Capacity building, social capital and empowerment

Capacity building is, of course, only meaningful when it refers to what it is planned to build capacity in. Here it is used to refer to building the capacity of those many individuals in agencies and communities that directly or indirectly take the lead in iniating and supporting the many social process strands that support a sustainably learning society. Social learning and empowerment are based on each other. Empowerment is the process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes.

The contemporary view of capacity-building goes beyond the conventional perception of training. The central concerns of environmental management and community building – to manage change, to resolve conflict, to manage institutional pluralism, to enhance coordination, to foster communication, and to ensure that data and information are shared – require a broad and holistic view of capacity development. This definition covers both institutional and community-based capacity-building.

One of the key requirements in this regard for capacity building is to recognise that the social whole is more than the sum of its individual components. People form social systems which provide for a range of needs not met through market transactions – households, communities of interest, locality and neighbourhoods create networks of mutual obligation, care, concern, interest and even conflict (access to other points of view). In the development and organizational learning literature these networks, norms and trust which facilitate co-operation for mutual benefit are referred to as ‘social capital’. Social capital can be thought of as the framework that supports the process of learning through interaction, and requires the formation of networking paths LfS-icon that are both horizontal (across agencies and sectors) and vertical (agencies to communities to individuals). The quality of the social processes and relationships within which learning interactions take place is especially influential on the quality of the learning outcomes in collaborative approaches. Taken one step further, this suggests that social capital plays an important role in fostering the social networks and information exchange needed to achieve collective action – and sustaining a social and institutional learning environment LfS-icon which is ready to adapt and change.

If we assume that in the short term, there will be no major shifts in financial resources to the environmental or development sectors, nor will current policies be massively altered to change the status quo, then we need strategies for other ways of empowering people and changing current practices. The use of approaches to improve social capital to better strengthen and harness many existing aspects of social relationships in environment and development may work to foster constructive change. More information on how well we can measure and improve our approaches to social capital building can be found on the page participatory monitoring and evaluation LfS-icon. See also the growing role of the Internet LfS-icon for more on how international communication technologies can play a role in building social capital if they are used to strengthen and add to existing social networks. More specific material related to capacity-building in respect of involving people and managing information can also be found on other pages from the Learning for Sustainability (LfS) main site index.


Empowerment: What is it? This Journal of Extension paper by Nanette Page and Cheryl Czuba helps us see empowerment as a multi-dimensional social process that helps people gain control over their own lives. It is a process that fosters power in people for use in their own lives, their communities, and in their society by acting on issues that they define as important.

Empowerment website The World Bank’s Empowerment website serves as a resource for those interested in the practical and conceptual dimensions of empowerment. Central to this process are actions which both build individual and collective assets, and improve the efficiency and fairness of the organizational and institutional context which govern the use of these assets.

Capacity building is an initiative of the European Centre for Development Policy Management with the aim to look at policy and practice of capacity building within international development cooperation. It focusses on both the “why” of capacity building – fostering debate on policy questions – and the “how” of capacity building – learning from practical experiences in the field. Current services include a quarterly on-line “magazine”, discussion forum, full text publications and links to related web sites.

Leadership in Sustainable Urban Water Management: An Investigation of the Champion Phenomenon within Australian Water Agencies  This report by André Taylor looks at Austalian publically-managed waterways to provide an understanding of ways to build leadership capacity within water agencies to assist the transition to more water sensitive cities. Second, it aims to communicate a suite of management strategies that can be used within water agencies to: create a supportive leadership context for champions and other leaders involved with the SUWM leadership process; foster effective champions at an executive level (‘executive champions’); attract, recruit, supervise and develop the leadership abilities of champions at a middle management level (‘project champions’); and encourage distributed (group-based) leadership throughout water agencies to assist the SUWM leadership process.

An update on the performance monitoring of capacity development programs: What are we learning? This paper by Peter Morgan sets out some tentative observations about what the international development community, including participants in both funding and host countries, are learning about the interrelationships between capacity issues and monitoring. The good news is that CDM is evolving slowly beyond the initial phase which tended to emphasize centralized direction, information extraction and methodological complexity. In particular, the development community is learning more about three key challenges: i) How to better understand capacity development issues for what they are – complex phenomena of personal, organizational and institutional change at all levels of a society; ii) How to convert conventional monitoring techniques into a participant-driven activity focused on creating self-awareness and an improved ability to manage; and iii) How to help induce an approach to learning and experimentation on capacity development programs.


Creating Capacity for Sustainable Development Agenda 21 devotes all of Chapter 37 to the topic of capacity building.


Social capital

The Role of ICT in Building Communities and Social Capital The impact of ICT on community interaction and social capital has been long debated, with arguments and research both for and against. This paper by the Australian Government’s Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts examines the debate around the impact of ICT and argues that ICT supplements and transforms social capital rather than diminishing it.


www_iconSocial capital This useful and comprehensive introduction to social capital has been prepared by Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland editor-in-chief and research director of the Civic Practices Network. Another useful introduction is the Guide to Social Capital – Measuring networks and shared values www_icon produced by the UK Office for National Statistics. It provides nice, short summaries of most key aspects of social capital including the differences between bonding, bridging and linking social capital. The role of social capital in collaborative learning www_icon is a summary article by Will Allen and colleagues introducing social capital, horizontal and vertical linkages, and issues related to measurement.

www_iconThe social capital Gateway This is one of the web’s key resources on social capital. Dr. Fabio Sabatini has written numerous articles on social capital and is the author and editor of Social Capital Gateway. The site aims to provide useful resources for researchers, teachers, students, and practitioners interested in the study of social capital and other related topics, like poverty and development; and to promote discussion and ideas exchange on these topics.

www_iconAssist Social Capital This Scottish-based organisation provides a range of social capital facilitation services. It is a social enterprise that promotes best practice in social capital. By providing opportunities for people to learn more about it we facilitate the process of applying social capital in practice to improve the quality of life in our communities. They manage a web portal, information database, e-bulletin and support networking events. A number of useful documents www_icon can be accessed from their site.

www_iconSustainable communities: the important role of local government in building social capital Social Capital theory provides a (another) theoretical framework/ perspective from which to draw knowledge and ideas for engaging people within communities. Understanding the importance of trust and the strong correlation with community involvement and reciprocal behaviour, should influence the design of engagement strategies and help us understand why one community engagement model or strategy will not suit all communities. This paper by Glenys Butler goes on to explore how local government can draw on the concept of social capital to engage communities.

www_iconConceptualising and measuring social capital: a new approach This paper by Yaojun Li, Andrew Pickles and Mike Savage aims to show that it is possible to break down different dimensions of social capital, which vary in their impact on social trust and which are unevenly distributed across social groups. The authors conclude that it is indeed the kinds of informal networks emphasised by Lin and Bourdieu, rather than the civic participation emphasised by Putnam, which may be more important when understanding the significance of social capital.

Social capital: A tool for public policy. This 2005 study by the Canadian government Policy Research Initiative (PRI) concludes that government action could be more effective if, in developing relevant programs and initiatives, the role of social capital were taken into account more systematically. This summary report shows which areas of policy lend themselves to improvement by the development of social capital, and the types of approaches that could be used to achieve this. More complete studies to support this are provided in the following reports:

www_iconMeasuring social capital in five communities in NSW This paper by Paul Bullen & Jenny Onyx looks at what social capital is, what it is made up of, and how it can be used in practical terms.


www_iconThe role of social capital and trust Extensive pages from the Centre for Research and Learning in Regional Australia – University of Tasmania – on this topic [Note: You need to look in their archives]


www_iconSustaining the Rural Landscape by Building Community Social Capital This paper by Mildred Warner, Clare Hinrichs, Judy Schneyer, and Lucy Joyce describes how social capital works in community organizing in an urbanizing environment. Examination of Extension efforts to help preserve the rural landscape in two counties in New York State relied on techniques that build social capital while at the same time promoting environmental sustainability. Two organizing strategies were key: the need to create new forums for interaction of diverse interests, and the need to build ties that bridge across those interests.