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What works and what doesn’t: capacity development for better disaster risk management

 The international humanitarian community agrees that building and strengthening the capacity of national and local actors is critical to improving disaster risk management. Each year, millions of dollars are invested by international donor agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs) in initiatives to build capacity but surprisingly little is known about the effectiveness or the long-term impact of this investment.

Chapter 2 presents preliminary findings from IFRC’s global review of capacity development initiatives and the impact on disaster risk management for local actors. The review is a contribution toward growing an evidence base of successful design and implementation, and challenges and solutions for capacity development initiatives for disaster risk management to share with the humanitarian community.

Capacity development is one of the central tenants of IFRC’s approach to equal partnership with and investment in National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. While international solidarity is crucial in responding to short-term humanitarian needs such as emergencies, it cannot substitute for legitimate and accountable local actors, including National Societies carrying out relevant and sustained humanitarian work.

IFRC’s global review presents six country case studies, from Ethiopia, Haiti, Mozambique, Myanmar, Pakistan, and the Philippines, which document what works, and where the challenges lie in partnering with local communities, organizations and governments to design and deliver capacity development that is effective, has lasting impact, and encourages participation and ownership of disaster risk management initiatives.

The chapter demonstrates that capacity development has the potential to enhance and mainstream disaster risk reduction (DRR) perspectives and priorities across all levels, from government policy and programme design to community level planning. However, for this to be truly effective there needs to be a shift in understanding capacity development as simply the provision of equipment and training to enhance technical knowledge. Building capacity should be envisioned more widely to incorporate functional capacity development – establishing decision-making mechanisms, plans, regulations and structures to enable disaster risk management.

The study finds that investment in capacity development pays off in the long term if it is driven by real local need, and if local participants and organizations are active in programme design. It is clear from the case study research that grass-roots participation in DRR capacity development initiatives is enhanced when culturally relevant methods are used, particularly if they are creative or unusual.  This requires a willingness to go beyond merely fulfilling donor requirements and facilitating agreed deliverables.

Principles of best practice in design and implementation of capacity development can be summarised as flexibility, ownership, comprehensive planning, interaction between actors and scales, attention to functional capacity development, and the need to foster cross-sectorial capacity for broad based DRR approaches.

Each case study was considered through the prism of these six principles and from this four overall themes emerged.

Building ownership through participation

Building ownership through participation is critical for effective disaster risk management. This is true at all levels, from government right through to communities. The active participation of those targeted by capacity development initiatives in design and implementation of the process ensures not only the relevance of the programme to the situation on the ground, but also strengthens motivation to utilise and maintain new skills and knowledge attained. The study shows, ownership requires a genuine commitment of time, structured activities, and creativity and flexibility from all partners involved.

Creating an enabling environment

In essence an ‘enabling environment’ is one where there is a strong drive to ensure sufficient support and prioritisation of DRR within a country or region. Capacity development initiatives must be responsive to the challenges and obstacles that may impact participation or motivation. At the community level, an enabling environment could be created by linking enhanced disaster risk management with stronger livelihoods—creating a tangible rationale for participation by simultaneously strengthening livelihoods and reducing vulnerability to hazards like landslides or flash floods.

At a national level, establishing a national cadre of disaster risk management professionals is key to creating an enabling environment. It creates a think-tank of expertise and mentorship, and can go someway to discouraging turn over of staff, which is a major obstacle to maintaining institutional knowledge and skill, and ultimately the sustainability of capacity development initiatives. 

Improving the impact of training

The study finds, that beyond the provision of technical training, there is an urgent need for the functional aspects of disaster risk management including improved policies, planning, decision-making mechanisms and coordination to be incorporated into capacity development. Functional capacity can be a by-product of improved technical capacity. However, the chapter calls for functional capacity to be consciously incorporated into the design of capacity development programmes, even if this is to simply expand technical training courses to include functional capacity development. For instance, this was effective in the Philippines case study, where a course on DRR capacity enhancement trained government officials in aspects of effective planning to build technical knowledge. Participants then applied their new knowledge during the training to drafting a local DRR plan and devised a system for reviewing, finalizing and implementing the plan after the training.   

Supporting the mainstreaming of disaster risk management into wider government processes

DRR can be effectively mainstreamed through capacity development initiatives, by fostering support and the prioritisation of integrating DRR into government planning processes across branches and other agencies engaged in development.  IFRC’s study has found that organizations engaged in DRR capacity development are taking a refreshingly progressive approach to pursuing participation, creating ownership and building on existing capacities and DRR structures.

Chapter 2 shows there are still shortfalls in the capacity development such as a lack of emphasis on disaster prevention/mitigation, sustainable recovery, vulnerability reduction or paying attention to gender dimensions. In particular, there is a need for a better understanding of how to increase the sustainability and impact of capacity gains. Nevertheless, capacity development initiatives can contribute, either explicitly or inadvertently, to creating ‘enabling environments’ for a shift towards a wider and lasting DRR perspective. 

Key principles for effective DRM capacity development

Be flexible and adaptable

Capacity development interventions should be approached flexibly, ensuring that the design of programmes is adapted to context, rather than being imposed by an external actor as a ‘blueprint’. 

Plan comprehensively

Capacity development programmes must be carefully designed so that they are appropriate to the context, and are responsive and sustainable. Plans should be based on existing capacities. The timetabling of programme activities should be appropriate to the context .

Ensure ownership and foster partnership

Those targeted for capacity development should have a leading role in the capacity development programme, both in its design and implementation.  Active participation contributes to ownership, along with clear statements of responsibilities and engagement of leaders.

Build interaction between scales and actors

Capacity development initiatives should enhance capacities to coordinate across scales and to work with stakeholders, bridging capacity and communication gaps. 

Emphasize functional capacity building

Capacity development programmes can help to foster an enabling environment in practical ways, by developing incentive structures for performance and to ensure staff retention, for example. Programmes can also promote political conditions required to support DRR as a priority. 

Contribute to DRR and wider resilience

Ultimately, DRM capacity development interventions need to adopt a more holistic DRR-influenced approach, including moving beyond short-term emergency management to building capacities in disaster prevention, mitigation and recovery.

Also available in: French, Spanish, Arabic

World Disasters Report - Chapter 2