Imagine that a country is in fact in the driver's seat of a car, driving up the development road.
A country's capacity is its ability to drive along that road, navigating around bumps in its way, accelerating and stopping as necessary, and changing direction in the face of a roadblock. A country should always be in the driver's seat, making decisions as they arise -- no one knows a road like a local citizen. Helping countries as they learn to drive that road is the goal of capacity building, and one of many goals that were discussed at the recent Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan.
Strengthening capacity is particularly crucial as aid budgets are under threat by broader spending cuts, and each dollar spent must yield the maximum value possible. Moreover, as developing countries' incomes grow, the aid that they receive now should help lay a strong foundation for the future, when they might be able to fund many of their own public programs. These goals are critical, but progress in meeting them has fallen short of the mark. Evaluations of donors' progress in advancing their aid effectiveness commitments have called for new strategies to strengthen country capacity.
Although high level commitments are essential to ensuring support for effective aid, the trick is in how individual projects are carried out. The Results for Development Institute (R4D) has been testing ways to do capacity building, learning about what technical experts can do to support policymakers and other in-country leaders who are driving important reforms and changes forward.
R4D's experiences focus on countries with some established public sector capacity, but they suggest that there are some important elements of an aid program's design that deserve close attention. These elements include being country-driven, using flexible and tailored approaches, and using peer-to-peer learning opportunities.
These three elements are not the only way that an aid program can help support capacity within a country, but they can be applied to a variety of programs with a broad range of goals, from improving health coverage to strengthening public service delivery.
The agenda at Busan and the outcomes of previous international fora on aid effectiveness demonstrate political support for improving aid delivery through strengthening capacity, but discussions around how that should be done are ad hoc at best. Sharing information on what's working and continuing to closely collaborate with in-country leaders across sectors are some of the best ways to close the gap between high level commitments and action on the ground.
To learn more about R4D's work in capacity building, read "Designing Development Programs to Build Capacity: Emerging Experience from the Results for Development Institute."
David de Ferranti is president of Results for Development Institute. The co-author of this blog, Aarthi Rao, is program officer at Results for Development Institute.