$150US billion is spent annually on international aid. 25% percent of this goes to capacity development projects—most of which fall well short of their objectives. Yet, nothing is more important to a new, fragile or developing nation than developing the capacity of its government to support national well-being. Every society is complex; every government is complex. Surprisingly, well-intentioned international development aid, born in an era of infrastructure projects, continues to apply simplistic technical solutions to these wickedly complex development problems. It’s an outside-in approach that rarely succeeds, even by the development industry’s own admission. But out there, amongst the billions of dollars of failed interventions, are bright spots of success – places where capacity is harnessed. What is working so well? Drawing on research, practical experience, and stories of success, Jim Armstrong explores these emerging approaches in his new book Improving International Capacity Development: Bright Spots published by Palgrave MacMillan (May 2013) More information, including a sample chapter and order form, can be found on the book’s website.


Endorsements for Improving International Capacity Development: Bright Spots

‘This book is a well-documented, fascinating and insightful analysis of how to apply principles of change to the business of government and the public sector. For those in government making a contribution to society, it illuminates a way forward in creating impact for citizens served. It is a must read for all students and practitioners implementing OD in the public sector.

– Lennox Joseph, American University, USA

‘Whether you work in Government, an NGO, the private sector, or a donor agency, this book is important because it focuses on a critical gap in implementing governance improvement programs. Armstrong focuses attention on the importance of national ownership of the development agenda and provides some concrete alternatives and examples of where this has made a difference.’

– Fred Carden, RTI International, Indonesia

‘This is an extremely timely book. The author recognizes an emerging consensus that for a developing country to raise itself out of poverty – and to stay that way – it needs a capable government that is responsive to the needs of the population. With a clear and well-targeted focus on government capacity development, the author observes that ‘Building effective and accountable public institutions is arguably the core challenge for sustainable poverty reduction.”

– Peter Taylor, Think Tank Initiative, Canada

‘In this outstanding book, Jim Armstrong brings a much-needed set of theoretical and practical insights to the field of Government Capacity Development. This is an important book which should be widely read not only by governments and their advisors but also business people who wish to help enhance the future of their nations.’

– Karl Moore, McGill University, Canada


Review of Improving International Capacity Development: Bright Spots

The world is facing troubled and uncertain times. For too long, we have focused largely on the invisible hand of the market acting through corporations. We have relied on these institutions to help us move forward on some of the world’s most critical problems. Yet, during the Great Recession, I believe that many came to see that government has a critical role it should play, in concert with business and civil society. In this outstanding book, Jim Armstrong brings a much needed set of theoretical and practical insights to the field of international government capacity development (GCD). If there is any hope of solving the crushing poverty and civil unrest that still plague many corners of the world, the civil service and the institution of government must be strengthened. Armstrong emphasizes the importance of the civil service and, more specifically, the role that the often maligned technocrat played in the development of now-rich countries. He explains how the capacity of these stakeholders evolved over time to suit the needs of a country. However, an important issue has come to the fore in the past decade.

Can these models be successfully adopted by developing countries? GCD efforts have gone awry mainly because efforts have been made to implement a standard model for all nations and civil services. Armstrong delves into how development and assessment programmes often lack potency due to the complexity of the issues they face when combined with the adoption of a stale approach. For a long time, external government agencies and other institutions have treated these problems from the outside-in, electing for a top-down approach that has yielded little success. Part of the problem with this approach lies in its underlying ideology. The author compares the positivist view of knowledge with that of the constructivist. Although the positivist approach can have some success, he convincingly asserts that constructivist methods are much more in line with the complex problems of capacity development. The positivist approach tries to strip away context and freeze a problem in time so it can be analysed and addressed. Social constructivism rightly observes that in a social system there is no universal solution and that context will inevitably shape the solution. In the end, the author argues that social constructivism is better suited to tackle capacity development and the governance of public institutions. He also states, however, that there definitely is, and must be, room for the positivist approach within many projects, and attempting to approach these problems from only one perspective is folly.

Armstrong then examines a real-life case study of the Trinidad and Tobago programme called Ministerial Performance Management Framework, introduced to initiate and sustain a culture of performance transformation. This case forms the foundation for analysis in the remainder of the book. The historical survey of the case examines failed attempts at revitalizing the civil service and finally examines how, with a renewed focus on performance management through capacity building, the country was and is making real strides towards its goal. Yet, progress is subject to the effects of political shifts and personal and partisan interests.

In order to tackle the wicked problems of GCD, the author argues for a non-linear process and outlines distinctive strategies for dealing with wicked problems – the system working with an external facilitator but also harnessing the knowledge and purpose lying within the system itself. He emphasizes the importance of developing a system that can handle a changing environment and one that welcomes the opportunity to learn from failed projects, instead of simply dismissing them or not allowing riskier projects at all. Capacity development needs experimentation and adaption.

The author goes in depth into the many rounds of development the Trinidad and Tobago project underwent to examine the co-diagnostic process of capacity development projects, along with co-learning, co-acting, and co-evaluating. Each of these four aspects emerges from the author’s extensive research into and analysis of surprising successes or bright spots in international GCD. After clearly explaining each of the four aspects, the author presents the results of his research of the GCD in the Trinidad and Tobago central case study. The book concludes with ‘The Way Ahead’, in which the author answers his questions about improvements to GCD and discusses the challenges that are still faced when dealing with the wicked problem of improving public sector capacity.

This is an important book which should be widely read not only by governments and their advisors but also business people who wish to help enhance the future of their nations.

Karl Moore, Associate Professor, Desautels Faculty of Management,McGill University; and Associate Fellow, Green Templeton College, Oxford University


About the Author: James Armstrong
Jim Armstrong is President of The Governance Network™ and has been involved with major change projects with national leaders around the globe. He has a PhD in Applied Management from the University of Birmingham, UK and Master’s degrees from the University of Guelph, Canada and HEC, France and University of Oxford, UK. He is a member of the ChangeLeaders. Contact Jim at jim@governancenet.com