Capacity Development: a Process for Change

Through capacity development SDC strengthens people and institutions in partner countries to improve their living conditions on their own. Switzerland’s international development cooperation considers capacity development essential to poverty reduction.

SDC focus

The SDC approach to capacity development is rooted in principles such as ownership, flexibility, process-orientation, and subsidiarity. Operational support is country specific and responds to partner countries’ development priorities. As much as possible, it is built upon local expertise.

The development of competent institutions – central to sound management of public resources and effective service delivery – is a cross-cutting issue for Swiss development cooperation.

Partners are the agents of change. Swiss cooperation has a long tradition of working in partnerships. Partnerships are flexible and evolving, built with local actors – governmental or nongovernmental – who are able to initiate, support and follow up on their own process of change.

In order to build capacity, mutual trust between the parties is crucial. Capacity development is to a large extent a matter of how development cooperation is understood and practised. For Switzerland’s international cooperation, capacity development is both a means and an end in itself.

Interest in capacity development increased in the 1990s as a consequence of the shortcomings in development assistance in preceding years: the simple technical transfer of knowledge and development models from North to South was not enough to cope with most development challenges. This led to a paradigm shift: from an approach based on technical capacities to one emphasising existing human and organisational skills with a focus on the partner countries’ ownership and leadership.

What does capacity development mean and what are capacities?

Capacity development is a process to improve performance at the individual, organizational, network and broader system levels with the aim of increasing management and resource potentials.

Capacity encompasses both the hard skill (specific technical or specialized knowledge and know-how, such as finance or infrastructure) and “soft” or social skills (communication, leadership, etc.) that enable individuals, organizations, networks and broader social systems to carry out their functions and to achieve their development objectives.

The importance of capacity development in international cooperation

The consensus on the importance of capacity development was articulated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the 2005 Paris Declaration and in the 2008 Accra Agenda for Action. Today, the development of capacities and competencies is a major challenge for attaining the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and an important concern for donor harmonisation and alignment.

SDC’s understanding of capacity development

SDC uses a metaphor to describe the interdependency of the four dimensions of capacity development.

Capacity development is pictured as a butterfly. The four wings each correspond to one of four levels: the individual, the networks, the organisation and the system. The butterfly orients itself on potentials and opportunities and can only fly if it moves its wings in a coordinated manner. Capacity development leads to empowerment which is represented by the body of the butterfly.

A few key challenges

Whose capacities and for what purpose?

Capacity development is about change and transformation – individual, in the organisation or within society. It is also about values: whose capacities are to be developed and for what purpose? Capacity development is primarily in the responsibility of people and institutions in the partner countries who must lead the process of change by setting their own development objectives within their political and governance systems. Ownership is a prerequisite for capacity development.

Clarification of roles and responsibilities of the parties

Donor agencies are external actors, supporting their partners in their tasks. This requires context-specific knowledge and understanding as well as donor flexibility to adapt approaches to partner’s needs.

And the results: how is capacity development measured?

Capacity development is a long-term endeavour that often follows unpredictable trajectories. Tangible results are difficult to demonstrate in the short run. Short-term process indicators and progress-markers do, however, assist in documenting changes in the long run.


SDC Capacity Development concept, Working Paper, April 2006
Working Paper (PDF, 11 Pages, 140.7 kB, English)

Peer Review of the Development Cooperation Policies and Programmes of Switzerland
Development Co-operation Directorate/Development Assistance Committee, Berne, 2009
(PDF, 1.2 MB, English)

Inventory of Donor Approaches to Capacity Development, what we are learning
including Switzerland fact sheet on Capacity Development - OECD/DAC, Capacity Development team, updated October 2010
(PDF, 1.0 MB, English)

“Getting from skills to better performance – what do we know?”
Nils Boesen, 11.06.210
(PDF, 4 Pages, 245.8 kB, English)

“Training and Beyond: Seeking Better Practices for Capacity Development”
Jenny Pearson, LenCD/OECD Development Cooperation, Working Papers, No. 1, April 4, 2011
(PDF, 56 Pages, 899.1 kB, English)

Tools, Techniques – Learning Activities
LenCD, 2010
(PDF, 256.2 kB, English)