The new local capacity development policy of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) will very likely set the tone for how its partners and other development institutions begin to re-imagine local capacity building. At both national and subnational levels, one actor will be crucial to the success of these efforts: the government.
As the leader of an organization devoted to training and empowering the next generation of African civil servants, I invite USAID to give careful thought to the role that governments and state agencies will play in its successful implementation of this policy at the local level, and consider the importance of strong state structures as it is finalized.
USAID’s consultation process by itself has been commendable, demonstrating commitment towards an ideal development landscape where there is geographical and stakeholder equity among the voices involved in defining global policy. It is encouraging to see the actual beneficiaries of programs brought into the policy development process—a human-centred approach to design thinking. The USAID draft policy document explicitly reinforces this idea. The policy clarifies that capacity development is not always the necessary programmatic approach and, in fact, “USAID should not approach every challenge or context with the assumption that local actors lack capacity.”
The “systems analysis” included in the draft policy will enable the implementation of targeted capacity development by identifying the exact capacity gaps and the most relevant actors to these efforts in USAID partner countries. Although its role is not thoroughly fleshed out in the current draft of the policy, the successes of USAID’s government-to-government program model demonstrate the importance of governments for a locally sustained approach to capacity development. There are also other specific ways governments are pivotal toward this type of initiative.
Let’s start with the basics. The foundation for organically building local capacity is a sound educational system that gives students the skills and knowledge required to excel in future jobs, whether it is operating heavy machinery, engineering water systems or leading the government. The expression “capacity building” is not commonly used in countries that rank highly in terms of quality of undergraduate and graduate education. This is because the training and scholarship received from academic institutions is deemed sufficiently comprehensive for student’s future careers. The role of governments is obvious in this respect as they design education policies, create curricula, and have the ultimate responsibility for the quality of education, the level of access and broad educational outcomes.
Furthermore, beyond merely shaping the education sector, government legislation, policies and regulations also influence how people living with disability, internally displaced persons and other marginalized groups are integrated into local systems where there is a history of systemic discrimination. USAID’s draft policy rightfully acknowledges the need for inclusivity, but I would encourage future drafts to specifically pay attention to the role governments play to achieve it.
As already alluded to, capacity exists in many developing countries but there is a “market failure”—a distribution problem—that concentrates human capital in some sectors and locations. While a remote village in Ghana may not have qualified doctors and the obvious solution would be to train and build the capacity of new doctors, there might be hundreds of qualified doctors in Ghanaian cities (and abroad) competing for limited opportunities. Getting doctors—and engineers and social workers and accountants—to the right location is influenced by a variety of factors such as the level of compensation, existing infrastructure, and social amenities.
All of these are determined to a great extent by the government. For example, if there are good transportation systems connecting cities with rural areas and if doctors’ compensation in rural communities includes positive incentives that take account of their work locations, there is likely to be a more equitable distribution of talent.
The other way governments influence local capacity development is leading by example in how they attract, develop and retain talent to build their own capacity. My organization, Emerging Public Leaders, for instance, has worked with the governments of Liberia, Ghana and Kenya to bolster the capacity of young public servants through bespoke training designed to be responsive to the needs of the government agency they serve. By aligning our training approach with mentorship, performance management and continuous professional development, our Fellows have an increased capacity to deliver work competently.
While this aligns with the vision expressed in USAID’s policy for capacity development to transcend merely instructive training activities and embrace “participatory approaches for understanding the aspirations, goals, and needs of local actors within their context, and strengthening collective capacity across an array of local actors to influence change,” the draft policy should more intentionally recognize the role of government as a dominant actor when it comes to holistically driving capacity development in communities.
For these reasons and more, the civil servants and state institutions that make up governments are crucial for local capacity development. This is especially true in contexts of state fragility. Without strong state structures, local capacity development may not be very sustainable over the long term. Bad policies and practices would negatively impact and undermine these efforts. USAID has developed a robust and praiseworthy policy, but fully appreciating the varied ways partner governments can influence USAID’s success will make the policy even more comprehensive and help ensure it is truly effective.
As Emerging Public Leaders, we welcome future opportunities to continue to engage with USAID in rolling out and realizing the aspirations of this landscape-shifting global policy on capacity development.
Yawa Hansen-Quao has spent her career unlocking opportunities for women and youth in Africa. As executive director of Emerging Public Leaders, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, Yawa works to create better governance in African nations by investing in young people in public service. Years ago, Yawa’s family was forced to flee Ghana to escape the political turmoil brought on by a military coup. Her experience inspires her passion for improved governance, peacebuilding and the deepening of democracy in Africa.