International Development: 3 Solutions for a New Approach to Capacity Building

TDi associate Kate Wilson explores a new approach to capacity building in international development that moves away from the traditional model of technical assistance and towards a more holistic approach centred on coaching and local empowerment.


COVID-19 revealed the cracks.

Cracks in our society. Cracks in our systems. And, critically, cracks in the way we respond to challenging situations. When the pandemic came, our institutions were not ready. And if you pull back the curtain, it’s not hard to see why.

Few people have a voice.

In the wake of our global pandemic, we now have an opportunity to move in a new direction. To pin point the cracks in our system. And to put in place new systems that work for all.

Today, let’s take a look at:

  • The flawed building blocks of international development

  • How coaching and locally driven solutions can carve a path forward

  • Practical examples that show a new paradigm


The Problem with Current Approaches

Simple truths can be powerful.

And the simple truth of international development is this: it was constructed on a foundation of three flawed building blocks.

  • Colonialism: defined by control, occupation, and economic exploitation.

  • Patriarchy: defined by male-centric systems, viewpoints and power imbalance.

  • Capitalism: defined by the pursuit of profit-generating ventures.

This may sound obvious.

But until we dissect and disentangle international development from these three building blocks, we won’t be able to move forward in a way that truly empowers individuals.

It’s a system design; not a flaw. 

Time and again, we’ve seen traditional capacity building perpetuate problems. It doesn’t make them better. There’s an overwhelming focus on the need for external solutions and experts to ‘fix’ all the problems. Yet the problems persist. So we focus on more. More money. More focus. More effort. More inputs can’t have a meaningful impact if they’re aimed in the wrong direction.

Instead, it’s time to rethink our approach.


Solution 1: Coaching

The traditional approach to international development, especially capacity building activities, isn’t having the impact it promised.

As I detailed in a recent article, Why We Need More Coaches and Fewer “Experts” in International Development, the traditional model of development focuses on technical assistance. Training local leaders in the tools of business or governance.

This approach looks good on the surface. And it can deliver value.

But dig a layer deeper, and you’ll find a model that’s lacking. A model that emphasises the technical at the expense of the emotional and human/personal aspect of development. A  model that emphasises external expertise at the expense of empowerment and local knowledge and wisdom.

International development needs to think more holistically. 

That’s why I’m an advocate of coaching. The tools of coaching, when implemented well, provide space for confidence, empowerment, and growth. It offers individuals and organisations a chance to break free and heal from ideologies of separation, scarcity and supremacy grounded in the three flawed building blocks of the system. Coaching also offers individuals a chance to understand themselves along with their business or organisation.

  • What are my unique challenges?

  • How has my history impacted my default responses?

  • What are my limiting beliefs, thoughts, patterns and programs?

  • What is my approach to resources?

Most technical assistance, on its own, erodes confidence. It breeds a sense of lack. And there’s often a power imbalance between the trainer and the recipients.

Coaching, meanwhile, puts the participants in the driver’s seat. It draws out their ideas and plans, works with what they have, and helps them clarify what they want. The participant’s natural confidence, motivation, and energy emerge as a result.

reimagining capacity building in international development

Solution 2: Local Empowerment

Coaching is a tool for local empowerment.

But it’s not enough to bring in a coach and call it a day. Impactful coaching equips local teams to solve local problems with authority and agility. It helps them to break free from ideologies of separation, scarcity and supremacy and connect to their inner wisdom that has always been there.

In order to deliver on this opportunity, funding organisations need to take two stances.

First, funds should go to local teams wherever possible. Teams that understand the local knowledge, local priorities, and local capacity. This often means coaching coaches–bringing in a coach to equip local teams to deliver confidence and empowerment training.

This coach the coaches model is a far cry from the traditional approach of control. It requires equipping, not fixing. Partnering, not dictating.

Learn more about the effectiveness of our Train the Coach program in Papua New Guinea.


Second, local teams should drive local solutions. Those closest to the problems have the best eye for the solutions. This, again, is a departure from the traditional approach–one driven by a desire to fix. Well-meaning folks in international development come to the table with solutions, not spotting the true problem.

By working with local teams, not for them, development organisations can create a direct pathway between the problem and the best solution.


Solution 3: Personal Empowerment

Coaching is a tool for everyone.

It’s for local partners and also for technical experts working in international development.

A mindset of lack (do more with less), and hustle culture grounded in the three flawed building blocks of the system, also permeates development organisations, and negatively impacts on the ways in which we manage our people and our resources. International development professionals are operating on the edge of burnout and need support to see past the limitations of the current system, de-program themselves and take better care of themselves. The better resourced we are, the more impact we can have.


Bringing It Together (A Powerful Example)

My time working with local women in the Pacific highlights the power of a coaching approach that embraces local contexts.

I’ve delivered transformational coaching and coaching training in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Both of these programs provided the participants a supportive and effective space to tap into their own inner wisdom and blueprint for success.

During coaching sessions, I shared practical tools and techniques with the participants. They were then able to use these tools in ongoing interactions with their colleagues and local business owners. Further, I combined this approach with an open and supportive space for participants to engage in deep introspection and healing.

The combination of practical tools and a supportive space was noted by all participants as one of the most effective elements of the program.

Here’s a direct quote from one of the participants:

“The holistic approach has been top-tier and made the whole experience highly interactive. Having a coach that is very aware of the difference of experience for indigenous women, and still being able to hold space for our expression was comforting and progressive. The one-on-one sessions were great as they allowed more privacy, that’s more vulnerability and openness to simply speak one’s truth.


I have grown more aware of my agency and my voice as a young Pacific Islander woman, and its effectiveness when I understand what I can control and what I can’t. I’m responsible for my own conduct, and not that of others. In the workspace I am more vocal with my team by not doubting my decisions or waiting for approval or validation that I do not require. I have greater confidence and it’s showing in my conduct and my output at work.”



International development can and should do more.

Not through additional investment or additional work hours. But through an adaptive approach. One that recognises the flawed foundation we’re working from. One that, alongside technical assistance, embraces a holistic and local coaching model. One that listens more than it speaks.

We need to be willing to accept and heal from the flawed building blocks that the system was constructed on. That means investing in our own healing and growth AND the healing and growth of our local partners.

It’s time to make a serious investment in coaching as a core component of creating a new system.

For more on how we delivered this kind of coaching for women entrepreneurs, read our introductory case study, or download the full report.

If you’re looking for a capability partner in the Pacific region, please get in touch to explore the possibilities.

This post was originally published by Kate at Resources Reimagined as “Reimagining Capacity Building in International Development: From a flawed foundation to a true model of empowerment.”

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