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Building Capacity vs. Building Capability: Why Development Needs ‘Systems Thinking’

Roxanne Bauer's picture

This is the fifth post in a series of six in which Michael Woolcock, Lead Social Development Specialist at the World Bank and lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, discusses critical ideas within the field of Social Development.

Development is both an individual and collective endeavor. To be lifted out of poverty, people must attend school, stay healthy, live free of violence, and find rewarding employment— to name a few.  Yet these achievements rely on the systems that provide these services and opportunities— the educational system, the healthcare system, the police and civil servants… the list goes on.  

Systems, as many of us know, rely on a huge amount of human interaction. Every system relies on time being kept, progress and problems being reported, and rules being followed. This is why Michael Woolcock emphasizes that development could be more effective if it focused on building the capability of systems, not just the capacity of individuals. 

In his mind, capacity building involves strengthening the individual ability of people to function or perform tasks. It therefore, focuses on skills training and improving technical ability among individuals. But people change, they move around, they leave.  What is really needed for development to take hold are strong systems that can deliver services and weather storms. These complex systems underpin much of what people do and require learned collective skills, robust structures, rules that apply for everyone.


The hardest system to enact and sustain is justice, says Woolcock. Most people think it’s a good idea to have a well-functioning health care system or to provide schools. However, very powerful people or organizations often do not want a well-functioning justice system and can enact very vicious forces to ensure that the same rules do not apply to everyone, that their rules are different from the ones that apply to everybody else.

In an ideal state, he says, “there are a countervailing set of forces so that powerful people are held in check.” The most difficult task but perhaps the most important task of all is to figure out how to constrain those powerful forces that do not have the best interests of society of society in mind.

Please note, this video was filmed in September 2016.

To watch this video and others like it from leading voices in development, visit us at the Public Sphere's YouTube Channel.

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