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Capacity support to states in fragile and conflict affected situations: an analytical framework

Summary of research1

Location: Global

What we know:  Strengthening state capacity to deliver services is a common aid initiative in fragile and conflict affected contexts. However, capacity is a vaguely defined concept which makes it difficult to measure.

What this article adds: An analytical framework is proposed that can be used to research efforts to strengthen state capacity.  The concept of capacity is broken down into 5 capabilities. A series of dimensions – state level (individual, organisation, system), socio-political and historical context, and gender issues – should also be considered. Experiences in applying the framework are sought.

State capacity is one of the big questions facing those working within international development, and there remains plenty of uncertainty regarding effective ways of developing the capacity of weak states in a deep and sustained manner. A recent paper sets out an analytical framework that can be used to research international efforts to strengthen the capacity of states to deliver services in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. The overarching research question is how do international actors interact with the state and local-level governance institutions and how successful are international attempts to develop state capacity to deliver social protection, basic services and support to livelihoods? The primary purpose of the framework and the paper is to provide analytical support to researchers to help inform the design of primary research studies, guide analysis of appropriate data, and promote analytical coherence across the different country programmes. 

Despite the remarkable proliferation of capacity building aid initiatives in recent years –particularly in places affected by fragility and conflict, where state weakness is especially pronounced and problematic – there is still much we do not know. Capacity continues to be a fuzzy, slippery and often vaguely defined concept, which makes studying it less than straightforward. The analytical framework set out in the paper can be used to identify existing gaps in state capacity to deliver services and to examine how international actors’ capacity support programmes work in practice, and assess the extent to which they are fit for purpose in a given context. While the framework has been developed with a thematic emphasis on state capacity to carry out service delivery functions, it can also be used to study a wider set of state functions.

As an object of study, ‘capacity’ is too big and too intangible a concept. This makes it difficult for researchers to engage productively and critically with questions around capacity development. Drawing on key insights from the existing literature, the authors argue that what is needed is a disaggregation of the concept into a set of constituent parts. As such, the framework adopts as its analytical core the ‘5 capabilities’ (or ‘5Cs’) model, which emerged out of the multi-year Capacity, Performance and Change programme run by the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM). The 5Cs model breaks the larger concept of capacity down into a series of more specific capabilities (or components of capacity) namely the capability to self-organise and act, the capability to generate development results, the capability to establish supportive relationships, the capability to adapt and self-renew, and the capability to achieve coherence. These encompass the ‘soft’ or intangible dimensions of capacity so often overlooked in capacity building programming, such as the ability to relate and negotiate with a broad range of state and non-state stakeholders and represent a set of entry points for the study of capacity. By focusing on the five capabilities, it is possible for researchers to identify which components of capacity already exist and which need to be developed and strengthened in order for improvements in service provision to follow. 

An additional consideration is what makes up a particular capability? In order for deep and sustained capabilities to exist, an appropriate mix of factors or conditions must be in place - sufficient resources, relevant skills and knowledge, conducive organisational structures, an enabling political environment, and the ‘right’ kind of incentives. While aid programmes often attempt to build capabilities and capacities through the transfer of resources and knowledge (for example, by providing materials and paying for training), these are not in themselves sufficient. In fact, it is often the messier and more politically difficult work of restructuring relationships and incentives that will lead to deeper, more sustained improvements.

Underpinning all of this is a series of dimensions that must be taken into consideration when researching existing gaps in state capacity or the effectiveness of international attempts to build it. First, capabilities and capacities exist at three different levels of the state: the individual level (states are made up of people), the organisation level (states are made up of departments and ministries, which are in turn made up of people), and the system level (states are made up of systems, which are in turn made up of departments and ministries, which are in turn made of people). Researchers should be explicit about the level at which they are studying capacity, and not assume that improvements at one level equal improvements at the next. Second, capabilities and capacities – as well as the outcomes of capacity building programmes – are strongly mediated by features of the socio-political and historical context. In particular, the way in which states are ‘put together’ and function can have profound implications for where investments in capacity are made and whether they are sustained over time. Researchers should therefore pay close attention to the broader landscape in which state capacity exists. Third, capabilities and capacities are gendered. As noted, systems and organisations are made up of people and operate according to particular sets of embedded social norms and informal institutions, some of which may limit the genuine participation of certain groups of individuals. Researchers should observe the ways in which capacity building programmes treat gender initiatives - for example, attempt to reform organisational cultures that privilege certain voices over others – and ask whether capabilities and capacities to deliver equitable and gender-sensitive basic services exist or are being developed. Thus, a gender lens involves looking at both the process of capacity development (are women’s capacities being built and is programming being carried out in a gender-sensitive way?) as well as the service delivery outcomes of capacity development programmes (has state capacity to deliver equitable basic services increased?).

The authors conclude by encouraging researchers to apply the framework critically and hope that researchers will not only use the framework in their studies but also challenge it based on their empirical experiences. Being open about its strengths and shortcomings will enable researchers in the future to revisit the design of the framework and to re-examine how fit for purpose it is.

Show footnotes

1 Mallett R, Harvey P and Slater R (2014).  How to study capacity support to states in fragile and conflict affected situations: an analytical framework. Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium. Working Paper 15, July 2014

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Capacity support to states in fragile and conflict affected situations: an analytical framework. Field Exchange 49, March 2015. p20.



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