“We all have a lot to learn”: Mutual capacity strengthening as a starting place for locally led development

June 2, 2023
Author: Grace Boone

In today’s development sector, the movement toward ‘locally led development’, ‘localization’, ‘decolonizing aid’, and ‘shifting power’ is evolving rapidly in important ways. As crises and conflict become more complex, and shocks from pandemics to climate change reveal compounding risks for societies, funders are beginning to respond to calls for flexible and unrestricted funding and INGOs are starting to look inwards at their ways of working

There’s a lot to look at. Many INGOs benefit from the structures of a system established during World War II that values Western knowledge and vision of development. The growing body of work, including from within the development sector, is shining a spotlight on how white supremacy and colonial frameworks continue to hold strong. INGOs interested in transforming these systems and also being effective for complex needs are actively grappling with how to let go of power responsibly. 

Local capacity strengthening isn’t the full answer

Many INGOs are turning to local capacity strengthening as a longer-term solution to increase locally led development and support local sustainability and impact.¹ The challenge is that these well-intended efforts often skip the step of understanding the interests of organizations in their own contexts (referred to as local organizations in this blog) as well as the root cause of why they might want to strengthen specific capacities. Too often there is an unexamined, often paternalizing assumption about local capacity strengthening needing to focus on helping groups prepare to receive direct funding or be viewed as ‘legitimate’ in the first place. This thinking implies the sole obstacle to locally led development is the capacity of local organizations, reinforcing existing power dynamics. Likewise it assumes international organizations have all the skills and knowledge needed.

As an INGO leader shared recently, “when we presented our strategy to the teams… let’s just say, it hit me that we all have a lot to learn.” As INGOs look inward, more and more are identifying mentality and knowledge gaps in themselves and their own capacity strengthening needs to partner more equitably, fund more sustainability, work more responsibly with their local counterparts, and ultimately better fulfill their missions. 

Beyond individual INGOs, the international development system needs to strengthen its collective capacity to make locally led development a reality. Let’s face it: The root of the problem is the international development system, not local organizations’ capacity

So what is the answer?

The Stopping As Success (SAS+) consortium is actively learning how the mainstream narrative on local capacity strengthening falls short, as well as glimmers of a more effective way. Applying the lessons from global case studies with diverse local and international partners, the project is currently accompanying organizations and partnerships, learning alongside them about what it takes to responsibility transition from international to local leadership. One big theme is how many organizations confuse local capacity strengthening with transition thinking. 

GLID Burundi is a case in point, illustrating how international agencies conduct capacity ‘building’ activities that are customized to specific skills and systems, perpetuating power imbalances rather than fostering independence. This ultimately hinders the ability of local organizations to become competitors with INGOs in their respective fields.

It often goes something like this: “If only our local partner can get to [insert benchmark here], then we will be able to get out of the way and transition responsibly.” Or “Before we can plan for the transition, we need to ensure our local partner has the capacity to [insert criteria here].” The issue is that international partners and donors are primarily the ones defining the timeframes and benchmarks and holding the decision-making power about whether the benchmarks are met, which can delay transition commitments by INGOs. Poorly planned transitions miss important opportunities to shift power and can reinforce existing dynamics where the local partner is reliant on one-way support and not in a decision-making role.

SAS+ has also seen effective transitions– when an international organization responsibly gets out of the way to make space for local leadership– create a new and distinct opportunity for learning by all involved. What mutual capacity strengthening looks like varies as widely as the contexts and partners involved. It could be joint learning about scenario planning and strategy design in order to envision a responsible transition and create the steps that make sense for the partners in their context. It could be financial sustainability in new models of partnering that transform typical INGO (prime) and local partner (sub) arrangements. What is common across the examples is a different mentality about capacity strengthening: there is room for both international and local partners to be transformed.

So how to achieve this transformation?

If international partners had more practice and abilities to make collaborative decisions, fund flexibly, and partner in ways that were genuinely complementary and led by local partners, the impact on efforts to shift power in development would be tremendous. Even when organizations and partnerships aren’t actively going through a process to transition leadership, there are critical elements of transition thinking to apply. The SAS+ research and accompaniment work – from Guatemala to Nigeria – offers insights about effective practice, captured in Guidelines for Joint Learning and Mutual Capacity Strengthening. Highlights for partners to consider when planning mutual capacity strengthening include:

  1. Listen deeply: Before setting capacity strengthening priorities, create intentional processes for seeking to understand each partner’s existing capacities, strengths, and goals for growth. Once there is shared understanding, develop capacity strengthening activities that support each partner’s goals and considers their contexts. 
  2. Language frames opportunity: At the beginning of a partnership, create time and space to explore preferred language/terms and develop a shared understanding of those terms. Ensure that respectful, and jointly defined, language is used to frame mutual capacity strengthening opportunities, consistent with all aspects of the partnership. Dedicate ongoing time to reflect on the agreed language as it might change over time.
  3. Capacity exists, at all levels: Acknowledge that knowledge, skills and critical expertise already exists within each partner, and let curiosity guide exploring how those diverse capacities can support a successful partnership, program, and transition. 
  4. Ensure roles are clear in order to work in a spirit of complementarity: Leverage each partner’s strengths and capacities  working effectively as a team. Ensure there are clear roles for each partner and team member, and consider using visioning tools or reframing the familiar SWOT analysis from understanding risk to understanding what each partner brings as resources for the collaboration. 
  5. Acknowledge and address power: The dynamics surrounding a partnership and joint programming, including organizational and contextual realities that can shift dramatically, can have a major impact on transition thinking and the ability to fulfill commitments to locally led development. Consider starting with a context analysis, power analysis and capacity assessment to inform the joint design of capacity strengthening and learning activities and determination of roles. 
  6. Provide specific, dedicated, and frequent support for sustainability: Leveraging and strengthening capacities and tailoring support as needs evolve is not an easy road. Create space for planning, as well as experimentation, and build on the approaches that work for partners. Dedicate time and resources so leadership and organizational capacities feel sustainable to all partners. Such investments will outlive any partnerships/program once the funding ends.
  7. Make the case to funders: Having intention and the flexibility to adapt capacity strengthening approaches takes both financial support and a mentality shift for many donors. In project design as well as influencing opportunities with donors, advocate for tailored, flexible, and mutual opportunities for learning and capacity strengthening. 

Connect to support transformation

Mutual capacity strengthening is one tool in the shifting power toolbox, and yet the mentality it represents is essential and it’s potential is immense. We welcome further conversation on this theme. If you would like support in your work or have additional lessons or learnings to share, let us know. You can also connect directly with SAS+ Program Manager, Grace Boone at [email protected]


¹ For how SAS+ defines these terms, refer to our FAQ.