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Understanding capacity development

Capacity Development is key to the long-term success and sustainability of programmes. UNDP’s Capacity Development for Resilient and Sustainable Systems for Health Strategy adopts an integrated approach to developing stronger country health systems.

The 2030 Agenda provides an opportunity to take steps to build better systems for health – by strengthening health systems to achieve universal health coverage (UHC). UNDP works to reduce the legal, policy, human rights and gender equality barriers to access essential health-care services, and to develop resilient and sustainable health systems through capacity development of national systems.

What is capacity development?

Capacity development is a process of change. It is often equated with additional staff, training and workshops. While individual training and workshops may be part of a comprehensive capacity development plan, they are not sufficient by themselves. For example, training an individual does not ensure that this training is then implemented in the workplace. Capacity development must be broader to address improvements in systems for health to improve performance and ensure sustainability.

It should assess how the system is currently working, and what areas need support; for example: developing and implementing health information systems, training staff in analysing data, developing policies and procedures for strong financial management, or improving the supply and distribution of key health products.

Capacity development in the broader development context

It can be difficult to distinguish between capacity development and development. Capacity development serves a development purpose but leads to change that is implemented and achieved by those it is meant to benefit, which ensures ownership and sustainability.
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As an example, contracting overseas staff to manage and run a five-year programme management unit that operates outside the existing structures of a ministry of health may serve a valuable “development” purpose, but it is not “capacity development”. This management unit may be necessary for a short time to ensure essential services are delivered and/or to respond to a crisis but can erode national capacity in the long-term.
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Capacity assessments and risk assessments

Capacity development is a way to manage risk and capacity assessment exercises are often equated with risk assessments, as they both identify areas that need to be addressed. While the objectives are similar, they are not identical.
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The objective of a capacity assessment (led by the organization itself) is to find areas in need of strengthening; while the objective of a risk assessment (usually led by an external organization) is to focus on the financial interests of this external organization to identify the risks and put mitigating measures in place. This difference should be clearly understood by all stakeholders, as when a capacity assessment is being facilitated by an external group the target organization may perceive it as a risk assessment. Capacity development efforts can be used to manage risk but, more critically, to ensure longer-term systems strengthening and sustainability.
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An example of an external risk assessment is the Global Fund assessment of potential Principal Recipients (PRs), which is carried out by the Local Fund Agent (LFA). The Global Fund assessment is similar to a capacity assessment, however the objective of the LFA assessment is risk-based and aims to determine the risks for the Global Fund.

Focus areas for capacity development

Central to the UNDP capacity development strategy is a strong focus on strengthening national systems for health. The approach ensures that capacity gaps are identified in focus areas, analysed and fed into prioritized capacity development plans, which are implemented and monitored against performance indicators.

Introduction to capacity development planning and assessment

Key resources

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