Beyond capacity building: Is enough being done?

Wednesday, 21 January, 2009 - 09:39

We must look at what community members have gained through their life experiences, and to integrae with what development practioners have to offer. We need to take into account the value of the social wealth of the communities we deal with, and to augment – rather than “build” – their capacities.

In his 2003 State of the Nation Address, President Thabo Mbeki remarked: “As we continue to respond to the challenge to put our shoulders to the wheel to accelerate the pace of change, we reiterate the appeal to all our people to sustain the Letsema Volunteer Campaign and respond to the call – vuk’uzenzele!”

Partly in response to this statement, thousands of people throughout the country established community organisations for income-generating purposes due to the high unemployment rate in South Africa. These community projects were mostly initiated by community-based organisations (CBOs) and co-operatives (co-ops). CBOs are formed by community members in response to the needs and challenges facing their communities in an attempt to address the issues themselves and they work at grassroots level in their own localities. A co-operative is a business owned and controlled by the very customers who use its services.

Many of these community projects have a large number of members with low literacy levels. Most of the members battle to read or write. These projects are set up by people who have one goal in mind – to generate enough income to be able to feed their families and send their children to school.

In some instances the members are well-versed in their technical trade but lack adequate organisational development skills. This creates difficulties for the community projects in accessing funds and support from development agencies and funders due to their non-conformity to the rules and regulations that have been put in place for eligibility to funding.

Development practitioners seem to be aware of this problem and have identified capacity building as the appropriate intervention measure, and as a result South Africa is allocating a lot of resources to roll out the capacity-building programme. The National Development Agency (NDA) is one of the domestic organisations promoting capacity building for community projects. The NDA focuses on issues of strategic leadership, robust governance and management structures, sufficient resources as well as effective systems, over and above skills development.

However some believe that the term “capacity building” needs to be reviewed. This comes from the premise that by using “capacity building”, we automatically assume that the members of the community projects we deal with have no capacity whatsoever; that development practitioners come in to construct something from scratch. This appears to undermine and disregard members’ existing indigenous knowledge.

It is perhaps time to look at what these members have attained though their life experiences, and to integrate this with what the development practitioner has to offer. We need to take into account the value of the social wealth of the communities we deal with, and to augment – rather than “build” – their capacities.

Capacity-building programmes are usually carried out over a long-term period. The development practitioner will hold periodic meetings – in the form of training, coaching and/or mentoring – with the targeted projects throughout the contract term.

If the capacity building requires members to be literate, those who are literate will benefit while the rest – possibly the majority – remain unempowered. A problem occurs when the few who have been empowered decide to pursue other opportunities, taking with them the knowledge and skills acquired.

A crucial point to be pondered by development practitioners is whether “capacity building” is the answer. There is no doubt that providing community projects with organisational development skills is a necessity. The question is whether capacity building is the ideal solution, and what development practitioners are doing to make it more effective.

Nangamso Magadla is a former Project Co-ordinator at Afesis-corplan. This article is reproduced with permission from Afesis-corplan.

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