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A Primer on Capacity Building

Abstract: “Capacity building” is a phrase used frequently today in many contexts, but its definition and implications are too often unclear or misunderstood. Its rapid ascendancy into our vocabulary may leave the impression that it is an entirely new construct, although that is not the case. This paper will review some of the roots of the concept in the thinking of professionals, writers and activists from many fields. It will explore the multiple ways that “capacity building” is being defined today, with an emphasis on its use in connection with international development. And it will make the case for engineering educators to align themselves and their students with overseas projects which promise the best long range results for developing countries.


The media have made aid to underdeveloped countries a staple item for the past few years. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with its vast resources, now makes headlines regularly. When Warren Buffett added his billions to it, interest grows. When those resources are turned to the eradication of malaria, HIV/Aids and TB, the public around the world pays even greater attention. Then add forays into Africa by stars such as Angelina Jolie, who returned to the US with an Ethiopian child in her arms, snatched from poverty into a life of predictable wealth. Then formerly large US foundations such as Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller reveal that they are grappling with a changed landscape for donors of their size, their wealth transformed and downscaled in comparison with Gates-Buffett, and their goals, subsequently, brought under internal scrutiny, including their collaborative African initiatives. Recently, both Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Southeast Asia turned a spotlight onto emergency preparedness and humanitarian relief operations. As these events play out in public, development strategies aimed at the poorest countries have become a topic of considerable interest to the general public.

Engineering educators have special need to be familiar with the vocabulary of international development for several reasons. 1) The skills and competencies they possess, teach and practice are among the most valuable to countries trying to respond to critical events and improve their lot. 2) The emphasis on preparation of engineers for international practice has made overseas projects such as those associated with Engineers Without Borders attractive as a component of the undergraduate curriculum. 3) Making it possible for engineering students to indulge in both international travel and community service increases the attractiveness of engineering as a major.

But the world of development is increasingly specialized, complex, and politicized, making it difficult for many engineering educators to decide how to guide students who want to get involved in development initiatives. It is useful to look at development strategies involving engineers which already in place and weigh which might be the most best at providing students with academically solid experience as well as doing the maximum amount of good to the recipients. In particular, it is helpful to examine the notion of “capacity building,” a popular concept that has passed into jargon, to see what characterizes it and how it differs from other, more familiar forms of development initiatives.

Capacity Building

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