The Business Case for Capacity Building

By Millie Adam Posted March 21, 2016 on CAWST’s blog

A growing list of reports argue for increased emphasis and investment in capacity building for international development. That’s a good thing. Why then has that increased attention largely failed to catalyze funders and implementers to make greater investments in capacity building?

Capacity building is too often treated like a minor add-on to an infrastructure project, thought of as an added cost, or not budgeted or planned for until partway through a project when the gap in capacity becomes glaringly apparent.

Changing this mindset requires a paradigm-shift. Capacity building is a fundamental part of development that doesn’t simply take funds away from “real”/tangible results, but rather helps achieve targets and maintain outcomes.

To deliver sustained water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services to all by 2030, significant and meaningful investments in capacity building are needed from funders and implementers, in  parallel with hardware investments.

The need for capacity building is clear and well-documented. Less so a clear case that lays out the benefits of investing in capacity building. There are five key benefits to investing in capacity building that should motivate donors and investors to ensure capacity building is a significant part of any initiative they are supporting.

1. Universal WASH coverage by 2030 is not achievable with current human resources

The scale of the need alone makes the case for capacity building. As outlined by the IWA’s report An Avoidable Crisis: WASH Human Resource Capacity Gaps in 15 Developing Economies, “There are not enough appropriately skilled water professionals to support the attainment of universal access to safe water and sanitation”. Furthermore, the current formal systems for training will not produce enough people by 2030, so the human capacity gap threatens the success of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As the UN-Water Means of Implementation states, “Investment in capacity-building has been a major challenge facing many countries and has to be addressed if the Goals are to be met.”

The UN-Water GLAAS 2012 report (chapter four) reported that less than 20 per cent of respondent countries consider the supply of skilled labour and technicians adequately developed to meet the needs in rural sanitation.

2. Capacity building increases the quality of implementation

WASH practitioners often run into problems they are unable to solve on their own, thus hindering or halting a program; or they unknowingly implement incorrectly. Building the capacity of field workers increases their ability to:

  • Evaluate options and select appropriate technologies
  • Properly construct and install technologies
  • Work with the community to create demand and change behaviour
  • Be active, informed participants in the WASH sector who strengthen and scale-up programs or approaches.

If field workers are doing the above things well, then people will have access to high quality, locally appropriate WASH technologies that they want and use. Further, decision-making around WASH becomes a discussion with local stakeholders as opposed to a decision handed down from above, ensuring that WASH programs continue to serve the needs of end users.

A 2010 Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) technical paper, “Case Study on Sustainability of Rural Sanitation Marketing in Vietnam”, points to the importance of capacity building of practitioners. The case study looked at rural sanitation marketing in Vietnam and found that initial success of trained promoters and providers led others to build toilets for sale; the quality of construction and user satisfaction both declined.

3. Capacity building makes interventions more sustainable

Programs need to be driven at the outset by local organizations on the ground: those who have the mandate to provide WASH services to their communities, who understand the local context and challenges, who take ownership of the services and who will still be there long after the rest of us have moved on. In many cases, those with the mandate don’t have the skills and knowledge they need to do the best job that they can and want to do. Building the capacity of those organizations translates to:

  • Better decisions
  • Higher adoption and sustained use
  • Ability to overcome challenges and adapt to changing circumstances
  • Ongoing delivery and maintenance of services for the long term
  • Disaster resilience
  • A slow but pragmatic exit strategy for those of us who aren’t local organizations.

The WSP technical paper on rural sanitation marketing referred to above concluded that the approach may not be sustained and expanded in the long term without institutionalized capacity building for promoters and providers (among other things).  Similarly, building capacity at the community level increases correct, consistent and continued use of WASH technologies. A key conclusion from the recent Cochrane review on water quality interventions was that interventions that achieved a higher compliance led to greater health impacts. In contrast, some technologies that performed well in controlled test settings achieved lower health impacts. From this, we can infer the importance of not only choosing appropriate technologies, but also building the capacity of local actors to effectively operate and maintain these technologies over time.

4. Capacity building can reach the hardest to reach

The SDGs compel us to reach the poorest and those in vulnerable situations, which the MDGs did not reach in equal numbers. There is growing evidence supporting a renewed focus on those who are hardest to reach, such as UN-Water arguing that targeting the poorest 40 per cent of the population yields the biggest gains.

The 2014 GLAAS report argued that current funding isn’t going to those most in need. “If plans exist for reducing inequalities in access by targeting disadvantaged groups, the outcomes are commonly left unmonitored,” the report says. “Less than half of countries track progress in extending sanitation and drinking-water services to the poor.” The report went on to add that “the vast majority of those without improved sanitation are poorer people living in rural areas. Progress on rural sanitation — where it has occurred — has primarily benefitted the non-poor, resulting in inequalities.”

In many cases, unserved people are dispersed, living in challenging conditions or have no legal tenure. In these situations, large scale infrastructure solutions either aren’t appropriate or aren’t affordable. To reach these people with WASH services, we need a variety of technologies and approaches and we need to work with different types of organizations; both require increased capacity across a range of players.

  • Capacity building enables many small projects using a variety of technologies and approaches that can be adapted to those challenging situations
  • Capacity building enables the organizations with the best likelihood of success to participate in WASH services (including small, local organizations, and those who might not focus on WASH, but who have strong relationships with vulnerable groups and who best understand their complex context)
  • Capacity building enables the vulnerable or disadvantaged to actively participate in WASH programs and services

5. Capacity building addresses the gender gap

One of the guiding principles of the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development is that “Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water” and that to implement this principle, we must “equip and empower women to participate at all levels”. A reality check from the GLAAS 2012 report: “Half of the GLAAS respondent countries reported that women make up less than 10% of the professional/managerial staff”.  We all know the critical role of women in water. Building their capacity to fully participate not only works toward closing gender gaps, but also leads to better results for WASH programs.

According to an ADB gender equality results case study, significant participation of women (>40%) in preconstruction and postconstruction training on how “to plan, construct, manage, operate, and maintain water supply schemes and sanitation facilities […] equipped women with necessary skills and knowledge. This enabled them to engage more effectively in committees taking decisions related to the operation and management of water supply systems, undertaking maintenance with support from trained VMWs, and raising monthly tariffs.”

The 2012 GLAAS report profiles Ethiopia’s health extension programme. It was launched in 2003 in response to a lack of trained health workers; by 2009, there were 30 000 health workers. Women who have more than 10 years of formal education and who want to work in their communities are trained on family health, hygiene and environmental sanitation, and health education. “The success of this programme is a result of investment in training by donors, widespread acceptance within communities and investment in information systems on family health, demographic data and use of services.”

In short, capacity building is a good investment

Failure is costly, and without capacity building projects are more likely to fail. The Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) found in 2007 that an average of 36 per cent of hand-pumps across 21 countries in Africa were non-functioning. That represents a total investment of between $US1.2 and $US1.5 billion over 20 years. The topic is covered in this Triple-S Briefing.

Capacity building lays the groundwork for well-implemented WASH services which should increase adoption, extend the life of interventions and improve quality of implementation resulting in larger health impacts.

We all seem to recognize that capacity building needs to happen, and yet we consistently fail to put enough resources toward it. Our hope is that laying out the case for capacity building will help those who know it needs to happen argue for its inclusion and resourcing, but also that it will refine the way we do capacity building to ensure that we are in fact realizing the above benefits.

In CAWST’s experience of supporting 970 implementing organizations in 78 countries, the benefits don’t end there; we have seen how capacity building catalyzes action and then empowers people to take further actions, as well as how it provides opportunities for those with new skills, knowledge and confidence.

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