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Reimagining technical assistance: from capacity substitution to capacity development

How to move the discussion on technical assistance away from something provided by ‘development’ organisations, and towards technical assistance as a policy option for solving implementation challenges.


Technical assistance has been central to development assistance since the 1950s. We tend to view it as an element of development programming provided from ‘developed’, advanced economies, to ‘less-developed’, poorer economies. But is this really the right way to see technical assistance?

Over the past decade, a growing number of authors have begun to write about the fallacy of technical assistance provided to solve a problem – weak public financial management, poor health outcomes, etc. Many relevant voices have built much needed communities of practice and reflection, including around Thinking and Working Politically, Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation, what works when delivering projects, and other online communities exchanging ideas and practices on adaptive management and how to address some of the difficult implementation challenges. In our view, these debates are essential and have moved the conversation on technical assistance forward.

But the conversation now needs to move on. We need to to move the discussion on technical assistance away from technical assistance as something provided by ‘development’ organisations, and towards technical assistance as a policy option for solving implementation challenges. This shift constitutes a critical starting point for an honest and pragmatic discussion on how to make change happen. Most governments make policy choices on the provision of technical assistance through the lenses of day-to-day decisions and the trade-offs in implementing government policy. Technical assistance is a policy choice any government can make.

What does technical assistance as a policy choice look like?

Conceptualising technical assistance as a policy choice requires a change in perspective – a shift from a view of technical assistance as building capacity and enabling governments to improve implementation at the same time, to a view of technical assistance as a policy tool, that addresses a specific problem. For this shift to be significant, it is critical that a government clearly defines the objective of the technical assistance. To do this, it is essential that the government, and the funder (if these are different), are conscious of the type of problem that the technical assistance is intended to solve.

That problem-driven support is more effective than solution-driven technical assistance has become increasingly accepted in the international development community, even if it’s not always the practice. What is often unrecognised is that the focus on the problem must include a clear choice, by government, on how it wants to solve a particular policy challenge. Government ownership, in short, includes identifying how best to solve the policy problem – not just identifying the objective of the technical assistance.

What is the objective of technical assistance?

The starting point for policy-driven technical assistance is a clear objective. This process requires a meaningful dialogue between governments and funders when designing technical assistance programmes. Ring-fencing these issues during the design stage, and subsequently developing and agreeing on the appropriate rules of engagement between the parties, is key to ensuring that the support remains focused on the core issues and can over time build sustainable capacity in the recipient government.

Moreover, governments make decisions every day to balance short-term political agendas with long-term development objectives. To achieve these objectives, governments need support. Strengthening government capacity is not an agenda only for the least developed countries, it is an ongoing agenda for all governments. The main difference is that poorer countries may need support from development partners to design and finance some of the technical assistance they require.

Technical assistance as a policy choice

Probably the most common fallacy of technical assistance programmes is to assume that any technical assistance delivered is able to build capacity in government. We believe that is not the case. To clarify, by capacity, we refer to a simple definition of national actors being able to deliver functions they are designed to deliver.

For instance, if governments choose to use externals to do the work and replace government functions, it is not realistic to expect that this will build the capability to do the work independently of consultants. On the contrary, it will create a need for more consultancy services in the future. Similarly, partnerships to deliver work may be ideal for filling essential gaps at critical moments for a government, but these will have practical limitations as regards to building capacity. Capacity development takes time, patience, resources, consistency and complementarity of donors’ efforts. It extends beyond the life of a programme and can require donors to come together in a joint effort to support the country’s development objectives. The type of technical assistance provided, is therefore, as much a policy choice for government, as the problem, they are trying to solve.

We see three type of technical assistance that can be deployed as a policy response to various problems government’s want to solve. These are: Doers (substituting government functions), partners (supporting governments, usually in areas of highly specialised expertise), or facilitators (enabling government counterparts to build the necessary capacity to perform their functions).

In order to choose from this menu, or to combine different types of technical assistance, the government needs to be clear about the objectives of the support they require, and hopefully also to link this with their vision for the country’s development priorities.

We are aware that the practice of implementing such an approach is complicated, usually because of the trade-offs that both governments and donors need to make to design impactful development programmes. In our next blog, we aim to engage with some of the difficulties in making this model a reality.


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