Partners not participants: reflections on capacity-strengthening projects in Afghanistan
Mohammad Rateb Shaheed and Isabella Leyh • 16 June 2021
Anyone who has ever participated in training knows the feeling: it’s been an interesting couple of days but, as the session comes to an end, you are already mentally trawling through the list of neglected tasks awaiting you at the office. There is rarely time to pause and reflect on what you’ve learned, let alone change anything. Now imagine that your organisation doesn’t have any sustainable core funding, a necessity for strategic thinking and organisational change. You don’t have the luxury to think about anything except getting your projects done, and now you need to fit four or five days’ work into two. Under the Grand Bargain, humanitarians committed to ‘achieve by 2020 a global, aggregated target of at least 25% of humanitarian funding to local and national responders as directly as possible’. By that deadline, only 1% of humanitarian funding to Afghanistan reached national and local NGOs¹. This means that a reliance on project-to-project funding is the reality for most national NGOs (NNGOs) in Afghanistan.
The Afghan NGOs we talked to said that the absence of government support, lack of sustainable funding and the need to focus on project implementation are the primary challenges to enhancing their organisational capacity. This creates a vicious cycle: a lack of core funding prevents them from strengthening their internal systems, but international donors want evidence of stronger systems to boost funding. So-called ‘capacity-strengthening’ projects are seen by staff of Afghan NGOs as a chance to break that cycle.
Reflecting on lessons learned from implementing capacity-strengthening projects with NNGOs in Afghanistan, this article argues for a significant shift in how we conceptualise and implement them. Recognising the lag in systemic funding commitments, we need to minimise the resources NNGOs must bring to the table in order to participate in capacity-strengthening projects, while maximising the efficiency and relevance of the outputs produced. To do that, any such initiative needs to focus on sustainability and put the NNGO’s expectations, strengths and needs at the centre of design and implementation. This offers an opportunity to counter inherent power imbalances, recognising that NNGOs are teachers as well as learners. While the article focuses on the Afghan context, the recommendations will hopefully resonate across the humanitarian sector.
The challenges to sustainable change for Afghan NGOs
The link between sustainable funding and organisational effectiveness is critical to running an NGO. Afghan NGOs bemoan that, with funding completely tied to short-term projects, they struggle to retain experienced staff who tend to look for better-paid and more secure opportunities with international organisations, taking their skills and knowledge with them. When implementing a capacity-strengthening project with a group of NNGOs, the focal points for the majority of partners changed at least once within a year, as staff moved on to work with international organisations or were let go as a result of waning project funding. The replacement process often took months, significantly hampering progress. Meanwhile, the outputs of organisational capacity-strengthening projects, such as new processes, manuals or systems, are not always used or implemented after the project ends. Between backfilling roles and preparing for the next project, there simply isn’t the time.
Research has shown that donors and international partners often don’t fully understand NNGOs’ needs, expectations and existing capacity, and don’t engage with them sufficiently to diagnose capacity gaps². Consequently, they miss opportunities to form a sense of mutual ownership or to establish a common understanding of the short- and long-term benefits of capacity-strengthening projects. We also found in Afghanistan that capacity-gap analysis is often limited to generic structured questionnaires that don’t capture many of the practical challenges national organisations face. This results in a top-down approach, with international partners encouraging NNGOs to replicate their own policies and standard operating procedures, without sufficiently taking into account the existing capacities and unique contexts of NNGOs. Afghan NNGOs often operate in rural areas on the frontlines of instability and conflict. This brings an array of practical and security challenges far removed from the realities of many international partners and trainers and puts them at odds with international partners’ guidelines and procedures. A lack of collaboration, mutual understanding and buy-in from both sides very often results in just another day of training that the NNGO will agree to attend, resulting in new policies or procedures that will be binned due to limited resources and operational realities.
Our experience indicates that the sustainability of capacity-strengthening projects may also be hindered by the absence of impact measurement frameworks that centre on their long-term success. It is rare that international and national partners must report against indicators that measure the sustainability of such projects, looking at how outputs will be (or have been) utilised after the project ends. Without this, ‘success’ is supply-focused and measured in outputs that may be meaningless, an evaluation practice that plagues the whole humanitarian sector. Indicators of how many people attended a training, for example, tell us nothing about whether that training led to any changes.
Breaking the cycle will take time, money and a culture of listening
We do not claim to have all the answers. But our experiences in Afghanistan have generated substantial learning and some practical recommendations that may be useful to donors, facilitators and NNGOs.
Funders can ensure that participating in capacity-strengthening work is not a burden for organisations. This means that any such effort includes money for NNGOs to cover (a) staff time to partake in meetings and trainings and (b) the implementation of longer-term project outputs, such as production and roll-out of manuals, policies, tools or other mechanisms. This can be done by ensuring that NNGOs have access to sustainable funding to cover core activities and costs (preferred) or, where this is not possible yet, including a budget line in capacity-strengthening project budgets for NNGOs to cover their participation and implementation costs. One way to combine these and perhaps speed up the journey to core funding, would be to provide non-project funding for a meaningful period, coupled with a requirement to undertake certain systems-strengthening activities. As we are not seeing sustainable direct funding flowing to NNGOs in the short term, beefing up project budgets with a share going to NNGOs becomes all the more critical to the success of capacity-strengthening efforts.
Donors can of course do more than just fund. Project staff often spend many weeks a year in trainings, time they cannot spend on assisting crisis-affected communities. Where possible, donors should strive to combine capacity-strengthening projects to reduce the time commitment demanded of NNGOs and help them to plan. For example, in one case a donor asked the authors to combine training and policy development for two separate capacity-strengthening projects, focusing on monitoring and evaluation (M&E) practices and systems of accountability to affected people. This not only enabled the trainers to demonstrate and reinforce the important link between the two subject areas, but also minimised the NNGO time commitment while maximising the usefulness of the resulting policy. Donors should also be flexible, enabling NNGOs to pilot their capacity-strengthening ideas within their funded programmes. Staff from one NNGO recalled how an INGO and intermediary donor had refused to alter the project’s monitoring instruments to include an additional set of questions developed as part of a capacity-strengthening project. This hampered and delayed the NNGO’s ability to practise new skills.
Donors should also include participating NGOs’ feedback in partners’ measurement frameworks. This can be done by adding simple perception-based indicators to track training objectives and outcomes. Ideally, data against these indicators needs to be tracked beyond the end of the project to measure its sustainability. A six-month post-programme feedback survey sent to participating NNGOs, for example, would allow international partners to understand the lasting contribution (or not) of the training and support provided.
Tracking impact through perception
In addition to tracking the usual indicators around satisfaction with and usefulness of training and outputs, perception indicators measuring participants’ feelings regarding participation, quality of relationships with trainers and sustainability of project outputs should be added to capacity-strengthening measurement frameworks. Here a few suggestions:
- Percentage of clients who feel their opinion was taken into account in the design of the project and/or the project output.
- Percentage of clients who believe they will use the project output in their future work.
- Percentage of clients who think the facilitators made participants feel comfortable to ask questions or raise concerns.
- Percentage of clients who have continued using the project output six months after the project ended.
- Percentage of clients who feel that implementing the project output is adequately resourced six months after the project ended.
To ensure that the sustainability of a project is tracked, it is advisable to track some indicators not merely at the end of the project, but six months later in a post-project survey.
From trainers to facilitators
For those international entities implementing capacity-strengthening projects, the starting point should always be to recognise national partners’ existing expertise. Room should be created to listen to their expectations for the project. This seems obvious, but not doing so implies that capacity is present at the international but not the local level. This is simply not true and is predicated by power imbalances rooted in the legacy of colonial ideas that have long underpinned the humanitarian system. Many capacity-strengthening processes do, after all, simply aim to make local processes better ‘fit’ with those designed by an international system. Understanding capacities must go beyond a simple questionnaire to incorporate open discussions with the team, desk reviews and workshops. Projects that are designed collaboratively, highlighting both the strengths and self-identified weaknesses of the partner, stand a better chance of producing sustainable outputs.
Having national partners take the reins in the design of capacity-strengthening projects requires flexibility, but greatly increases the project’s usefulness to NNGOs. An example of this was a national partner that was supposed to be trained on the practical components of M&E, including field visits and data collection. At the onset of the project, it quickly became apparent to the facilitator that staff already possessed in-depth understanding and expertise on the topic. They expressed a wish to strengthen their capacities on strategic M&E planning and policy development instead. That the international organisation did not identify and address this capacity gap in the planning stage is also the result of them providing their M&E plans and templates to national partners instead of asking them to develop their own forms and tools. This practice, which seems to be the norm rather than the exception across the response, reinforces national organisations’ dependence on their international partners. On this occasion, due to the flexibility of the international partner and donor, the focus of the training was shifted and an M&E policy developed in tandem with the national partners.
After the planning stage, collecting regular feedback from participants needs to become a cornerstone of all capacity-strengthening efforts. This complements the outcome-tracking mentioned above. It means asking how participants would prefer to give feedback throughout the project and customising the approach to their preferences. This is especially relevant if the capacity trainer is not yet familiar with the cultural norms and practices around voicing honest feedback or complaints. All feedback received should be discussed with participants to co-formulate recommendations for course correction.
The sustainability of capacity-strengthening projects depends on whether enough space is created to brainstorm together on how the new approach or system can be applied across the organisation into the future. This might mean translating an organisational strategy into concrete action points for specific projects or transferring new skills or tools applied in a pilot project to other programmes. Depending on the level of support needed, time should be invested in developing action plans or training teams on how to include the new tools or skills in future proposals and budgets. In the above example, future-proofing the work meant assisting the NNGO in operationalising their new M&E policy and templates in their day-to-day operations through regular coaching sessions and office visits. In another project that focused on strengthening the NNGO’s accountability to affected people practices through the systematic collection of feedback data in a chosen pilot project, this meant developing a standardised set of feedback questions that the organisation can apply across all its projects. This ensures that the skills needed to collect and respond to feedback do not remain within a single project and team.
Naturally, NNGOs also carry responsibility for the success of capacity-strengthening projects. Buy-in from senior management is critical, as they need to sign off before new approaches and tools are rolled out. The project’s focal points need to inform all levels of staff about the purpose of the project, giving them a chance to ask questions, provide input and plan their work so they can attend relevant training or meetings. Ideally, NNGOs should assign at least two focal points to each project, to safeguard against high staff turnover and ensure the preservation of skills and knowledge.
NNGOs need to know and exercise their rights to be active participants in both the design and implementation of capacity-strengthening projects. They should state their expectations and their identified strengths and weaknesses and share what methods and approaches have worked (or not worked) from previous capacity-strengthening efforts. They must insist on having channels in place to give their feedback and make active use of these channels, while not shying away from openly communicating when they do not see the value of, or simply lack the current capacity to undertake, a proposed project. This is not happening yet. Attempts to gather honest and critical feedback from national partners, in the form of lessons learned sessions or feedback surveys, often do not amount to much more than a round of praise and thanks. This highlights the prevailing power imbalance between the international and national. National partners might not feel comfortable to speak their minds and discuss the challenges they face for fear of reduced support or funding from international partners and donors (in their case often one and the same). An open feedback culture needs to be built over time and relies on a trusting relationship between donors, international partners and NNGOs. It requires a shift in power dynamics. Involving national partners more systematically in the design and implementation of capacity-strengthening projects is an important step in that direction.
Lastly, a commitment from NNGOs to implement the project’s co-designed changes for the long term is critical. A short letter of understanding signed by both parties at the beginning of a project, detailing the jointly agreed-upon responsibilities and deliverables, can be a simple tool to ensure that all parties are aware of their roles and can be held accountable for fulfilling them. For example, when some national partners stopped delivering the outputs necessary for the continuation of a multi-year capacity-strengthening project, it became increasingly difficult to hold them to their commitment because there was no written agreement.
Being held to account
To ensure the success and sustainability of capacity-strengthening projects, active accountability from all parties is required. Donors’ main accountability lies in ensuring that NNGOs have sufficient resources not just to participate in capacity-strengthening projects but to implement their outputs and ensuring that their feedback is used to measure success. Trainers and facilitators are accountable for properly engaging national partners, co-designing programmes that make sense and taking feedback into account. NNGOs need to offer their expertise, feedback and active participation throughout the process, because ultimately they are accountable for translating outputs into organisational change.
At the heart of all of this is a systemic shift in attitudes, where national actors are seen as partners not participants, and knowledge is exchanged instead of transferred.
Mohammad Rateb Shaheed (email@example.com) is an evaluation and development expert currently working for USAID as Monitoring and Evaluation Director at the Kabul Carpet Export Centre.
1. This figure is calculated using the figures available from UNOCHA’s Financial Tracking Service for Afghanistan in 2020. It uses the figures reported for national and local NGOs .
2. See for example Barbelet, V. (2019) Rethinking capacity and complementary for a more local humanitarian action. HPG Report. London: ODI.