A systems view to building the capacity of the aid industry to build capacity

No one likes being set up to fail. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the situation faced by those working on state capacity building initiatives around the world, according to a recently released report by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium.

The six-year study of eight capacity building programs in fragile states finds that capacity building usually involves applying a technical solution – such as delivering trainings – to what is a complex, adaptive problem. As a result, many programs fail to achieve sustainable success because they overlook the broader political and social dimensions of state fragility.

However, while the report identifies very useful ways to remedy the overly technical approach to capacity building, it undersells the difficulty of doing so. Basically, all of SLRC’s recommendations for how agencies could do better at capacity building are exactly those things that the aid industry is designed to NOT let them do.

Appropriately, the final (and most important) recommendation is to “build the capacity of the aid industry to develop capacity.” Unless the aid industry changes, the ability of any one agency to implement better capacity building is severely constrained.

This is a daunting challenge, and one that The Omidyar Group grapples with. Here are three suggestions – based on our experience of applying systems thinking to the way we work – for how aid organisations can change.

1. See the aid industry as its own complex system

At The Omidyar Group, a couple of teams have taken a complex, dynamic systems view of the aid industry (one such systems map is here, password = Future). This is an example of the first step in building the capacity of the aid industry, which is to shift attention from specific problems that can be projectised into neat, predictable, time bound plans, to the broader systems in which those problems, and the attempts to address them, exist.

2. Capacity development is political: be prepared to negotiate to break out of the old system

This kind of systems map means nothing on its own – the map is not the territory – but it can be a useful tool to reframe how actors in a system might negotiate with each other about how to improve things over time. For example, at the Democracy Fund, when a team did a systems map of Congress, one Hill staffer who reviewed the map said “it freed me from blame.” The systems view made it easier for him to work with people from the other side of the aisle to address issues without assigning blame to others for the problems they experienced. A systems view of the aid industry might have a similar impact on the key actors in the system as they try to renegotiate the terms of capacity building programs.

3. Work to understand the entrenched patterns of behaviours that cause the aid system to behave as it does

A systems view, e.g. a dynamic systems map, can help illuminate key forces or patterns of behavior; both the ones that drive the undesirable aspects of the system, as well as those that contain opportunities to make a highly leveraged improvement in the system. For example, loops 2, 8 to 11, and 13 in the systems map identify systemic forces that limit the ability of actors in the system to do capacity development better. These loops center on the unintended, negative impacts of tighter accountability metrics and the drive for measurable, short-term, quantifiable impacts. And loops 21-24 contain bright spots and other potential areas of the system that might drive reform.
A strong message from the map is the need to develop more holistic, locally led, and longer-term programming. These opportunities offer donors, stakeholders, and implementers incentives and avenues for co-creating approaches to fragility and capacity building. It’s up to each of us, especially donors, to disrupt business as usual and forge a consensus on how to do so. Taking a systems view of the aid industry might be a fruitful first step.

Rob Ricigliano is a Systems & Complexity Coach at The Omidyar Group, where he supports and guides teams within organizations and initiatives in efforts to better understand and effectively engage with dynamic systems. The Systems Practice at The Omidyar Group is built on Rob’s pioneering work using systems and complexity tools in peacebuilding and social change.