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Capacity development

The 7 habits of highly successful international development organisations

  • by Startnetwork
  • 18 Nov 14

Blog Post

In February 2014 the Capable Partners Learning Agenda on Local Organization Capacity Development published a fascinating report investigating the degree of alignment between local organizations and pro-national policy shifts in a major donor (in this case USAID). This is a broad ranging study which took place over 16 months between May 2012 and September 2013. Over 600 people from 325 organizations in 9 countries were interviewed, and the literature review alone consisted of over 250 articles and reports dating back to the 1980s. The report pack includes case studies, a historical report on USAID’s capacity development efforts and a fascinating exploration into using organizational network analysis in local capacity development. It is fair to say it is a deep mine of rich data.

The report highlights the worrying reflection that all good development literature and thinking calls for a fundamentally different approach to aid and to capacity development than what currently prevails in donor operations. The report makes many interesting recommendations and a side report arguing for a systems perspective to local capacity development is a must read for anyone involved in capacity building or development (see footnote ii).

These kind of rigorous investigations are what are needed at the moment. The international humanitarian community is reflecting on some of its shortcomings. There is a shared understanding that changes are needed in the way that the international community approaches or relates to local capacity in humanitarian situations. There is a growing acknowledgement that international organizations need to rethink their actions and transform their management model from one of delivering services to one of support and local capacity-building.

Part of this is the understanding that INGOs need to get better at partnership practices if the speed, quality and effectiveness of aid is to improve. INGOs will not be able to address the challenges of the 21st century as single organizations. Whether this is large scale collaboration at a global level or partnering with local organizations that are better placed to deliver quick and appropriate aid, collaboration is a must if we are to take gains to scale.  A community of practice around partnerships and local capacity in emergencies has been set up and hosted by ALNAP to develop knowledge and learning in this area.

In the executive summary of the report there is an interesting table highlighting the 7 habits of highly successful international organizations as it relates to partnership and capacity development (see below).

The first habit for example highlights a lesson that appears in almost every major evaluation or humanitarian response from the last decade – that of the need to engender local ownership – but which appears to have failed to be acted upon by the international community. For ownership to truly take place, then control needs to be relinquished.

But this raises the questions - how can control be relinquished to local actors when coordination meetings frequently take place in languages that are not local, when responses are led by expatriate staff who are not local, and investment in local capacity through the humanitarian financing architecture is inaccurately measured and scandalously low[i]?

Habit number 3 is also extremely interesting because it places INGOs in a delicate ecosystem, which is a way of thinking that could be healthy for the humanitarian system.

Rather than the western-led, top down model which is currently driven by a closed group of the “usual suspects”, the international community should view the humanitarian endeavor in terms of the urgent need to support and catalyse diversity and decentralisation in the ecosystem. It is like this that the international community is more likely to innovate and promote fresh and more appropriate thinking.

Instead of seeing themselves as direct delivery channels and their local partners simply as contractors, INGOs could usefully see their future contributions in-country in terms of facilitating and catalysing social bonding, supporting the development and creation of social capital and promoting diversity of actors in these delicate in-country ecosystems.[ii]

While it could be argued that these 7 habits don’t go far enough - for example one could argue that a good habit for INGOs to take up would be being measured on how well they complement and support the efforts of others, rather than how well they carry out direct delivery[iii] – these habits represent an excellent starting point in the debate about the future role of INGOs in humanitarian response and how they can change their own capacity, and support that of those they work with, to improve the speed, quality and effectiveness of aid.

To this end, habit 7 is a timely reminder of a call to the international community to “work oneself out of a job” which was a familiar refrain a few years back. While a perfectly understandable sentiment, they key to this refrain is the implication it has for humanitarian organisations and the sector.

While there will always be the need for an international surge capacity to support those situations when national capacity is breached for whatever reason, the international community would do well to begin dialogue around how to realign its business model. The idea of an international community that works in a model of subsidiarity - where the local leads and the international supports – is a concept well worth pursuing, whatever the implications.

The 7 habits of highly successful international development organizations


  1. They take “ownership” seriously – once they engage in a relationship and commit support they begin to relinquish control
  2. In seeking partners, they look first for qualities like passion, refusal to become dependent and a strong, supportive constituency
  3. They put part of their focus on strengthening the civil society infrastructure, from the human resource pool to the legal and regulatory regime, to philanthropic space, to certification protocols, etc – instead of individual organizations
  4. If they choose to engage in relationships with local organizations they recognize that this requires time; they invest people and money (in that order) over extended periods
  5. They define risk in terms of lost opportunity for learning and impact, not just in terms of money
  6. They use measures that assess change in terms of those served, not in short term quantitative results
  7. They develop an internal culture that takes seriously the goal of “working ourselves out of a job,” and accept the implications of that goal

[i] According to the GHA 2014 report in 2012 less than 2.3% of humanitarian assistance to NGOs went to local and national NGOs

[ii] The report “New Directions in Local Capacity Development: Embracing a systems perspective” gives a good introduction into ecosystems thinking in capacity development; November 2013

[iii] An argument made in this 2012 Oxfam International report “Crisis in a new world order” Cairns, Edmund

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  • by Startnetwork