April 2000



Rome, 5-7 June 2000

Strengthening information and knowledge management capacities through international co-operation

Table of Contents

I. The Background to Capacity Building

1. The issues associated with the role of information and knowledge have been covered in Working Document COAIM 1/2 on "Improving Access to Agricultural Information". It argues that poor access to information and technologies by certain key stakeholders impedes their contribution to and benefit from the knowledge community. It was made clear that improving access is a goal that requires major development attention - and capacity building is one of the most important components of achieving that goal. Capacity building has been defined in many ways, but a useful overall summary is: "strengthening groups, organizations and networks to increase their ability to contribute to the elimination of poverty"1.

2. Until recently, and to some extent still today, development co-operation followed a top-down approach, with too little communication between initiatives. The focus was on punctual completion of development assistance projects, and the transfer of resources or technologies to those without them. Today, non-government organizations (NGOs) and local and community groups are more actively involved in planning and implementing development policies, programmes and activities. Approaches to development and the traditional roles of donor and recipient are changing, after a reappraisal of the North-South divide, and there is a perceived need to define best practice.

3. The international community has worked to improve access in various ways such as providing funds and expertise with the aim of building capacity. However, there is a lack of belief in many parts of the international development community that the strengthening of information management and knowledge exchange in itself has an impact on the key targets of poverty and livelihoods. The main reason for this is a shortage of documented examples that clearly show the quantifiable impact of capacity building in information access on the poor living in the developing world. This lack of assurance in the value of information is unusual in the modern environment, and it is in clear contrast to the global confidence now being expressed on the world's major markets for technology and Internet stock, which has in part led to the establishment of separate `technology' share indices such as the NASDAQ2. So, it is necessary to show more clearly the link between capacity building and these key development targets if the situation is to change.

4. This paper analyses some of the key issues that affect capacity building in information management, and considers what factors set this topic from other areas of development. It then goes on to lay out a framework of principles for partnerships in capacity building in this sector, and highlights one particular area of need for the attention of the international development community.

II. Capacity Building for Information Access - Key Issues Analysis

5. Most papers on capacity building in information for development focus on the need for telecoms infrastructure and the introduction of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). The Consultation's principal interest is on information management and content generation rather than the technology, but it is important to consider the former in the context of the particular characteristics, opportunities and challenges that are associated with the introduction of the enabling mechanisms, namely the ICTs.


6. Working Document COAIM 1/2 established that access to information and its effective use can contribute to development goals, although some question remains over their direct contribution to poverty alleviation and their usefulness to remote and disenfranchised communities. Decision makers and managers are faced with many policy and organizational questions concerning the effective use of information. Actions are required to foster and develop suitable content, to ensure that the tools to make that content accessible, and to enhance the connectivity available to countries and people. The analysis in this paper will show that the capacities and skills of organizations, people, and institutions need to be built, developed, mobilized, and shared. Of particular interest here are the unique aspects which make capacity building in information management and knowledge exchange different from initiatives in any other arena.

7. The purpose of capacity building in international development has not changed just because the tools and technologies are changing. The advent of new ICTs and new management practices offers an opportunity to exploit them for capacity building. Aside from placing more emphasis on partnership and participation, a knowledge-intensive approach influences the delivery and impact of capacity building activities3. The following are some of the characteristics of information management that set it apart from other activities.

  1. The information revolution has a high profile around the world. The media report almost daily on new initiatives by countries or companies to extend access to the Internet, to connect all school children, to deliver ever more information to ever larger audiences. The stakes are high. As mentioned in Document COAIM 1/2, the projected value of the business-to-business sector, not counting the hardware and other services, is immense. The rush to build bandwidth and lay fiber or wireless connections around the world, as well as the stock valuations of companies in this sector are attracting lots of attention and even more capital.
  2. As indicated above, one feature of the information revolution is its speed and reach. Transactions are accelerated and information exchanged much more rapidly. People, ideas, experiences and resources are much more readily available. The ability to adapt to new information and technologies is essential. Planning and decision making must also adapt accordingly.
  3. Another characteristic is the pervasive influence of information systems. Changes in information management systems have ramifications in an organization or community, often in unpredictable ways, through vertical hierarchies and horizontally across functional units. Careful consideration needs to be given before changes are made to a task or procedure, as not all impacts are positive. Governments and other large centralized organizations, that have fairly well established structures and channels to control and direct communication and information flows need to take particular care in this respect.
  4. The principles of information exchange and knowledge sharing are now unquestionably accepted in the development sector as being essential for effective partnership, collaboration and good governance. Whereas in the past ambitions often exceeded what was feasible, new approaches to information management are particularly suited to fostering relationships among communities and organizations, opening the flow of ideas and information, and ensuring greater transparency. The Internet is helping build stronger relationships between Northern and the Southern partners. The new-style information-based relationships are usually more durable because they are based on mutual benefit, and the emphasis evolves from capacity building to capacity-sharing. Information management initiatives that seek to build joint products and tools with content and resources from many `owners' are facilitated by the new ICTs. Collaborators in the information domain have their own responsibilities, and can manage their own intellectual property.
  5. Finally, as stated above, information specialists have long wrestled with evaluating the impact of information and knowledge activities, seeking methods that can measure the benefits and impact of this kind of investment. Quantitative information on patterns of use and identities of users is available, but has still not given us insights into the results of use or non-use of a specific piece of knowledge. This key issue is the subject of a technical workshop to be held during the Consultation.

8. These factors, on the whole, suggest that capacity in the information domain is likely to follow different directions and approaches than in other development sectors. In particular, the potential linking and sharing characteristics of the new ICTs seem to be particularly well-suited to a policy environment that emphasizes the value of relationships among organizations and puts participation and partnership first.


9. Document COAIM 1/2 clarified the issues and potential solutions associated with acquiring and disseminating information in the new technological environment. New techniques and technologies for information management also present opportunities for capacity building though the creation of jobs in the skills sector, and through helping people to engage in trade locally and globally. People, communities, companies, organizations and countries are acquiring competitive advantage over those who cannot move quickly to make beneficial and innovative use of these tools. The business sector is clearly not the only beneficiary. Countries investing in the Internet are likely to benefit from wider and cheaper access to informational, educational and medical resources and services4. Researchers, NGOs, and community groups can join or form virtual networks and alliances, harnessing the technologies to address social goals, building collective resources and tools, and communicating ideas and knowledge. Information management can help turn notions of `open government' into reality and facilitate access to government resources and services. Dialogue can be fostered between citizens and governments, and support provided to the decentralization of administration to local and community levels. More generally, new techniques can be used by government to protect global and local public goods, safeguarding access to knowledge and cultural heritage.


10. The uptake and harnessing of information is limited by the lack of trained personnel and/or the lack of access to know-how. A lack of local or other appropriate content limits the usefulness of the Internet, particularly the lack of content in local or national languages. So, people and organizations require appropriate management capacities and skills if they are to make the most of the opportunities offered the new technological environment to generate and disseminate information. Governments, enterprises and individuals need to access the sources of ideas, technology, finance and other resources, and markets in order to develop and thrive. Aside from the technical steps and relatively large costs involved in acquiring physical resources and skills, an enabling environment is required that encourages investment and collaboration, respects intellectual property rights, delivers affordable access, and also addresses equity issues by promoting appropriate social and developmental applications.

III. Principles for Partnership

11. Principles and guidelines learnt from practice should be used to establish effective working practices. A special workshop convened in March 20005 brought together a group of experienced specialists from a selection of regional and international agencies. The group considered the principles that, in their experience, make partnerships in international development work. The major points are outlined below, but some specific guidelines are described in Annex 1.

12. Re-consideration of Roles: Development assistance agencies are changing their roles. The provision or delivery of advice, money or assistance to a recipient is now widely recognized as not being sufficient. To be effective, development requires that the recipient and donor work together in strong partnerships, jointly identifying the issues, tackling the problems, and sharing responsibility for the results6. The exchange of information and knowledge using ICTs has facilitated this transformation.

13. Project to Process: Capacity building programs are more successful and more sustainable when they are supported through a process approach, rather than projects with definitive time limits. As Land (2000) argues, recognition of capacity development as a process carries implications in particular for the roles performed, and approaches used by external aid organizations in working with local organizations.

14. Ownership: All partners should feel responsible for a development activity and its results. This commitment has been termed `ownership', and it is central to the notion of capacity building as a Process. In the past, too much of the ownership has been with the donor or supporting agency and too little with the local partners whose capacities were being developed. The fostering of ownership is closely linked with the way in which an intervention is formulated, implemented and evaluated, and the roles played by the various participating agencies and individuals. Ownership should be fostered at two main levels. Capacity building interventions normally rely on specific people or groups acting as champions or leaders of the process, and then a wider range of stakeholders have to be involved in a fair and equitable way to ensure uptake and sustainability.

15. Trust through Transparency: Transparency in all exchanges between collaborating parties is paramount; thus it is a shared responsibility. The organizations promoting interventions must be transparent in their policies and in their behaviour. Development partnerships that work are based on trust. This transparency needs to be extended to monitoring and evaluation where indicators and criteria for evaluation can be developed jointly.

16. Learn together: Many development interventions start from the assumption that little is known locally and that outsiders are the experts. Partnership is about mutual respect and the acknowledgement that each partner has expertise and skills to offer and share. Partnership assumes that capacities already exist, on both sides, but that they may need to be mobilized and strengthened. Partnership means learning on all sides and sharing the lessons and results, and hopefully contributing to the global `knowledge base' of development lessons learnt.

17. Public goods and open systems: In the same way that `tied'7 aid limits the options and opportunities of the organization receiving the assistance, partners in capacity building need to consider properly the impact of locking their partners in to proprietary applications and systems. These may not be supported locally, and may burden local partners with recurrent purchases of costly user licenses and upgrades. A non-proprietary or `open' approach is preferable, which could also extend to information content where partners are committed to disseminate their information free. Increasingly, organizations are eager to build and share their information resources and tools, but need partners to do so. Capacity builders, particularly those in the public domain, can encourage the appropriate use of open systems to share and exchange their information and the tools developed to manage it.

18. Priority for local capacities: It is essential that the local needs in information and ICTs are addressed, and the goal should be creation of local content to serve the development needs of local partners. The precise approach should depend on existing infrastructure and resources, such as networks of expertise, traditional knowledge resources and local information, often in local languages. Using and building on local expertise helps avoid duplication, and includes and reinforces existing activities and outputs. However, it is very likely that some tasks will be beyond the range of competences of the main development partners, and it will be necessary to consider out-sourcing part or all of the process, again preferably to partners at the local level.

19. Conclusions to Partnerships: Many interventions, whether in project or process mode, foresee an end to the involvement of one or more partners, usually those whose role it is to build capacities. In such cases, a clear plan is essential to ensure sustainability when the external support or intervention stops. This is particularly the case for partners such as donors whose support is targeted towards specific results or impacts in the developing country. A different and perhaps more appropriate partnership is one where capacity building is linked to longer-term relationships between equal partners with shared common interests. Collaboration in that mode would still be concerned with results and impact, but would take in the continuing relevance and contribution of the relationship to the partners' wider interests - in the North and in the South.

IV. Capacity-sharing for International Capacity Builders

20. International development organizations such as FAO now have a role to help mobilize local and other capacities to make beneficial use of information and ICTs for development. These organizations should always work as partners. Organizations and individuals working in international development need to link their efforts, and to share ideas and lessons learnt. There are too few resources available to accept duplication of effort that often is the result of a lack of collaboration. Specialist technical knowledge and experience that is available for capacity building activities is a rare commodity, and its existence needs to be charted. Related to this, capacity builders can critically assess their own capacities, ensuring that these are targeted appropriately to address the problems.

21. Yet, it is acknowledged that relatively poor linkages exist between the numerous international initiatives that seek to harness information for development purposes. The establishment of the World Bank's proposed `Global Development Gateway' is meant to promote awareness of development activities, and to facilitate coordination within and between sectors. It is clear that the major specialized programmes in the area of information management have to set an example, and find a practical and effective way to share knowledge. ICTs can and are being used as a tool to facilitate that process, as shown by the Bellanet International Secretariat which maintains the GK-AIMS8 database of programmes, projects and activities linked to information and ICTs development.

22. Beyond governments and development agencies, the private sector is building the global Internet. Companies are interested in the potential of the Internet to open up new markets and may be willing partners in development. While care is needed when working with private interests, many development agencies already rely on private support9.

V. The Way Forward in Capacity Building

23. FAO and several important partners used a recent technical workshop to identify the greatest need and opportunity in the area of capacity building in information management as being effective partnerships between stakeholders. It was felt that partnerships should be based on involvement and collaboration, and a range of other factors associated with good practice in development. The Consultation is invited to consider these observations in the light of the experience of Members and the international community. Guidance is sought on particular points that affect the Programme of Work of FAO.

24. The Consultation may wish to alert development assistance agencies in the international community to the need to coordinate their activities more in this sector, thereby avoiding duplication, bringing together complementary skills, and sharing experiences.

25. The Consultation may consider that FAO should work with its Members and the international community to improve partnerships in the area of harnessing information for agricultural development and food security, and should report back to the Consultation on progress achieved in this important area. Furthermore, the Consultation may wish to direct FAO to explore mechanisms for Members and international agencies to define appropriate practices and institutional roles in the area of capacity building in information management for agricultural development and food security, with reference to the draft Guidelines in Annex 1.

Source documents

Bossuyt, J. and G. Laporte. 1994. Partnership in the 1990's: How to make it work better. Policy Management Brief 3. Maastricht: ECDPM. - A web-site dedicated to advancing the policy and practice of capacity building in international development cooperation.

Land, A. 2000. Implementing Institutional and Capacity Development: Conceptual and Operational Issues. Discussion Paper 14. Maastricht: ECDPM.

Schacter, M. Capacity building; A new way of doing business for development organizations. Policy Brief 6. Ottawa, Canada: Institute on Governance.




Some key questions can be used to structure the approach to this process:

1. Whose capacities are being built?

2. What capacities are being built?

3. How are capacities being built?

Following this set of guidelines, as well as the principles listed earlier, implies that development agencies have necessary skills and capacities. The same applies to the developing country partners whose capacities to manage the co-operation process are often poorly-developed.

1 DFID (1999). Civil Society Challenge Fund.

2 National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotation

3 UNDP-Sustainable Development Network (SDN): "There is no doubt that the so-called Internet/Information revolution has given [capacity building] yet another character and perhaps enhanced its potential impact for developing countries." UNDP further emphasizes the tensions between traditional capacity building efforts and new ones derived directly from the Internet revolution suggesting that: "replacing the old methods of capacity building with modern ones - has still to take place in a systematic manner."


5 A Workshop on Strengthening Information and Knowledge Management Capacities through International Cooperation was organized by ECDPM and FAO, and held in Maastricht from 29-31 March 2000.

6 Liz O'Donnell, Irish minister responsible for overseas development assistance, stated that: "Capacity building is ....... about changing the relationship between the donor and the recipient.... It means that donors are less benefactors and more like strategic partners in development." Foreword to: IAAC. 1999. Report of the national forum on development aid. Dublin: IAAC. Page i.

7 Aid that is provided with strict definitions on how funds can be used.

8 Global Knowledge Activity Information Management System -

9 As examples, Cisco is investing with UNDP in the Cisco Academy. UNDP's Sustainable Development Networking Program has negotiated several alliances (