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Capacity building


Capacity building should be a long-term, continuous process, involving the application of a number of very specific techniques to strengthen the performance of the sector in question and also the sector supporting organisations. Capacity building should include utilisation of existing skills, since organisations frequently under-utilise the skills they have.

The concept of capacity building has been current since the UN Water Conference at Mar del Plata in 1977, and its importance has subsequently been reiterated in a number of international fora. Capacity building is among the seven areas for action within national water strategies identified by the UN Secretary-General for the 1990s, with the following aims:

  1. To enhance the capacity for the development and management of water-related programmes, and to strengthen institutions and develop human resources at all levels;
  2. The provision of adequate human resources, with skills appropriate to many scientific, technical, managerial and administrative functions required for the assessment, development, conservation and management of water resources.

An international post-Water Decade Conference in New Delhi in 1990 identified four guiding principles, of which two related to capacity building:

  1. Strong institutions are essential for sustainable development;
  2. Capacity building is necessary to make community management effective.

Most recently, the World Food Summit, Rome, 1996, touched upon aspects of capacity building in its conclusions:

  1. The implications of neglecting food security can be serious, and investment in water infrastructure, continued reform of supporting institutions, and an enabling environment are necessary to improve food production.
  2. In many African countries, security and stability in food supplies in the next century will be closely linked to success in irrigation, and in the management of river basins including those which cross national borders.

The Delft Declaration (IHE/UNDP, 1991) suggested that capacity-building should improve the quality of decision making, sector efficiency and managerial performance in the planning and implementation of programmes and projects, and should be aimed at three levels: sectoral, institutional and individual. It identified the three basic elements of capacity building as:

  1. Creating an enabling environment with appropriate policy and legal frameworks;
  2. Institutional development, including community participation;
  3. Human resources development and strengthening of managerial systems.

The commonly mentioned tools for capacity building include:

  1. Development of tools for monitoring, analysis and management of data;
  2. Development of human resources, enhancement of skills, and adoption of up-to-date thinking;
  3. Reform of structures and systems;
  4. Improvement of the knowledge base.
Capacity building is necessary at all levels in developing countries, but is becoming increasingly important at the local government and community level, as responsibility is devolved to the lowest appropriate level.


Many methods of capacity building are available, suited to different countries and circumstances. Therefore an essential pre-requisite of capacity building in any area is an accurate assessment of the existing situation which can be achieved by undertaking social surveys of the areas concerned and assessment training needs.

Institutional development

Capacity building can also be defined as the development of institutions, their managerial systems and their human resources. Studies therefore need to be undertaken to identify where there are weaknesses and how institutional, legal, regulatory and other constraints can be removed, and also how communities can benefit from institutional strengthening. Methods include:

  1. Review of work procedures, levels of community participation, and the weaknesses and strengths of institutions;
  2. Twinning between developing country and developed country institutions, similar sector agencies and universities, which will help in the provision of up-to-date material and information;
  3. Introduction of reasonable salary scales, incentives and career development opportunities. Professional and financial incentives are important to encourage motivation in staff and therefore promotion pathways in institutions should be understood and promotions encouraged;
  4. Segmentation of responsibilities within organisations to avoid duplication and low morale.


Training programmes need to be seen as an investment in individuals. It is important to undertake a Training Needs Assessment prior to training. Training can be either provided on-the-job, or by using techniques such as: technology transfer activities, workshops, role plays, networking, seminars and short courses. Training should identify and upgrade under­utilised skills as well as provide new skills.


Education should aim to increase the understanding of the local community through the development of useful skills, in conjunction with classroom-based learning. It should not be restricted to conventional methods as different types of education will be needed for different situations. For example, health and hygiene education (see Chapter 12) are important elements of water resources education. The capacity of local educational systems to deliver is the key, and there is a strong need for development of useful skills as well as factual knowledge.

Awareness building and information management

Integral to capacity building is the dissemination of and access to information; this implies improving communications channels and raising awareness. Pilot schemes can be used to demonstrate good practice to local communities and to increase their awareness of new technologies. This should not, however, be seen as a one-way process; communities should also make decision-makers aware of their problems and the constraints preventing effective water management. Information management is an integral part of any capacity-building programme and systems need to be kept up to date to permit an easier and more effective flow of knowledge. A special focus is needed to ensure full community participation (see Chapter 12) with special attention to the involvement of women.

Provision of resources

Well-trained, educated and aware staff will need adequate resources to carry out their responsibilities. The concept of subsidiarity (see Chapter 12) cannot be made operational unless adequate resources are available. Typical resource shortages include transport, inadequate budgets for running costs, computers, software and communications equipment. Capacity building without the provision of resources will be ineffective.

Many models have been created for capacity building both at the institutional and the individual level. However, as all countries and needs differ, a generic model obviously cannot be prescribed which would be successful in all cases.

Studies will be needed to decide what form and mix of capacity building and human resource development will be the most effective in the different countries and circumstances. Information is needed on the existing situation through the use of surveys and assessment of future needs to determine the best interventions.

For example, community participation in development and operation of irrigation schemes or water supplies is important to the effective operation and maintenance of services. However, problems can arise from the fact that in many developing countries stakeholders in positions of authority do not have the capacity for working with the local people. Changes are therefore needed to improve their field approach. The nature of such changes will depend on various factors, including current behavioural norms and authority structures, the nature of the project and the beliefs and attitudes of users.

Further information: A Strategy for Water Sector Capacity Building, IHE/UNDP, 1991.

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