Expert Perspectives

We Can Build Capacity, But Can We Retain It?

Why is capacity building important?

Capacity building is fundamental to achieving the Paris Agreement and has been identified as a priority in countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Its importance has been recognized under the Paris Agreement through the establishment of the Paris Committee on Capacity Building (Article 11); the promotion of education, training, and public awareness (Article 12); and the Capacity-Building Initiative for Transparency (Article 13). It is also a key issue in various activities undertaken under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), including national communications, greenhouse gas inventories, and the NDCs. The Addis Agenda and the 2030 Agenda also recognize capacity development as an integral part of the global actions needed to achieve sustainable development. Capacity building plays an important role in such international efforts as official development assistance, UN initiatives, and philanthropy.

Capacity building is therefore critical if countries are to fulfill their obligations under the various multilateral environmental agreements. Many developing countries, however, still have needs in this area. This is particularly true for least developed countries and small island developing states, which are the hardest hit by climate change but have the least capacity to respond and adapt. Building capacity should lead to building permanent institutional arrangements and enabling environments.

How to address capacity needs

Countries are facing multifaceted and interdependent development challenges that require diverse capacities cutting across disciplines and areas. This means that capacity needs should not be addressed in a linear way to focus on a single issue but instead should take into account the interlinkages between different development areas. Capacity needs evolve with time and therefore need to be addressed in both the short and long term. Having a long-term vision thus would help ensure that capacity needs are addressed in a strategic and coherent way by identifying priorities, guiding decisions, and targeting investments to build capacity. Monitoring progress toward meeting these needs will be important as countries review their priorities in light of new commitments and emerging challenges.

Capacity needs should be identified through an open and inclusive dialogue involving all stakeholders and layers of society. The process should seek to take all opinions and concerns into account. Having a dedicated national institution can ensure that capacity needs are identified and addressed most effectively. This includes aspects related to consultation and coordination as well as engagement with bilateral and multilateral initiatives. Having a champion, such as a political, social, or academic figure, can provide the leadership needed to make sure that actions are taken to implement the long-term strategy.

In 2016 the UNFCCC reviewed capacity building in developing countries and reported 681 capacity-building activities undertaken in 2015 by 16 international institutions (see UNFCCC 2016). This represented an increase of over 80 percent compared to activities undertaken in 2012. Despite these efforts, and the multitude of bilateral and multilateral initiatives, most developing countries still face significant capacity challenges that undermine their ability to take effective climate action and pursue a low-carbon path. What all these efforts need, therefore, is some degree of coordination and coherence to make them more efficient and to avoid unnecessary overlap. The Paris Committee on Capacity Building and the Capacity-Building Initiative for Transparency play a key role in addressing this issue.

What is the role of science, technology, and innovation?

Many entities under the UNFCCC provide capacity-building support to developing countries. Prominent among these are the Climate Technology Centre and Network, the Technology Executive Committee, and the Adaptation Committee. The Technology Facilitation Mechanism established under the 2030 Agenda includes the annual collaborative Multistakeholder Forum on Science, Technology, and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (STI Forum). One of the aims of the forum is to identify and examine technology needs and gaps, including with regard to scientific cooperation, innovation, and capacity building.

In addition to this international support, developing countries could also invest in research and development to develop new technologies. To achieve this, capacity will be needed not just for scientific and technical knowledge but also for policymaking skills. By putting in place science, technology, and innovation (STI) policies, countries can identify areas where they need to enhance their national research, innovation, and engineering capacities. This would also help establish a link, currently lacking in many developing countries, between science and policy, and thereby help develop capacity in evidence-based policymaking.

STI is widely recognized as enabling the achievement of sustainable development goals. This is why Africa’s Agenda 2063 foresees science, technology, and innovation as an engine of its socioeconomic transformation over the next 50 years. The agenda emphasizes that Africa’s sustained growth, competitiveness, and economic transformation require sustained investment in new technologies and innovation in key areas such as agriculture, clean energy, education, and health. To meet the agenda, Africa will need to build its STI capacities, including technical and institutional ones, by putting in place specific programs and policies targeted at capacity needs. This is the moment for Africa to view its economic and social challenges as opportunities to develop its own capacities in science, technology, and innovation, which would enable Africa to leapfrog to modern technology. The private sector has a critical role to play in building capacity in science, technology, and innovation and could partner with government and academia to achieve this. The development and dissemination of technology in any country requires real capacity building.

What would make capacity building successful?

To be successful, the process of building capacity should be built on three main principles: ownership, coherence, and sustainability. Developing countries need to take ownership of their own future with respect to capacity needs and ensure that the skills and capacities they develop are sustainable in the long term. This means they need to empower their institutions and citizens to develop their own capacities to resolve local problems. Policies and strategies should be coherent and not developed in isolation, as is often the case when ministries and agencies deliver their policies in a “territorial” manner. Capacities are more effective when they take into account the need for cross-sectoral collaboration and integrated national strategies that provide a common and shared vision of the country. This requires all national institutions and stakeholders to coordinate their strategies and implementation plans to build capacity that serves common national challenges and needs.

In addition to these three principals, the following key elements are important for developing countries to build strong and durable capacity. Although they may not apply to every country and every situation, they should be considered when developing long-term national strategies, particularly during the consultation process with stakeholders.

  • Build capacities according to national contexts based on economic and social circumstances as well as political and cultural realities. Capacities should also be built with the ultimate aim of responding effectively to people’s needs and priorities and should have  a specific purpose with clear definitions of its type (e.g., human, institutional), recipients (e.g., experts, policy makers), geographical level (e.g., national, regional), and domain (e.g., agriculture, regulation, energy).

  • Use capacity as a cross-cutting means of achieving multiple needs and objectives for the country. This is particularly important at present, when the world’s main focus is on “implementation” of international agreements, particularly the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda. The challenges facing countries are multiple and interlinked, requiring capacity to be built in the overall context of sustainable development goals.

  • Avoid relying solely on project-based and consultancy support, often a short-term intervention unlikely to build capacity for the long term. If the skill or capacity needed is not yet available in the country, external support can be brought in, but it must be combined with a plan to address the skill gap for the long term. There may also be situations where a particular skill for a particular technology or service is only available from outside the country. In any case, external support should be “appropriate” to enable local capacity to grow and stay in the country. Capacity should be built by growing the local skills. For example, external support should be conducted in the presence of local people who need to develop the expertise and skills in that particular area. This could be part of a training program or mentoring scheme that the country puts in place as part of its long-term strategy.

  • Benefit from the growing momentum of South-South Collaboration to exchange experiences in developing national capacities. This can help developing countries identify issues of common interest and extend collaboration and coherence to the regional level. At the international level, North-South and triangular collaboration will also remain important in complementing national efforts. Developing countries should make capacity building a major aspect of their regional and international cooperation, in a strategic and sustainable way as explained above.

  • Strengthen national education systems as well as scientific, technological, and innovative capacity. This will require promoting access to education and public awareness, including of information and communication technologies, for all citizens, including women, children, and the most vulnerable and marginalized people. Developing countries should make education and public awareness central priorities in their long-term strategies in order to foster a new generation of local scientists and experts. Since the current focus is on implementation of the Paris Agreement, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, long-term strategies should aim to build societies and local communities ready to take action. Ensuring access to education for all (i.e., leaving no one behind) will be key to achieving this.

  • Retain capacity by paying particular attention to retaining the country’s best-skilled and most talented people. Developing countries should respond to the challenge of lost talent and expertise by taking ownership of their fate. In other words, they should rely on their own technical and managerial leadership to sustain their capacity and development. This requires strategic planning by the countries themselves, rather than by external consultants, for example. Without strong institutional capacity, local skills and talents tend to “migrate” to other environments that have the right enabling conditions, creating a vicious circle of lost capacity. Countries should therefore put in place incentives to attract and retain their local talent and “headhunt” their expatriate talents. For example, national experts who live abroad could be identified and awarded contracts together with or instead of “external” consultants as appropriate. Retaining local talent doesn’t mean that people need to be physically based in the country. They could combine short visits to their country of origin with delivering support “remotely,” which is easily achievable given advances in information and communication technology.

With a rapidly growing global population and increasing development challenges, human capacity needs to evolve in a responsive and adaptive way. As we continue to acquire smart technologies and live in smart homes and cities, we also need to be “smart” in the way we live and use natural resources. This would constitute a new frontier for building human capacity, particularly in this era of artificial intelligence and robotics. Countries should thus take a long-term approach to building their capacity, and ensure that it is based on the three principles of ownership, coherence, and sustainability.

The current approach to capacity building hasn’t been effective at building sustainable capacity, as there are still major capacity gaps in developing countries. It is time to review what has worked well and to scale it up, and to stop repeating what hasn’t worked well. If we want long-term strategies to be successful, we have to change the way we think about capacity building and redefine the current approach. Continuous workshops and webinars by external consultants will not build long-lasting capacity. We need to address the current fragmentation of capacity-building efforts by ensuring better coordination and linking support to countries’ priorities and to the retention of capacity in these countries. The Paris Committee on Capacity Building and the Capacity-Building Initiative on Transparency both now have a great opportunity to steer the future of capacity building in this direction. This is critical given that the focus on capacity-building activities is now for the implementation of nationally determined contributions to achieve the Paris Agreement.


UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). 2016. “Third Comprehensive Review of the Implementation of the Framework for Capacity-Building in Developing Countries: Technical Paper by the Secretariat.” FCCC/ TP/2016/1.

All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone.