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Capacity, complexity and consulting: lessons from managing capacity development projects

Working paper

Written by Ajoy Datta, Louise Shaxson, Arnaldo Pellini

Working paper


The Overseas Development Institute (ODI)’s Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme has for almost a decade undertaken research on the role of knowledge in policy processes, which it has endeavoured to translate into practical advice.

In the past few years, RAPID has increasingly collaborated with or managed large multiyear operational projects where it has been responsible for helping local institutions  and organisations (in Africa, Asia and Latin America) to build their capacity to use knowledge to improve policies and practices.

Capacity development of local institutions (e.g. to change the way they engage with policy) has become a key priority. Setting aside here the specific issue of promoting greater levels of knowledge-to-policy links, this paper reflects on some of this work managing capacity development processes and draw implications for future practice.

Specifically, this paper aims to:

  1. reflect on what capacity is and how it develops (mainly in an organisational setting);
  2. identify implications of this for approaches used to manage deliberate capacity improvement processes; and
  3. assess what this means for funding practices.

Key learning in the paper draws on a ‘light-touch’ review of some of the grey and academic literature available on capacity development, complexity, managing social change and aid agency behaviour. The cases draw on the observations of RAPID staff involved in various projects as well as on primary documentation such as trip reports, after action reviews and project reports.

The paper is structured as follows:

  • section 2 discusses what capacity is and what this means for how it can be improved;
  • section 3 assesses the implications of this for the approaches consultants take to promote deliberate capacity improvements;
  • section 4 discusses funding practices and how they could be altered to increase the effectiveness of capacity development work.

The paper does not provide all the answers to the problems facing practitioners in promoting capacity improvements, and avoids being prescriptive, but the recommendations do provide advice for both capacity development providers and funders to guide them in their practice.



Ajoy Datta, Louise Shaxson and Arnaldo Pellini