Key Terminology Unpacked

What do we mean by Competencies, Capabilities and Capacity?

Many people use the terms Competencies, Capabilities and Capacity synonymously, but CIDT apply a nuanced understanding of this terminology within the context of International Development. Our understanding and application of this terminology within the context of International Development is described in the table below.

competences capabilities and capacity


Dictionary Definition

  • A cluster of related attitudes, knowledge, and skills that enable a person to act effectively in a job or situation;
  • adequacy;
  • the state of being qualified to perform an allotted function or a specific act.


She hired him because of his competence as a consultant.

Best practice is to retain an employee in one position long enough to show their competence before making any promotions to a higher position.

Our Interpretation

Competency refers to actual levels of skills, knowledge and attitudes. It signifies the state of being qualified to adequately perform a task. It is therefore the building block for higher-level, sustained capacity strengthening.

Competencies are most applicable at the individual level.


Dictionary Definitions

  • Measure of the ability of an entity (department, organization, person, system) to achieve its objectives, specifically in relation to its overall mission;
  • The power or ability to do something.


NGOs with the capability to recruit in the current climate are overwhelmed with applications.

He had an intuitive capability of bringing the best out in people.

Our Interpretation

Capability is of a higher order than competency because it refers to the deployment and application of competencies.

In order to be considered capable, other factors besides adequate skills, knowledge and attitudes must be present. In other words, in order to fully capable of performing to a certain standard, an individual may also need financial resources, time, motivation, support systems, etc. Effective institutional frameworks and enabling environments are key to making the transition from being competent to being capable.

With regards to capabilities, this is especially where organisational/institutional levels come into play. It is very much about a systems approach.

Capability is essentially the end point, in terms of how to measure whether capacity has been strengthened at individual or organisational level.


Dictionary Definitions

  • Potentialto perform, yield, or withstand;
  • Power of receiving impressions, knowledge, etc. (innate mental ability);
  • Highest sustainable output ratethat can be achieved with current resources.


Often, small, local farmers do not have the capacity to undergo organic certification.

If a school is at full capacity they are unable to offer places to additional students.

Our Interpretation

Capacity refers to the potential to perform at a certain standard or achieve a certain result. It refers to a future state of possibilities and/or to a process of improvement, reinforcement and gradual “fulfilment.”

With this in mind, we consider “capacity strengthening” as a process rather than an end result.

Why not ‘Capacity Building’?

The terms ‘Capacity Development’, ‘Capacity Building’ and ‘Capacity Strengthening’ are similar and often used interchangeably.  The term ‘Capacity Building’ has fallen out of favour in some contexts as it  signifies the construction of something from scratch; whereas in reality, everyone has an existing level of skills and knowledge to be  reinforced and expanded. CIDT  add value  by  helping people to strengthen their own capacity from the inside out, rather than ‘develop’ it from the outside in and hence we prefer the term ‘capacity strengthening’.

‘Capacity strengthening’ is complementary to other ideas that have dominated development thinking  over the past four decades. These concepts include institution building, institutional development, institutional strengthening, organisational development, human resource development, community capacity building, rural development, etc.

Capacity is not the final goal – it should always be a means to an end.   It is therefore always important to  ask ‘why’ and ‘to what end’ are we striving to strengthen capacity?