Capacity Building Has a Face and a Name

Editors Note: In this post, Tal Woolsey, an International Technical Advisor with CAWST who works in areas across Africa, including Zambia, Ethiopia and Uganda, tells a powerful story of what capacity building means in the WASH sector. This post originally appeared on the CAWST blog, to view the original post click here


The term capacity building is used a lot in international development and the water sector. It’s a nice, compact phrase that tries—but fails—to capture just how powerful it can be in peoples’ lives.

Sure we need clean, universal phrases to help standardize communication, but they can sterilize emotion and impact: the very things that compel us to take action.

Robinson Mufumbilwa’s story is what “capacity building” means to me. It takes more than two words to communicate his story, and stories like his. But it’s these stories that leave me with no doubt about the effect of “capacity building” on a person’s life, and how it empowers that person to then impact others.

It was 2009 and I was in Zambia as a CAWST International Technical Advisor, working with a local organization called Seeds of Hope. I was sitting in a quiet room when suddenly there was a knock on the door, and a young man walked in, introducing himself as Robinson. He had completed a three-month community development program through a local college, been to a biosand filter seminar and was raring to go. The problem was, he didn’t really know how to go. He was excited and was hoping Seeds of Hope would commit to building biosand filters in his village.

I told him to remember what he’d learned about needs assessments. They were the best way to get an agency to commit because they helped to determine whether there was demand or need for filters in a village. I told him it wouldn’t take much more than some photocopying and going door to door in his village, and asked how much he thought it would cost.

Robinson said he thought it would cost about 50 Kwacha, the equivalent of nine Canadian dollars, which I told him didn’t sound like all that much.

Not much, but it was money Robinson didn’t have. So I pulled the equivalent of ten dollars out of my pocket and gave it to Robinson, who thanked me and walked out of the room.

Over the next few weeks, I visited several other African countries as I continued my work for CAWST. I never thought I’d see Robinson again and if I did, I guessed he had spent his money on something other than doing a needs assessment in his community.

Much to my surprise, when I returned to Zambia weeks later, I found Robinson sitting in an office at Seeds of Hope with a neat stack of papers on his lap, waiting to speak to someone. He had all these sheets of his needs assessment, and they had been compiled into percentages of houses visited and so on, all the stuff he’d learned to do.

Robinson wanted to hand the pile of information to someone at Seeds of Hope. So, I advised him to go straight to the Biosand Filter Centre and to present his research directly to management. That’s exactly what Robinson did. Through his research, Seeds of Hope understood the need and subsequently supplied filters to people in his village.

Three months passed when I again found Robinson, this time working in the Biosand Filter Centre, building the very filters that would benefit his village with his own two hands.

In later years, I returned to Zambia to teach seminars on rainwater harvesting, monitoring and evaluation, water quality testing and so on. Robinson was a participant in all of them, an avid learner and an increasingly valuable asset.

In 2012 I discovered Robinson had become Manager of the Biosand Filter Centre. Since then, he has been going through the CAWST Competency Validation Process and has achieved the designation of Lead Trainer. He has delivered training in Zambia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi and, I expect as time goes by, many more African countries. He has become a leader and a subject matter authority in water issues.

I often wonder what would have happened if Robinson hadn’t taken that first seminar on the biosand filter and what would have happened if I didn’t have ten bucks in my pocket that day.

For me, this is the story of capacity building.  Investing in knowledge and people is what makes a difference. Yes, it’s capacity building, but what does that really mean?  It is believing in human beings and their ability to learn, to teach and to change lives. It’s an idea that may take longer to communicate, but which is far more compelling.