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1. Capacity needs assessment - Methodology and processes

Melvyn Kay, Consultant to IPTRID/FAO
Tom Franks, Senior Lecturer, Bradford Center for International Development
Sonia Tato, Technical Officer, IPTRID/FAO


In September 2003, a one-day workshop was organized on Capacity Building in Irrigation, Drainage and Flood Control as part of the 54th meeting of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) in Montpellier. It brought together many of the important practitioners in the field and established a basic framework and principles for capacity development in the sector.

The consensus of the workshop was that a lack of capacity is constraining irrigation development in many developing countries and that capacity rather than infrastructure should be the central focus of future irrigation development strategies (FAO 2004). Capacity development is increasingly recognized as one of the most important keys to delivering and sustaining the benefits from irrigated agriculture worldwide. However, capacity development is more than a complementary component of interventions to improve the performance of irrigation and drainage systems. It is an integral part of a strategy for sustainable and integrated agricultural water management. In addition to the training of professionals, technicians and farmers, it must focus on developing effective organizations within which individuals work on establishing an enabling institutional environment in which organizations and individuals can flourish.

This comprehensive picture of capacity development is being increasingly accepted in many development sectors, though experience to date has shown that putting the concept into practice is fraught with difficulties. Many questions arise concerning identification of the critical issues: What is the best entry point for external support? The actions needed? How can the impact of critical issues be measured and how can we take advantage of the experience gained? What role should donors play and how can outside agencies help with what is essentially an internal or in-country process?

Capacity is not something that can be built through a series of carefully planned and executed activities that follow a clear and detailed plan or blueprint with specific timeframes and strict budgets. It is an organic process of growth and development involving experimentation and learning as it proceeds. Therefore, many people now speak of capacity development rather than capacity building, to emphasize that it is a process rather than a blueprint.

A weakness of technical assistance programmes and projects that focus on meeting capacity needs is the lack of analysis normally required to ensure that the solution is the most appropriate in the circumstances. This initial phase of capacity development, which is the least well developed or understood, is the focus of this paper. The paper builds on a capacity development framework for the irrigation and drainage sector that emerged from the ICID/FAO workshop and introduces the United Nations Development Programme guidelines (UNDP, 1997) as a model for assessing capacity needs in the sector. Brief explanations of some tools and processes are also provided that can be used during the capacity assessment process. The concluding sections discuss some key issues for successful capacity needs assessment and point the way ahead for future developments in this field.


An essential feature of capacity assessment is a common understanding of what capacity and capacity development means. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. To some it is synonymous with workshops and training, to senior managers it can mean organizational development, to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) it is associated with empowering individuals and grassroots organizations and to international agencies and donors it is about national institutions, governance and economic management (Horton 2002).

Clarifying the meaning of capacity development was one of the main issues addressed at the ICID/FAO workshop in Montpellier (FAO 2004). This workshop followed the work of UNDP and defined capacity development as...the sum of efforts needed to nurture, enhance and utilize the skills and capabilities of people and institutions at all levels - locally, nationally, regionally and internationally - so that they can better progress towards sustainable the basic conceptual level, building capacity involves empowering people and organizations to solve their problems, rather than attempting to solve problems directly. When capacity development is successful, the result is more effective people and institutions better able to provide products and services on a sustainable basis.

The definition encompasses an approach to development, which is now well accepted in the irrigation sector. Although satisfactory in itself it does little to explain what capacity development means in practice. Research on capacity development in other sectors (Morgan 1998) has significantly helped to make this step from theory into practice. This established three generic levels of capacity and the ICID/FAO workshop examined ways of applying these to irrigation and drainage.

Level I, the enabling environment, represents the broad national and international context within which irrigated agriculture can develop. It is concerned with policy at the highest levels in government, the socio-economic conditions that enable or constrain irrigation development and the legal framework that provides farmers with security of tenure for land and water and the power to seek legal redress when contracts are broken. This level can have immense influence over what happens at the lower levels. It is often given insufficient attention, particularly in project interventions, because it is seen as too difficult and diffuse to address.

Level II is the organizational level, which refers to the wide range of organizations involved in irrigation such as water user organizations, research groups, government extension agencies and private companies that share common objectives such as improved livelihoods at the farming level, improved water management or increased agricultural productivity at a national level. The capacity of an organization is embedded in the ability of its individuals to work together within established rules and values and to interact with other organizations.

Level III, the individual level, is the most structured and familiar part of capacity development and includes education and training of the various stakeholders, from farmers to local professionals.

The three levels provide a structure that allows capacity development to be examined and analysed. In addition, they provide possible entry points for support from donors and technical cooperation. However, they are clearly linked, for example, water user organizations are shaped as much by society (laws, regulations) as by individuals (skills, leadership, relationships).


Five strategic phases of capacity development can be identified. The first phase is an assessment to define present capacity within the system. It establishes the baseline and addresses the basic question - where are we now? The second phase looks ahead to the future desired state, the vision of what capacity is required in the future and asks the question - where do we want to go? The third phase compares the present situation and future desired state, identifies the capacity gaps and plans strategies and actions designed to fill these gaps and achieve the desired goals - how do we get there? The fourth phase is the implementation phase, fulfilling the strategies and undertaking the planned capacity development activities in order to meet the defined objectives - what actions do we take? The final phase is monitoring and evaluation to feed back experiences into the planning phase - how do we stay there? This is not a linear process, the phases are interlinked and overlap, they form a continuing cycle of development and change according to the prevailing circumstances.

Of the five phases, assessment of capacity needs, that is, establishing the existing and required capacities as well as identifying the gaps between both, is perhaps the least well developed, at the same time it is the most vital. Without a proper understanding of what currently exists and what is needed, there is a good chance that inappropriate measures and actions will be initiated. Most technical assistance programmes and projects focus on meeting capacity needs, without undertaking the analysis required to ensure the solution is the most suitable in the circumstances.


A review of the literature and official publications indicates there is a considerable body of work available on capacity development, though very little has been published on approaches to assessing capacity needs. UNDP has published extensively on capacity development and, in particular, on assessing capacity needs (UNDP 1997 and 1998). Their approach is simple in concept - first assess the existing capacity, then assess future capacity envisaged by answering the question - where do we want to go? - and from these two, identify the capacity gaps. Strategies can then be developed to fill the gaps.

The UNDP guidelines introduce a note of realism by suggesting that putting this concept into practice is not a simple process. The first step of assessing existing capacity can usually produce much useful information. The second step, of looking at future capacity, is less sure as it largely depends on policies and strategies for future development and these may not always be as clear as they should be. This has a knock-on effect on the third step of assessing the gaps and hence on developing strategies to fill the gaps.

UNDP makes the case for capacity assessment as a structured and analytical process, whereby the various dimensions of capacity are assessed within the broader socio-economic environment, as well as evaluated for specific organizations and individuals. They indicate how assessments might be undertaken in different situations and how programmes and projects might be better designed to ensure ownership, sustainability and ultimately success. Special emphasis is given to using existing capacities as the basis for capacity development. The guidelines indicate that, as no two situations are alike, they require common sense and flexibility in their application, as well as a good understanding of the particular context in which they are used. The UNDP model for needs assessment (1997) based on the three levels of capacity (Figure 1.1) provides the basis for the first three phases of capacity development. These are assessing existing capacities, identifying possible future capacity, estimating the gaps and defining possible strategies. The capacity levels are expanded to include a number of sub-levels or dimensions that need to be considered in the assessment.

Enabling environment

Assessments at this level include the dimensions of policy, legal and regulatory framework, management and accountability, resources and processes (the inter-relationships between organizations) and how resources and information flow both formally and informally. For development initiatives that are national in context (e.g. governance or environmental programmes), all the dimensions would need to be examined. However, for initiatives at a sectoral level, the analysis would include only the relevant components.

Figure 1.1 Matrix for assessing capacity (UNDP 1997)

Dimensions of capacity Environment - Level I
Existing capacity
Possible future capacity
Estimated capacity gap
Possible strategies
Policy framework

Legal and regulatory framework

Management accountability


Processes and relationships

Dimensions of capacity Organization - Level II
Existing capacity
Possible future capacity
Estimated capacity gap
Possible strategies
Strategic management



Human resources

Resources - financial

Resources - information



Dimensions of capacity Individual - Level III Existing capacity Possible future capacity Estimated capacity gap Possible strategies
Job skills and needs

Professional development

Access to information




Professional integrity

Communication skills


Many different organizations influence irrigated agriculture. They may be government departments, private sector operations or informal community-based associations. Traditionally capacity development and organizational strengthening focused almost entirely on human resources, processes and organizational structuring. Nevertheless, this tends to be too narrow a focus and additional dimensions need to be assessed including mission and strategy, culture, structure and competencies, processes (both internal and external), human resources, financial resources, information resources and infrastructure. It is also important to include interactions with other organizations and stakeholders within the wider enabling environment. In an increasingly complex world, it is important to form partnerships and to network with other organizations for synergy and complementarity in delivering services.


Many capacity initiatives ultimately concentrate on the individual, either because this level is considered the most critical, or because it is the easiest to address. It considers the individual’s capacity to function efficiently and effectively within an organization and within the broader environment. Often, capacity assessments of individuals are based on an established job description or some other format that lays out the performance/skills requirements of the position and the individual filling that position. This is combined with a skills assessment of the individual.

The assessment is designed to assess individual capacity gaps so training and development plans can then be prepared to address them. Increasingly, the dimensions of accountability and incentives, performance, values and ethics are becoming even more important at the level of individual capacity assessments. Strategies that stress continuous learning and professional development are also important.

Mapping capacity and finding the gaps

The rows represent the various dimensions of capacity. In most situations, an assessment will generate information on existing capacity. Moving to the next step of assessing future capacity may be less certain, information on this will only emerge gradually as answers to the question - where do we want to be? - emerge.

Existing capacity

A critical issue for undertaking an assessment is the entry point. Once an entry is made, movement can then take place from one level, enabling environment, organization or individual, to another according to needs. Some information, gathered from the assessment at a certain level, might indicate that another level should be assessed. This is why the levels are linked with arrows as shown in Figure 1.1.

The entry point for national assessments will need to be at the level of enabling environment. An example might be a major initiative to improve the role and functioning of the legal framework (laws, legislation) as part of a water governance reform programme. Following an assessment of the broader dimensions of capacity, this could enable the assessment to ‘zoom in’ and examine the dimensions of specific organizations, such as the judiciary or the role of the Ministry of Water Resources and, as a result, also the role of individuals with organizations.

UNDP, in their guidelines, suggests the most typical entry point is at the organizational level and usually on a narrow front. For example, the perceived need may be to reform subsidies to farmers within the Ministry of Agriculture. This initial, rather narrow examination could then provide an opportunity to ‘zoom out’, to look at the broader issue of farmer support services within the Ministry and to the broader implications of farmer support as part of national policy. It can also provide a way into the wider performance issues within the Ministry.

Future capacity

Assessing future capacity can be a difficult and time consuming step, as stakeholders may not always have a clear vision of what they would like to achieve. A realistic assessment of development objectives, resources and timing is required. A general consensus among all the stakeholders involved is also needed if the goals are to be achieved.

A common vision of the future enabling environment is an essential step to a more detailed assessment of the various dimensions at this level and of assessments at the lower levels of organizations and individuals. In practice, however, it may not always be possible to follow such a logical pathway. A process of iteration over an extended period is more likely as policy is developed and changed over time. Capacity is not static; it is a lengthy and continually developing and changing process.


A range of tools and approaches exist for assessing capacity at the different levels.

The enabling environment

At the level of the enabling environment, the two fundamental needs are to map and understand the policy environment and to assess the legal and regulatory framework. Once these are understood, the other issues to be considered at this level, such as accountability, resources, processes and relationships, can usually be identified and mapped with relative ease.

A number of approaches are possible for mapping the policy environment (Brinkerhoff 2002) such as policy characteristics analysis, political mapping, or policy network mapping. All are based on simple unifying themes and can be presented as models or matrices.

The legal and regulatory framework must also be assessed to see if it helps or hinders agricultural water management and to identify the gaps and inconsistencies. This requires an examination of existing laws, their extent and coverage and the accompanying regulations or regulatory systems, as well as attempts to assess their impacts through some form of regulatory impact assessment. Currently, a growing area of interest is water rights and their relationship with water laws. These also need to be considered within this general framework.

Both the policy processes and legal framework must take account of the management of water for agriculture within its wider context. For example, the Global Water Partnership has developed a ‘toolbox’ for integrated water resources management. The toolbox comprises brief references to many relevant issues at each level of the matrix. It is also useful for ensuring that the irrigation and drainage sector is considered within the wider framework of water resources, of which it plays such an important part.

The organizational level

Assessment of existing capacity at the organizational level must take account of these organizations within their institutional context and consider their linkages and relationships with other relevant organizations. A first step in capacity assessment at the organizational level is therefore some form of stakeholder analysis.

The full participation of all those who have a stake in the outcomes of the assessment (the stakeholders) is now well recognized as an essential part of the process. These are the farmers and their organizations who are the principal beneficiaries of irrigation, the wider local community, local and national government organizations and private sector organizations, such as NGOs and commercial companies. Stakeholder analysis can be used to determine who is and should be involved, the nature of their involvement (role, responsibilities, accountabilities; direct or indirect involvement), and magnitude of involvement (e.g. full or part-time, specific activities only). For example, a capacity development initiative on land and water governance could include virtually everyone connected with irrigated agriculture (individuals, groups, formal organizations). Only very few need be involved in capacity assessments in the initial policy/concept development stages. There are a number of techniques, tools and methods that can support the stakeholder analysis such as surveys, workshops and conferences. The mechanism for stakeholder involvement is another key area. They may be represented through formal management/steering committees. Others may be represented through advisory or consultative councils/boards, surveys, workshops and conferences.

In relation to organizational capacity, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development has done a considerable amount of work and produced a useful document Organizational sourcebook (DFID 2003). This suggests a number of different possible approaches to assessing organizational capacity, including the:

It can be seen that all cover approximately the same ground, including most of the components itemized in the sublevels of the assessment matrix. All can be presented in the form of a table or matrix, making for easier visual understanding.

In the irrigation and drainage sector, specific aspects of organizational capacity may need to be considered, such as asset management policies and systems, quality management systems, financing mechanisms and accountability systems. A paper presented at the 2003 Montpellier workshop discusses these issues in relation to the specific context of the irrigation and drainage sector in Indonesia (van Hofwegen, 2004).

Assessing organizations within their institutional framework is of particular importance in the irrigation and drainage sector. This is because of the complex nature of irrigated agriculture and its linkage with so many other sectors of the economy and the social and cultural environment. A significant amount of work has been carried out in this regard by institutionalists such as Ms Ostrom. Working with others in areas of the humid tropics such as Sri Lanka, she has devised a set of ‘institutional design principles’ for irrigation organizations (Ostrom, 1992).

These design principles, which could also form the basis of assessing the capacity of existing organizations, are often liked by practitioners because of their relative simplicity and the clear-cut nature of the recommendations that flow from them. There is, however, a body of theory that is critical of the design principles, precisely because of their simplicity, suggesting that it is necessary to focus more on existing organizations and institutions and to take account of peoples’ propensity to adapt existing institutions to address new and emerging issues (so-called ‘institutional bricolage’). The complexity of the linkages between existing organizational mandates is a further factor to be taken into account, particularly in relation to the problem of the lack of fit between hydrological boundaries and other types, such as administrative boundaries.

Individual level

Techniques for assessing capacity at the individual level are now well established. Indeed much of the criticism of capacity development programmes in the past is that they have been focused solely at the individual level, without paying sufficient attention to the organizational framework within which the individual operates. Individual capacities are often assessed in relation to the need for training and lead to some form of assessment of training needs.

In the past, these were developed through a comparison of competencies and responsibilities and the need to try to match these two more closely for the organization’s human resources. Now there is a move to assess an individual’s capabilities across a wider spectrum of criteria, such as attitudes and values, as well as the traditional focus on technical skills and competencies. These additional capabilities are summarized in the sub-levels of the individual capacity assessment matrix presented in Figure 1.1. There is increasing use of various types of psychometric testing (such as the Myers Briggs test), particularly in the corporate sector in industrialized nations, to assess capacities in this regard. However, as yet there are few references to the application of these techniques in the irrigation and drainage sector, particularly in developing countries.

General assessment tools

Certain assessment tools can be used at all three levels of capacity assessment. These include:


Milen (2001), whose experiences are in the health sector, and others (UNDP 1997, FAO 2004) offer some guiding principles for assessing capacity.

Being realistic when assessing capacity

The feasibility and success of a strategy depends very much on assessing existing and future capacity. In most cases, existing capacity can provide a useful starting point to design future capacity. Experience suggests that it is better to build from existing strengths rather than inventing something new from scratch. Therefore, making appropriate use of existing capacities and being realistic when assessing the future, from a financial and human resource point of view, will help to achieve a more successful strategy.

Capacity assessment must follow policy - but policy must be in place

Capacity assessment should follow policy or programme goals. Therefore, the nature of the assessment needs to vary according to the nature of these goals. Furthermore, effective policy reform is an essential prerequisite. Experience in the health sector (Milen 2001) highlighted capacity constraints at this level and suggests it is a common problem in many developing countries. Constraints were identified, including a lack of capacity to identify a clear policy framework and lack of capacity to generate commitment to the policy, both from internal actors. In this case these were health staff, external actors such as politicians and capacity to design and implement strategy. In several instances failure to perform effectively, even one of these tasks, has hampered implementation of the reform. In some cases, a lack of legal skills impeded progression from policy intention to detailed policy framework. Political support was limited in others, where there had been no attempt to communicate the policy to other interested groups to gain their support.

Such circumstances may well prevail in the irrigation sector; and it is evident that constraints at this level can produce a logjam that stops progress downstream. Addressing these capacity constraints is critical to the success of the entire process of reform and will need to be addressed before useful and practical assessments can be made at levels II and III.

A continuous process

Capacity is not static, it is continually developing and changing - a dynamic process. It is a lengthy process requiring continuous attention and investment and the recognition that the capacity of an individual or organization is never complete or in a steady state. As strategies need to be flexible so too must capacity assessment so that it supports decision-making and becomes an internal cycle of review and updating, rather than being a one-off, externally driven event.

Involving all levels

Initial capacity assessment activities may focus on a particular area; although it is important to find ways of involving all levels at some stage. The initial focus may be on strengthening an organization such as a local government office providing irrigation advisory services. However, it is essential to examine the levels of capacity in the broader environment: clients of the service and role and relationships with the higher levels of government. The logic of this is to seek the root causes of poor performance, which may not lie solely in the local government office.

Extending beyond the immediate focus can be a difficult step. This requires extensive knowledge and understanding of the organization, or system in question and of its links with other levels of capacity. Experience shows the value of local experts and local community groups for this kind of assessment.

Perform in stages

Capacity assessment needs to be accomplished in stages, because the nature and detail of the process depends on the state of the organization or system. For example, an organization with a strong management capacity will proceed at a faster pace than one that lacks a strategic core management capacity.

Defining future capacities for large organizations can take time to develop whereas for small organizations it should be possible to do this over a much shorter period.

Finding the appropriate entry point

Finding the most appropriate entry point for assessing capacity is critical to a successful outcome. Logically assessment should start with the big picture at the level of the enabling environment and then proceed to the lower levels. In reality, there may be many reasons why this is not only impractical but also impossible. UNDP suggests the most common entry point is at the organization level. It is important to recognize this is not only about assessing the particular organization, but about looking for opportunities to ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ to provide a broader and more realistic assessment of capacity needs.


This paper has reviewed the work of others and built on the output of the ICID/FAO workshop in Montpellier to define capacity development and to develop the three levels of capacity: the enabling environment, the organization within its institutional framework and the individual.

Various tools have been described that can be used to develop an assessment of capacity at these various levels, thus establishing a baseline from which future capacity and capacity gaps can then be identified. The paper has summarized some of the tools that are currently in use or being developed, both in the irrigation and drainage sector and in other sectors. However, more examples and experiences from actual case studies are needed to provide a fuller range of applicable approaches and methodologies.

Along with the increasing dissemination of practical real-life examples is the need for further consideration of the processes involved in defining future capacity needs and capacity gaps, and the appropriate strategies and plans to address these gaps. The important point in this respect is to focus sufficient attention on the more difficult processes of enhancing capacity at the level of the enabling environment and the organization within its institutional framework, rather than restricting attention to the easier processes of enhancing individual capability through training and education.

Factors that contribute to the success of a capacity assessment include: visible commitment and leadership at senior levels; participatory, open and transparent processes with the meaningful involvement of all impacted stakeholders; awareness and understanding of the process by all parties; appropriate methodologies’ a clear set of objectives and priorities, clear management accountabilities and sufficient time and resources to plan, develop and implement the capacity initiative.


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