Cambridge English Dictionary defines capacity as someone’s ability to do a particular thing.
Capacity refers to all the strengths, attributes, and resources available within a community, organisation or society to manage, and reduce disaster risks, and strengthen resilience. A capable, and accountable state, supported by an effective civil society, and engaged private sector, are however indispensable for capacity building, and sustainable reduction of disaster risk.
It is important to reinforce people’s capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from disasters, rather than simply focusing on the vulnerability that limits them. Like vulnerability, capacity depends on social, economic, political, psychological, environmental, and physical assets, and the wider governance regimes – and like vulnerability it can be described using different terms.
Capacity is sometimes described as the opposite of vulnerability, but this overlooks the fact that even poor, and vulnerable people have capacities. Existing knowledge, strengths, attributes, and resources of individuals, organisations or communities are indeed starting point for capacity development. Capacity may also include infrastructure, institutions, human knowledge, and skills, as also collective attributes such as social relationships, leadership, and management.
Coping capacity is a related concept, which refers to the ability of people, organisations, and systems to use available skills, and resources to manage adverse conditions, risk or disasters. The capacity to cope requires continuing awareness, resources, and good management, both in normal times as well as during crises or adverse conditions. Coping capacity also depends on adequate household assets, and supportive social, and governance relations, and can be thought of as a component of wider capacity development for disaster risk reduction.
Capacity development is the process by which people, organisations, and society systematically stimulate, and develop their capacities over time to achieve social, and economic goals. It is a concept that extends the scope of capacity building to encompass all aspects of creating, and sustaining capacity development over time. It involves learning, and various type of trainings, as also continuous efforts to develop institutions, political awareness, financial resources, technology systems, and the wider enabling environment.
Why does capacity matter?
Capacity is central to reducing disaster risk, and therefore critical to meeting development objectives. Disaster risk reduction requires an all-of-society engagement, and partnership. It also requires empowerment, and inclusive, accessible, and non-discriminatory participation.
At the household level, capacities are often internal (sometimes called endogenous) to communities, meaning that people have more control over them. Rather than attempting to reduce vulnerability, building capacity might therefore be an easier strategy for individuals, since many of the drivers of vulnerability are not influenced by households, but instead by economic, and political conditions, such as governance.
In many low- and middle-income countries, the impact of regular disasters (extensive risks) are often absorbed by low-income households, thereby maintaining, and increasing poverty, and undermining development outcomes. Enhancing capacity thus offers opportunity for the vulnerable communities to reduce their disaster risk, and adapt to climate change.
Capacity assessment is the process by which the capacity of a group is reviewed against desired goals, where existing capacities are identified for maintenance or strengthening, and capacity gaps are identified for further action.
Capacity resides at three related levels; in individuals, in organizations, and in the overall working environment within which individuals, and organizations operate – the enabling environment, which strongly relates to the concept of resilience. Each of these can be an entry point for capacity assessment.
Enabling environment: Sometimes referred to as the societal or institutional level, capacities at the level of the enabling environment relate to the broader system within which individuals, and organizations function. Capacities at the level of the enabling environment relate to the rules, laws, and legislations, policies, power relations, and social norms. Governments, civil society, and the private sector therefore have an opportunity, and obligation to work together to commit to a safer future, and therefore their capacity for engagement can be assessed across all sectors (such as climate change, finance, planning), and levels (e.g. small and medium enterprise, farmers, insurers).
The organizational level: This level is a common entry point for capacity assessment, and relates to the internal structure, policies, systems, and procedures that determine effectiveness, and ability of an organization to deliver on its mandate, and allow individuals to work together. Organizational level capacities help in development, and application of internal policies, arrangements, procedures, and frameworks, which is necessary for the delivery of the mandate of the organization.
It is not only about skills, but also incentives, and governance. People, and organizations could have strong or weak incentives to change, develop, and learn, as a result of their environment or internal factors.
The individual level: This level relates to the skills, experience, and knowledge of people that allow them to perform. Capacity assessment at this level is commonly implemented by researchers, and non-governmental organizations working at the local level. However, individual capacity has to be understood within the context of both the organizational level, and enabling environment.
Institutional arrangements, leadership, knowledge, and accountability are four key issues common to most capacity assessments are. Not every assessment needs to cover all these issues, but these should be considered while defining the scope of an assessment.
Capacity building refers to the initial stages of building or creating capacities. Capacity development is a concept that extends the scope of capacity building to encompass all aspects of creating, and sustaining capacity growth over time. It is the process by which people, organizations, and society systematically stimulate, and develop to achieve social, and economic goals, including through improvement of knowledge, skills, systems, and institutions.
It involves learning, and various type of training, as also continuous efforts to develop institutions, political awareness, financial resources, technology systems, and the wider social and cultural enabling environment.
Furthermore, capacity development commonly refers to a process that is driven from the inside, and starts from existing capacity assets. Integral to capacity development is bringing about transformation – changing mindsets, and attitudes rather than just performing tasks. However, measuring change, and results in concrete terms remains a major challenge.
Locally generated, owned, and sustained capacity is essential to the success of any DRR enterprise.
The development of disaster risk reduction capacity is the concern of the entire society, rather than of any single agency, professional discipline, or stakeholder group. An enabling environment such as strong political ownership, and commitment at the highest levels of authority, extensive participation, transparency, and clear public accountability is essential for translating capacity into performance. Indeed, for risk information to become risk knowledge, the basic parameters of accountability have to be clarified in a way that provides clear incentives to manage risks, and to ensure compliance.
Organizations provide the framework for individuals to work together for a common vision, and act on a shared set of goals. Organizational capacity might be enhanced, and assessed in the areas of governance, administration, human resources, financial management, organizational management, and program management. Within the context of disaster risk reduction, capacity building provides the basis for a proactive strategy that starts with the creation of awareness about risk assessment, risk reduction, and risk prevention, while also examining potential threats or dangers and their mitigation.
Capacities at the individual level can be acquired formally through education, and training, whilst others emerge through observing and doing, and increasingly through networking, leadership development, action learning, and multi-stakeholder platforms. Local level capacity building should build on the existing knowledge of local communities, established often through their experience of disasters. Local level capacity development activities include:
- Anticipate such as awareness raising of risk, education, participating in and implementing risk assessments, and the like,
- Cope such as training in first aid, securing home, learning to swim, and the like,
- Resist such as preparedness measures including establishing early warning systems, designing evacuation strategies, stock piling emergency equipment, and the like, and
- Recover such as alternative means of income, diverse livelihoods, networks, social protection, and the like.
Capacity development is however more than building of technical capacities – it is associated with professional disciplines or particular sector requirements (e.g. environmental management). It needs to be combined with promotion of leadership, and other managerial capacities, known as functional capacities, which include the capacity to:
- Engage stakeholders
- Assess a situation, and define a vision
- Formulate policies, and strategies
- Budget, manage, and implement
There is much to be learned from the experience of implementing capacity development programs for disaster risk reduction. Presently, there is high degree of ambiguity in terminology used regarding what disaster risk reduction, capacity development, and ownership means in theory and practice. There are also different notions of understanding the local context, capacity assessment, as well as the division of roles, and responsibilities. Enhancing the disaster risk reduction capacity of organizations, and individuals is an ongoing requirement to build a culture of resilience.
Seven elements are identified for disaster risk reduction related capacity development for noteworthy results, across many contexts:
- Local context
- Capacity assessment
- Roles, and responsibilities
- Mix of activities
- Monitoring, evaluation, and learning