Though international development experts rarely agree upon anything, most accept that effective and accountable government institutions, including security institutions, are a prerequisite for other development. In fragile and conflict countries, institutions are often particularly weak, yet the capacity-development programs intended to improve institutions have been largely unsuccessful. The primary cause is flawed programming, which relies on routine training and cookie-cutter reforms rather than tailored guidance. The solution is to transition toward a mentoring model that puts learners in the drivers’ seat and sets principles (like stability or transparent governance), not discrete skills, as the objective of institution-strengthening programs. This model can apply to governance interventions in virtually any sector, including security, finance, health, education, or rule of law among others.

Given the billions of dollars in international aid being committed to fragile and conflict countries, understanding how capacity development may (and may not) help attain these objectives is critical. Typical capacity-development programs have two fundamental problems. First, when training is provided, it is usually traditional, one-way instruction. Second, in part because they are often led by foreigners with limited local knowledge, training is either toosophisticated or simplistic for the operating environment, too broad ornarrow to address operational challenges, or culturally ill-suited. In short, the average capacity-development program constitutes a terrible mechanism for enabling learning or achieving change in complex environments.

Nevertheless, government capacity-development programs can be improved by applying basic principles of adult learning, as demonstrated elsewhere. Business training programs that incorporated intensive learning followed by practical on-the-job support achieved statistically successful outcomes. Similarly, capacity-building programs that pursued sensible “best-fit” solutions, such as “ Rule of Thumb” financial literacy, have had better results than standard “best practice” training. Finally, the comparative effectiveness of cash-transfer programs, wherein recipients decide how best to utilize aid, suggests locally owned decisionmaking can outperform externally imposed strategizing.


So, what would an effective capacity-development program look like? It would:

  • Support experiential learning . Scholarship confirms that adults are most motivated to learn things that pertain to real-life assignments. In conflict zones, especially, key decisionmakers and officials cannot be spared from their day jobs for lengthy training programs. Learning must happen on the job.
  • Emphasize learner-driven learning . Protégés need to own the learning process in order to make it sustainable. The instructor’s primary role is to support, collaborate, and facilitate.
  • Enable organizational learning . Organizational level learning only happens when an institution’s people can convert learning into practice. Training individuals is therefore necessary but not sufficient. Learners often need assistance to navigate intangible but essential activities like generating buy-in for new ideas or developing coalitions. Such activities cannot be precisely anticipated, particularly in fluid environments, and are best supported through ongoing engagement.
  • Focus on tacit (not codifiable) information exchange . Tacit information consists of skills and knowledge that is difficult to access or standardize, crucial to collaboration, and transferred mainly through personal interactions. Transference thus requires nuanced understanding and give-and-take between the bearer and recipient, features rarely characterizing classroom-based formats or large group settings.

In a word: mentoring.

Mentoring—as opposed to training—is defined by a partnering relationship, in which the protégé directs his/her learning with support and guidance from an experienced and trusted mentor. Consequently, mentoring can provide meaningful capacity building while enhancing local control and ownership.


Donors recognize that capacity building must be led by aid recipients and supported by donors (seehere, here, and here). Unfortunately, this intent rarely survives into practice. Take the World Bank’s Capacity Development Results Framework as an example. First, World Bank “program team[s]” rather than local “stakeholders” are responsible for key tasks such as identifying learning objectives, designing and adjusting programs, and assessing success. Second, almost all learning activities are traditional, transmit-based methods rather than experiential, student-driven practices. As a result, they perpetuate a “vicious cycle.” Poor or lagging results are perceived as weak in-country capacity or commitment (not poor programming!) and prompt donors to reassert control, usually under the rationale of ensuring accountability or reaching predetermined milestones. Overall, current frameworks neither foster local ownership nor develop much capacity.

Paradigm Change

Credible mentoring programs could substantially benefit countries transitioning out of conflict. Implementation, however, will require donors and partners to commit to several key reforms.

  • First, redirect the flow of accountability and resources. Currently, money goes from donors to implementing partners (only occasionally through to the recipient). Instead, wherever possible, donors should disperse aid directly to recipient institutions to support proposed capacity-development plans from the recipient or the recipient and its chosen mentor[s]. Mentors will thereby work for and report to the recipient first, secondarily to the donor who should be a collaborator, not director, of the program. This helps recipients maintain operational and creative control, keeps mentors accountable and responsive to the needs of their protégés, and creates a beneficial mutual pressure. Recipients and mentors will pursue certain performance standards to earn donor funding. Likewise, donors, already under pressure to dispense funds and justify budgets, will fund programs that meet recipient, not only donor, objectives. Where corruption is a problem, paying in monthly tranches and incorporating mentor verification of expenditures can limit the risk of misused funds.
  • Second, reimagine methods for measuring success. Most monitoring and evaluation tools predominantly benefit donors, employing an “auditing” method inappropriate for learner-directed projects. Donors and mentors will need to adopt more “ joint diagnostic experiences” that allow protégés to assess their competency against professed learning objectives, their effectiveness at integrating learning into practice, and remaining gaps or new objectives.
  • Third, deploy a different brand of practitioner. Many excellent direct service practitioners are not good teachers, and many effective teachers are not good mentors. It is very temping for experts to lapse into do-it-yourself mode to “get things done” when protégés are struggling to learn or deliver on an objective. Mentoring programs will have to select personnel carefully who can support, guide, and collaborate, not “do.

Improving governance is a naturally iterative process, made all the more difficult in fragile and conflict countries. Capacity-development programs that try to predict what skills, reforms, or policies can be most usefully adopted (and enforced) by evolving institutions are as likely to be wrong as right. Thus trainings based on predetermined curricula or practice are a highly speculative gamble. Rather than “doubling down” on unsuccessful programs just to prove their commitment to fragile countries, donors should scale back and look to support credible mentoring programs that enable locals to exercise substantive leadership in meaningful capacity development and institution building.

Marc Frey is a senior associate with the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and a director at Bancroft Global Development. Whitney Shinkle is a strategic adviser at Bancroft, a nonprofit and a venture capital partnership specializing in conflict zone transitions.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Marc Frey
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program

Whitney Shinkle