Building the capacity to think critically and objectively, and so to ‘own’ the future: The ultimate capacity

Christopher Langton

1 May 2018


Capacity building as a concept has been around for a long time and has evolved through hard-won experience gained in many different conflict areas where the destruction of countries, societies and communities has left international actors with the challenge of re-building the capacity of nations that had been practically destroyed to live in peace. This need continues to challenge the many international organisations and other bodies, including charities, who deliver aid and capacity building initiatives.

The European Union, as a key capacity builder in conflict has unprecedented potential in this area. Unlike the UN and others, it is an international body with its own executive authority that allows it to act in a reasonably cohesive fashion to deliver capacity building projects. This is a huge advantage to the recipient countries, providing that the aim is clear and accepted by the recipient nation.

In his article of 5 April 2018 “Has the Integrated Approach (finally) taken the EU responses to conflicts to the next level?”, Giovanni Faleg makes it very clear that the EU has gained the position of leader in the field of civilian capacity building.  Of course, there are always areas to be addressed to make success easier to obtain.

One of these areas which has long bedevilled those that seek to build capacity is resilience and how to build a nation to the point where the ‘builders’ can walk away in the knowledge that a country is able to stand on its own. And here there is also a problem of international stamina. Often, we see the waxing and waning of international effort in a conflict area, and the withdrawal of that effort before the national capacity has been built, to the point where the country’s decision-makers can take over the ongoing process in which they may not have the lead in decision-making. In any event, in the trauma of the conflicted mind, they may have an understandable inability to make objective decisions when the information on which those decisions have been made has been the construct of others whose priorities may be different.

An example of a capacity building project that was an almost entirely foreign concept to the recipient nation can be found in Afghanistan following the intervention of 2001, where a democratisation project was imposed by an over-enthusiastic, somewhat un-thinking capacity building international community using a model totally alien to the country which in turn had been in civil conflict for 30 years. The priority need was for a far more basic capacity than a presidential-style democracy. Years later, the EU invested in the traditional Afghan economy, agriculture and horticulture; and life for the agrarian society began to move on a different trajectory. But crucially, the lack of humility of this intervention at the start left Afghan decision-makers at all levels with no power, and with little dignity. Certainly, they went along with the donors’ plans because they had no alternative; and crucially, as is often the case in conflict, the ability to think objectively and reach objective decisions had been destroyed along with the country.

So, how to re-introduce a degree of objectivity in thinking in countries debilitated by conflict is a task like any other in capacity building efforts. Arguably, if this is done successfully then the whole process can in simple terms take less time, and the problem of the lack of stamina amongst capacity builders is less of an issue.

The importance of explaining to populations experiencing conflict how capacity builders’ recommendations and objectives are reached is self-evident. However, perhaps what is not quite so obvious is a need to explain what method of analysis was used, and what conclusions have been drawn from that analysis. Further still, it may be considered important to build the capacity of indigenous civil society and decision-makers to analyse their own country’s conflict objectively through a structured method that allows them to perceive what is and is not possible in terms of conflict management leading to resolution. Through this, they can take some early ownership of the process, thus leading to a better future for their respective societies. It is better to reach one’s own conclusions and not go along with the often strongly normative statements which, while undoubtedly well-meant, can have strongly negative consequences when imposed on the people who are trying to regain control of their lives and to recover from physical and psychological trauma.

It is too often the case that the highly-resourced and motivated capacity-building sector takes over the role of decision-maker and executor too quickly and without explanation, leaving little for populations to decide for themselves. This is a problem that comes to the fore late in the day when the capacity-builders start to leave.

Therefore, if a conflicted society can be strengthened when key actors are given a common method of analysis and thinking that is shared with the capacity building community, then it is easier for them to take the lead in decision-making about which moves to make in the future and how to re-build their lost capacity. After all, they ‘own’ their conflict, and it follows that they ‘own’ the solutions leading to their future.

Re-building infrastructure and the structure of society in terms of promoting education and the growth of local economic communities is vital. But so is the re-building of the national ability to think objectively and critically about capacity building, and so to take objective decisions at national and local level on these matters. Objective thinking is so often as much a casualty of war as the more obvious physical dimension.


Image details

Title photo caption: UNSMIL Capacity Building Expert Holds Human Rights Workshop in Zawiya. Ghousoun Rahhal (right), a consultant on training and capacity building at the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), conducts a workshop on human rights organization in Zawiya.

Title photo credit: UN Photo/Iason Foounten


About the Author

Christopher Langton

Christopher Langton is currently the Head of Independent Conflict Research & Analysis (ICRA). He spent 32 years in the British Army.

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