Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Jenny Pearson's Creative Capacity Development - Now Available in Paperback

Ground control to Major Tom
Creative Capacity Development – reaching out across the space between multiple perspectives on capacity development

Several times in recent years I have found myself sitting in a room with some high powered people – bureaucrats, academics, technical experts, donor policy makers and the like – gathered together to discuss capacity development. At the first of these events I started by wondering what on earth I was doing there – I felt I was out of my depth and wouldn’t be able to contribute anything of value. Within an hour I had changed my mind and knew that what I had to contribute to the discussion was a much needed ‘voice of practice’. As I sat and listened to some eminent people saying some very interesting things, the title riff of the David Bowie number ‘Ground control to Major Tom’ kept popping into my head, and it just wouldn’t go away. From my perspective as a long term capacity development practitioner in a developing, post-conflict country it seemed to me that some of the ideas and opinions being expressed were just out there in the stratosphere. ‘Ground control to Major Tom’ is now my private mantra for all such meetings – it helps me stay grounded when the conversation is going off in directions I don’t understand, and it also helps me frame my contributions.

My book, Creative Capacity Development: Learning to adapt in development practice – launched June 2011, is the story of me and the organisation I founded trying to understand and integrate learning and change into our work as essential components of achieving sustainable capacity development. It explores the challenge of overcoming the profound blocks to capacity development that arise in complex cultural and post-conflict societies. It shows clearly that sustainable change only comes when you leave behind doing business as usual and embrace creative approaches that help people overcome their fears and move forward. My hope is that this book will make a contribution to building the bridges that are so badly needed to connect all the different groups concerned with capacity development – from practice on the ground to the upper echelons of political policy making, and all the levels in between, especially the in-country missions of international organisations, donors and INGOs.

I’m the first to admit that I don’t get it about the political and economic considerations and other mechanisms that drive aid and development policies, whether at global, home country or local office level. I realise that lack of understanding may reduce my capacity to be effective in facilitating positive change. However, on the other hand, I don’t very often hear any of the bureaucrats or experts I meet admit that they don’t get it about the realities of capacity development practice. The good news is that many are now recognising that the problem isn’t so much about knowing what good practice for capacity development should look like – the theory and some good examples are well documented - the problem is about knowing how to operationalise what is known. The bad news is that even in this changing understanding the voice of practice is rarely heard and even less valued in most of the debates about aid effectiveness, country ownership, and so on. Those who have something to say about the realities of actually doing capacity development don’t get a lot of air time in the complex agenda that seems mostly concerned with political considerations, accountability and measurable results. Despite the fact that we all (allegedly) have the same end goal in sight, there isn’t a lot of space for those who want to argue to doing things differently at the level of operations. Within the aid and development sectors there are multiple realities, world views and ways of doing business that are very far apart and this is reflected in the language we use, what we value and how we go about our business.

So who needs to learn to talk whose language? Who needs to understand whose perspective? Who needs to change their ways of working? The answer, of course, is that we need to learn how to understand each other in order to find a middle way that will increase the level and pace of change for the better. I learn about the issues and imperatives driving aid from going to meetings, reading position papers, research documents and so on. I hope that if some of the people working at other levels of the sector read my book, they will start to learn more about the challenges and realities on the ground and that will help us all move one small step closer to a shared understanding. Only when we all have appreciation and respect for each others perspectives and take them into account when framing our approaches to capacity development will we jointly be able to make a real difference.

Jenny Pearson has lived and worked in Cambodia since 1995. She has qualifications in social work and management and worked in the public sector in England before coming to Cambodia. She arrived in Cambodia as a volunteer and went on to found and direct VBNK, Cambodia's leading capacity building institution. She has played a leading role in developing the capacity of the not-for-profit sector in Cambodia, introducing creative approaches to capacity development and serving on the boards of several prominent development organisations.

In 2007 she was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK. Since her retirement from VBNK in 2008, Jenny spends her time consulting and writing about capacity development, drawing on her years of experience to contribute the voice of practice to the international discourse on capacity development. She holds dual British and Cambodian citizenship and lives in a village outside Phnom Penh with her adopted Cambodian family.


  1. Creative Capacity Development should be a must-read for development professionals with an interest in Cambodia. Jenny skillfully weaves a fascinating diary of her fifteen years of experience in development and organizational management in VBNK, a prominent training institute for "facilitators of development". Beginning with the assertion that culture and context is the most important factor to consider, Jenny describes the unique and tragic history of Cambodia, whose experience of complex trauma and autocracy can be a major block to learning and change, and how creative processes can help enhance understanding. The first few chapters also deal with the major developments in the NGO sector in the country from 1995 onward. Subsequent sections illustrate the development of VBNK as a training institute, the engagement of its board, the complexities of cambodian and expatriate working relationships, the various reorganizations, steps towards localization, and hits and misses in organizational strategy development.

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