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Lesson 15: When defining content for capacity building, engage potential participants from early on

[Editor’s note: This post is part of the ‘Lessons learned’ series on capacity building, which reviews the Spaces for Engagement programme. See Vanesa Weyrauch’s full paper here.]

Identifying the skills to be developed and crafting the adequate content for that purpose are two significant challenges to develop an effective capacity building effort.

Under SFE face-to-face interactions were used as a strategy to further assess demand both in terms of general topics of interest (such as policy influence, how to monitor and evaluate it, communications, etc.) and which skills to develop or strengthen. This was done based on the conviction that we needed to choose topics and skills that were relevant to those whom we wanted to engage in capacity development activities and that were promising in terms of the value they can bring to future actions and interactions around the link between research and policy.

We began by seizing networking opportunities such as regional conferences with members of think tanks from Latin America to ask others about the topics they were interested in this field. We simply asked them to list them and prioritize them.

Notwithstanding, as many who work in this field have alerted, asking others to identify their needs has shortcomes. Alex Ademokun, from the CB group, shared how INASP deals with this challenge:  “The problem with asking people to identify their own skills gaps is that as individuals we are not always aware of skills we are lacking. This may also apply to organisational capacity.  At INASP when we work with organisations we work together to define what these needs are. When working with individuals we try to get participants to produce some output related to the skills that we are trying to develop (for instance if it is a training session on policy brief writing we look at previous output from the individual or team). This may form part of the selection process to ensure the activity meets the needs of participants and sometimes it is a step between selection and the actual activity. It gives us something extra to work with beyond just self-reporting and helps to tackle the issues of over or underestimating ability which occurs with self-reporting”. More information on their needs assessment is available in this previous post at P&I.

In our case, as a consequence of several consultations, we decided to focus on policy influence planning, monitoring and evaluating policy influence and research communications. This decision was based mainly on what potential trainees had revealed but also in our self-assessment on our capacity to generate and share valuable knowledge on these topics (in the case of M&E of policy influence we thought there was a need to adapt existing papers and handbooks to Latin American contexts). Tapping into what we know best or are best at has usually worked as a very effective strategy to decide what we can offer. Finally, we also tried to provide an integral approach that linked the different courses, thus the topics we selected allowed us to also offer participation in the whole series of courses, which could in the future become a longer integrated program on policy influence.

Furthermore, some other potential mechanisms to select topics/skills for that were partially used in our decision making process are:

  • What donors are talking about/concerned about
  • What donors are currently funding
  • Delving deeply into current general concerns and challenges of those who will participate in capacity building
  • Looking at what those we admire or respect are currently doing
  • Filling in gaps (i.e. what almost no one is offering, or where local knowledge has not been yet developed or has not been systematized)

Probably, the right mix of these options varies according to each organisation but one should not lose sight of providing potential participants with a significant role, not only by assessing demand before but also using each training activity as a learning opportunity to refine existing content and even gather new one.