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OPINION - Confusing Cause and Effect


Len Abrams

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Capacity Building for water supply and sanitation development
at local level

The Threshold Concept

A paper delivered at the 2nd UNDP Symposium on Water Sector Capacity Building
Delft, Netherlands, 4 - 6 December 1996

Len Abrams


This discussion document seeks to set out a framework for effective capacity building at Local Government and community level in order to ensure sustainable water supply and sanitation services. The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry in South Africa is engaged in a nation wide programme of Local Government support for the development of basic water supply and sanitation services. It is important to develop, in conjunction with all role players, a rational and well considered framework for these activities. This document does not yet constitute official government policy - it is work-in-progress which is attempting to establish a real tool for an immediate crisis.

Local government is in an embryonic stage at present in many parts of the country, particularly in rural areas. The new Constitution requires the real engagement of local people in governing and running their own affairs. This is not only a moral and political issue, it is also an important development principle. Experience throughout the world indicates that where local people are not responsible for local services, sustainability of development is not achievable. Throughout Africa, both the engagement of local people in their own development and ensuring sustainability are two enduring problems. To ensure the proper functioning of government, particularly at local level, and the efficient delivery of services, the abilities and skills of local people need to be built.

Throughout this document "communities" are referred to. The dilemma facing both local government and the Department, however, is that it is a proven fact the world over that local services are only sustainable if owned and operated at an appropriately local level. In many rural areas the only feasible, affordable option for water supply and sanitation services are small, localised schemes which are best operated and maintained at the local level of the scheme. In these cases the larger structures of District Councils / Transitional Rural Councils are too large and some form of delegated local service committee sub-structure of local government will need to be established to perform the day-to-day functions needed for sustainable service provision. "Community" is therefore used in a generic form to incorporate the concept of appropriate local level responsibility, within the framework of Local Government.

What is capacity building?

"Capacity building" is commonly mis-conceived as merely the building of local skills and abilities. This term has become over-used in recent years to the point where it has lost most of its meaning. Capacity building is required for most projects financed by any sector of government. The proposals submitted by a wide variety of consultants, development agencies, NGOs and others all generally include a section on capacity building, however the quality of the work done and the conceptual basis varies enormously.

Capacity building is the process whereby a community equips itself to undertake the necessary functions of governance and service provision in a sustainable fashion. The process of capacity building must be aimed at both increasing access to resources and to changing the power relationships between the parties involved. The "community" may be a local government, a village level committee or even a central government department. Capacity building is not only constrained to officials and technicians but must also include the general awareness of the local population regarding their services and development in general.

Greater understanding is needed of the dynamics and processes of capacity building and greater rigor is needed in the planning, design and implementation of capacity building activities. Most "capacity building" is carried out on a project by project basis as a "tack-on" to the main contract of physical service delivery. There is seldom a planning process which involves a whole area and which address capacity building and training on a long-term, programmatic basis. Because there is so much uncertainty and confusion relating to the function of capacity building, it is largely ad hoc and unlikely to be successful in the long-run in most instances.

A distinction must be drawn between new, emergent, low capacity institutions and pre-existing organisations which have capacity. In the South African context, the situation is generally characterised by the need for capacity building of the former group and transformation of the latter. Capacity building and transformation are very different processes.

The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry is developing its local government support programme for water supply and sanitation through the establishment of Area Management Forums and a programmatic approach to capacity building and training. The Department has a responsibility to ensure that communities are not, through its actions, opened to exploitation and to ensure that public funds are spent most efficiently. The activities of the Department in capacity building therefore need to be well defined and, as far as possible, standardised.

Capacity building and service sustainability

Capacity building and sustainability are closely related. Without adequate, appropriate capacity at different levels of government and at local level, services will not be sustainable. The factors which determine whether a development will be sustainable or not (the sustainability indicators), provide the pointers to the areas where capacity needs to be established and maintained.

Note of caution

It is understood that communities have varying needs and different characteristics which makes any attempt to manipulate human activity both dangerous and often fruitless. These realities have been borne in mind during the process of designing a framework for capacity building and training which will assist the Department, local governments and communities to ensure that real and effective capacity building takes place, whilst avoiding a deterministic, rigid process. Communities should never be regarded as not having capacity. Capacity building is only ever a process of building on the innate skills and abilities which exist within the community. People will also bring their own perspectives and creativity to the process which means that results of any capacity building programme will always be more than the sum of the parts.

The "Threshold" concept.

There is an urgent need for a framework to guide capacity building and training activities. A tool is needed to assist with planning, designing, costing and implementing capacity building at local level which is both flexible and widely applicable. The framework must be realistic and appropriate to the circumstances in which both local people and the implementors function "on the ground". In conceptualising a framework, the experiences of local and international development agencies has been drawn upon.

Sustainability factors

In order for infrastructure such as water supply and sanitation to be sustainable, a number of factors must be put in place over time. The requirements for a given level of service [which is related to a given technology choice] will pre-determine what capacity is required of those responsible for ensuring sustainability at the local level.

Although the factors required for sustainability will vary depending on the level of service, all systems will need capacity in certain general categories. These include the following:

Group 1 Skills and abilities

  1. Technical skills to maintain plant, make repairs and operate the system such as running pumps and treatment works.
  2. Administrative skills to collect revenue, run bank accounts, keep books and make payments for services, parts, salaries etc.
  3. Governance skills for problem definition, planning, leadership and informed decision making.
  4. The ability to build consensus and resolve conflicts within the community and between leaders.
    Group 2 Public awareness
  5. Public awareness in order to ensure the full benefit of the service through such activities as hygiene and health education.
  6. Awareness of civil responsibility to ensure proper accountable governance and to ensure public support of the service which is essential to establishing the willingness to pay for services.
    Group 3 Economic factors and support infrastructure
  7. Revenue flow to cover the recurring cost of maintenance, operating expenses, salaries and the repayment of loans if applicable. Revenue should ultimately come from community payments for services if sustainability is to be ensured, but may need to come from subsidies, cross-subsidisation or inter-governmental transfers initially.
  8. The "wealth" of the community in order to ensure that there is sufficient household income to pay for the service on a continued basis. This determines the "affordability" of the community.
  9. Support infrastructure consisting of such things as office accommodation, transport, communications, electricity, copying facilities and all of the other resources which are often taken for granted but are not present in many parts of the country.

Capacity thresholds

For a given service to be sustainable in a given location, the requirements of each of these categories can, to a large degree, be pre-determined. These represent the thresholds which are required in order for the service to the sustainable. This is represented by Figure 1. In any particular community a certain level of capacity will exist in each of the categories. Where this capacity is less than the threshold capacity required for sustainability, capacity building will need to be undertaken to ensure that the threshold is reached. The threshold in all categories must be achieved in order to ensure sustainability. For example, if all other thresholds are reached but community acceptance is lacking, revenue will be difficult to collect which may result in the failure of the scheme.

The amount of capacity building required for a given category will depend on 2 factors:

Figure 1
Capacity Thresholds

Examples of similar methods

There are numerous examples of similar methods which are used elsewhere in the developing world. One such example is the use of pre-qualification criteria by the World Bank. In one East African country, for example, the World Bank has a loan agreement for the upgrading of municipal services in some 16 towns. Before a town can access the finance it has to meet a number of pre-quantification criteria such as the employment of adequately trained staff in both the technical and administrative fields. Only once these criteria have been met can the municipality make use of the resources. A bilateral donor agency has provided donor funding to enable each municipality to train its staff to the point where they meet the pre-qualification criteria.

The capacity building threshold concept, however, is useful not only in the initial stages of the project but also as an ongoing measure of the sustainability of services in the long run. Refer to the section on operation and maintenance below.

Technology and service level choice

Note that the capacity required for sustainability is determined not only by the level of service chosen by the community but more importantly by the technology choice made to provide that level of service. For example, if a community chooses a household connection level of service this could be achieved through a number of alternative technology options. The service could be provided by developing boreholes or by the construction of a gravity fed system or through purchasing water from a regional scheme. Each of these technology options would provide the same level of service to the community but each would require different skills and "capacities" in the community or local government.

Applying the Threshold Concept

Initial capacity assessment

During the feasibility phase of a project, a participative evaluation process needs to be undertaken with the community to establish the levels of capacity which exist prior to the project. The service level options and technology choices must be established so as to be able to identify the thresholds which the community must meet in each category in order to ensure sustainability. See Figure 2. The skills required to undertake a sensitive and inclusive capacity assessment in such a manner as to encourage the community's involvement and ownership of the project, are special skills which are rare. Where such skills do not exist at present, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry will need to foster their development.

Figure 2
Initial capacity assessment

The feasibility phase should not only address the technical feasibility of different options for services. The institutional, economic and social feasibility should also be assessed. This can be done using the Threshold methodology. If any category of capacity within the community is not likely to be able to be raised to the threshold required for a particular service/technology choice, then that choice will not be sustainable. The only option is to lower the threshold by choosing a lower level of service or technology. The most obvious example would be the level of wealth/ poverty in a community which determines whether the community could afford to pay the recurring costs of the proposed scheme.

Affordability and the will to pay need careful consideration. A given low level of service may be affordable to the community but if it is not acceptable or supported by the community there will not be the will to pay. Experience has indicated that often a higher level of service is more sustainable than a lower level because people are prepared to pay for the higher but not the lower service.

Planning and costing capacity building interventions

Once the thresholds and the community abilities have been established, the detailed planning of the capacity programme necessary to raise the capacity of the community to the required threshold can be quantified. A capacity building programme can then be designed together with the community and/or the local government and possibly in conjunction with other projects in the area.

The capacity building requirements can be clearly described with pre-determined performance criteria for capacity building and training contacts. Terms of reference, specifications and conditions of contract can be drawn up using this methodology rather than the ad hoc approach which is generally taken. The method also enables projects to be costed with some degree of accuracy.

Implementing a capacity building programme

In close collaboration with local government personnel and community members, the capacity building programme can then be implemented according to the agreed plan. The objective is to bring each of the categories up to the threshold. This is illustrated in Figure 3 below. Whilst this may sound a simple matter, the implementation of a successful capacity building and training programme is very difficult and requires resources. Failure to achieve the threshold in any one category will result in the infrastructure failing rapidly.

Progress in each of the categories can be objectively measured and assessed for payment purposes during the course of the project.

Figure 3
Capacity building programme implementation

Monitoring and evaluation

The use of the concept of thresholds and the clear definition of the tasks required within a capacity building programme make the evaluation of the performance of capacity building and training agencies much easier to monitor and evaluate than previously when such functions were undefined. The monitoring of progress being made by communities or local governments can also be achieved in a far more systematic way.

Long term monitoring of the capacity within communities, after the construction phase, is also possible using this method. This will aid the long-term sustainability of projects and is closely related to the question of operation and maintenance.

Operation and maintenance capacity

Operation and maintenance has generally, up until now, been seen largely from a technical perspective. It is suggested, however, that any failure of a system is ultimately the result of institutional and economic factors, and not technical factors. Any system will need maintenance and will break down physically from time to time but sustained failure of a system results from inadequate finance, poor administration, lack of community support illustrated through the lack of payment for services, lack of adequately trained technical staff etc.. This can be illustrated through Figure 4 which shows that the administrative skills have fallen below the required threshold for a given level of service and that, in time, this will cause the failure of the scheme although the physical symptom may be a failed pump or some other physical failure.

If one area of capacity falls below the threshold there is likely to be a "domino" effect. If the person responsible for administration in a village ceases to function for any reason, before long the collection of revenue will fail. There will not be sufficient funds available to pay the technical staff or to purchase spare parts and physical failure will result causing a decrease in public support and reluctance to pay for poor services etc. etc..

Figure 4 Maintaining capacity at the required thresholds over time

It is essential that the capacity of the community remains at the threshold levels during the life-span of the infrastructure. Whilst some attention is paid to the technical aspects of operation and maintenance, there is little emphasis being placed on maintaining institutional capacity. Again the threshold concept is useful in providing a rational basis for the maintenance of institutional capacity. The capacity of communities can be periodically assessed at a higher level of government such as at District Council level.

Programmatic approach

The practical use of this method is the real test of its usefulness. Whilst it does provide a tool which can be used at project level to great effect, it is better employed programmatically over a whole area. In any given area there will be a range of circumstances. Some communities will have no services and very little capacity, others may have old existing services in various states of repair and still others may be in the construction phase of new services. The Area Management Forums which the Department is developing will enable and assist local government and other role players to view the delivery of services from a rational, programmatic perspective. The threshold method will be of value in planning, costing and implementing capacity building and training in an area.

The method is not only applicable to capacity building in projects and on an area - wide basis. It is also useful when considering institutions. For example, when assessing the requirements of a District Council to properly fulfil its function of support to local level service provision, and in designing a capacity building programme for such a District Council, the same method could be employed. The capacity requirements of the District Council to fulfil the function [i.e. the thresholds] would need to be identified on the basis of which a capacity building programme could be designed.

Numerous different authorities are engaged in supporting the establishment and sustainable functioning of local government and it is important that the work of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry is complementary to the work of these agencies. This is made possible with the use of a rational framework for capacity building and training.

Service providers

With a tool to enable the proper planning of capacity building and training, it is also possible to identify the resources necessary to carry out the work. In any given area, the skills needed to undertake all of the different facets of capacity building and training are unlikely to exist in any single organisation. A wide variety of skills are needed. These range from social evaluation skills required to work with communities to identify their existing capacity, to technical training. Using the Area Management Forums, it would be necessary to assess what service providers are available to undertake the various functions needed to bring the different facets of capacity in communities up to the desired thresholds. It will also be possible to identify the "gaps" where no appropriate organisation exists to deliver the required service. Different organisations could then be contracted, according to their specialities, to undertake different elements of the capacity building and training programme in an area, some to do technical training, others to engage in community awareness creation and others to be involved in social evaluations.


The concept of a rational framework for capacity building and training set out in this paper needs to be widely discussed amongst a variety of people, including some communities, in order to ensure that it is developed into a useful tool. How to use the concept in practice will need to be developed in detail and then applied in the field. The development of such a methodology should also not be done in isolation from the work of other government departments, the provinces and local government.


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