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Personal change: the underlying goal of capacity building

[Editor’s Note: Hans Gutbrod is a consultant and think tank researcher with a special interest in capacity building. Hans has worked with research organizations in a broad variety of contexts, is currently working with the anticorruption commission of East Timor, and holds a PhD from the London School of Economics. This is where you find him on Twitter.]

Lessons Learned on Promoting Better Links between Research and Policy in Latin America is an excellent piece, and I wish that as many people in development as possible read it, in order to improve capacity building. I think the paper provides a powerful synthesis of lessons that many in the field also learned over time, often painfully. Summarizing these reflections in 20 lessons is useful. The piece is short enough to be accessible, and long enough to engage people in thinking through key issues.

So what thoughts come to mind on reading it?

It strikes me that there is a distinction between teaching people how to solve a specific problem (how, say, to extract data) versus building people’s capacity more broadly, for example attempting to make them into more successful policy researchers. The first one is comparatively easy. It is a skill that adds to an existing set. The second one is hard, since it addresses practice. The distinction can be framed in these easy-hard terms: making attainment easier by showing steps or even a shortcut versus making performance harder by showing how higher levels require additional effort.

To meaningfully discuss the challenge it may be useful to reflect on the broader framework for these questions. Here is my take, abbreviated for practical purposes.

Becoming an excellent policy researcher is not about building skills. Arguably, it is about changing the person. Becoming a professional (and a professional researcher) changes the way we think and talk about many topics. We may still have the same passion, the same sense of irony, and the same way of relating to individuals – but we channel them differently. How we will approach and discuss certain problems, even with old friends and family, will be reframed and expanded. It’s also a change in what we value. An excellent policy researcher will put a particularly type of inquiry and judgment above the ideal of loyalty, and conversely understand that there is good reason to keep learning. (Classical trajectory: undergraduates always impressed by the last argument they read; postgraduate students routinely dismissive; another stage achieved when deciding to focus on identifying merit.)

I do not think there is sufficient appreciation of this broader framework in many discussions of capacity building, which sometimes seem to see a good policy researcher as a Pavlovian bundle of trained skills.

If there isn’t always sufficient appreciation in the field, there is ample literature to back up the potentially uncomfortable point about personal change. David Perkins has come up with the dispositional theory of thinking, which highlights that we often neglect motivation, the willingness of people to push themselves a bit harder which is essential for sustaining an improvement in performance. Or, more classically, you can trace these ideas back to Aristotle and its best modern restatement is in Alisdair McIntyre’s After Virtue, which provides a framework for thinking about excellence and for practice. My last post on Enrique’s blog went in that direction, suggesting that policy research institutions can be well served by articulating their idea of excellence.

McIntyre points out that excellence and practice are part of many bureaucratic vocabularies. Yet as McIntyre says, without knowing how these terms fit together, you go through motions although in your heart of hearts you know that what you are doing does not add up.  The reason, for example, why “best practice” did not deliver on its promise is that practices are embedded in the ways people make sense of the world and their social relations. They are not something you carry across the room and plug in.

Thinking about capacity building that way is not a matter of out-Platoing each other by philosophical cave-light. Rather, I think the issue is entirely practical. One might as well approach the question from the perspective of a carpenter that takes pride in her job, and reach similar conclusions. After all, that carpenter will be familiar with the challenge of getting apprentices to appreciate the intrinsic value of quality in the absence of immediate reward.

Another reason why this reflection need not be philosophical is because comparison is equally instructive. In addition to reflecting on the valuable program that CIPPEC and GDNet ran, there is much to learn from how other fields build the performance of their teams, and that, too, is a thread that could help structure and deepen the debate around the great collaborative synthesis that Vanesa Weyrauch has put together.

All this put into contemporary language: is capacity an app or an operating system? I think it has too often been treated as the former, and this is one of the reasons why, when you get down to it, so many efforts have little to show for the thousands of dollars they invested.

More comes to mind but for now I will leave it at that, and look forward to the debate.