to capture the important learning of what it means to operate in that particular environment. Which is critically important to the international actors, who always struggle to find the ‘best fit’ for a given situation.

4. Potential Benefits of Strategic Capacity-Support.

Some of the potential big benefits of such approach in which the international agencies do not overwhelmingly ‘go operational’ themselves would be:

a. No ‘second tsunami’: This is how local actors in some of the areas affected by the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami described the overwhelming ‘wave’ of international relief agencies pouring in and taking over;

b. 'Remote' is not the problem: At the moment ‘remote management’ is seen as the last and least preferred option that is entered into when the environment is too dangerous for ‘foreigners’ to go into. Such perspective reveals how prevailing ‘direct presence’ is as the default mode of operation. At the very heart of this issue is the question of ‘trust’. Are it only ‘internationals’ that can operate to the ‘required standards’, is only the direct monitoring and supervision by a ‘foreigner’ sufficiently trustworthy? Are we so unable or unwilling to identify trustworthy people among local populations? Do we really believe that all ‘foreigners’ are highly skilled, objective and trust worthy? Would the ‘foreigner’ in this crisis suddenly become less ‘trust worthy’ if s/he were acting in a crisis in her or his home environment? And does the person who is ‘local’ in her or his environment suddenly become more ‘trustworthy’ when s/he goes to work with an aid agency as an ‘expatriate’ elsewhere? What if we changed our mind set and saw the opportunities in 'remote support'?

These three suggestions may seem fanciful ideas. They are indeed not ‘mainstream’ though they have been tried and tested on a smaller scale by more creative agencies in many places. How they would work out on a larger scale, we will not know until we try. But are we willing to change our habitual ways of doing and relinquish our center-stage positions?