Using capacity cube analysis to understand social protection delivery in crises

This blog post, written by Rachel Slater, is published as part of the BASIC research project led by the Institute of Development Studies. The post was first published at this link.

Across the social protection landscape, there is a lot of discussion about improving capacity to design and deliver social protection or emergency assistance in protracted crises. However, there is limited analysis unpacking what this actually means. By introducing the ‘capacity cube’, this blog addresses this gap by outlining a framework for better understanding the depth of what it means to build capacity in situations of protracted crisis.

What is ‘capacity’ actually about?

It sometimes feels impossible to read anything about social protection in situations of forced displacement, conflict, or climate crises without seeing the word ‘capacity’.  However, when you dig a little deeper, as our BASIC working paper did by reviewing the literature and documented evidence on capacity and coordination issues in crisis situations , you will often find there is not much clarity on what the term means or whose capacity we are talking about. Practitioners, policymakers and academics express earnest concerns about the lack of capacity amongst government actors delivering transfers, and emphasise the importance of building capacity but existing discourse very rarely includes robust evidence of the capacity deficit, or even any explanation of what capacity is and how it can be measured. This leads to a skewed perception that has become conventional wisdom: ‘No capacity in government.’

Our work through the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)-funded programme, Better Assistance in Crises (BASIC) Research, is seeking to put this right. We are looking into if and how social protection is maintained in countries experiencing pressing conflict and climate shocks across Africa and the Middle East. Our research focuses explicitly on social protection programmes that pre-existed crisis to understand which of them are sustained through a crisis, and why and how this happens. And we think that capacities – of (local) governments in particular – might be a key element in determining if and how programmes are sustained.

Understanding the capacity cube

To better understand capacities, we need more depth and detail. That, in turn, requires more conceptual clarity. We’ve developed a ‘capacity cube’ – with a structure borrowed from John Gaventa’s power cube, and started to analyse early findings emerging from using the tool in Nigeria, Iraq, and Syria. The cube provides a framework for understanding capacity across three dimensions:

  • The first dimension looks at the level or scale of analysis, defining if we are thinking about individual, organisational or institutional capacity. While this mode of analysis is quite orthodox, it is helpful in the case of social protection because we can differentiate between what people themselves are able to do, the operational architecture within organisations (i.e. departments or ministries) that enables programmes to be delivered, and the values, norms and incentives that exist at an institutional level which are embodied in policies, strategies, choices and everyday ways of doing things.
  • The second dimension brings both a temporal and functional element to capacity by differentiating between building, applying and maintaining capacity (there’s more about this in relation to local capacities in Kenya from Andrew Kardan). This matters in crisis contexts because effective capacity utilisation is not just about whether we can, as Andrew says, “create or acquire capacity” but whether we have the “ability to utilise this newly developed capacity… and to ensure it is retained”. High levels of turnover of staff, for example, can rapidly deplete capacity to deliver across an organisation. Other challenges may be that what is learned in training might not work in the real world, and the systems we depend on (for example registries of beneficiary data or criteria for targeting) might become quickly outdated.
  • The third dimension differentiates between competency, capability and performanceBorrowing and adapting from the medical sciences, we use competency to describe what can be done (by a staff member or organisation) in a standardised, controlled environment.  Capability describes what is possible in the real world. Performance then describes what actually happens or gets done. This is a useful distinction for understanding why and how programme delivery is (or is not) sustained in crisis situations. For instance, social protection providers may have the technical competency to deliver their work, but cannot negotiate safe travel across military or paramilitary checkpoints to locations where recipients live. The result is that transfers do not get to the people who need them. Additionally, staff may have both technical capacity and functional capabilities but don’t complete their tasks – perhaps civil servants have not been paid for some time and lack motivation, or they are burnt out, or are suffering the impacts of their own traumatic experiences or bereavement. In many contexts, government staff are also members of the communities in which they work.
The Capacity Cube. Author’s own.

Using the capacity cube

There are several ways in which the capacity cube improves our understanding of social protection delivery, and how it is affected and affects capacity in crisis settings. The dimensions of the cube allow us to examine the drivers of capacity, delineating hard vs soft skills, disaggregating social dimensions, and overall enables more granular understandings of capacity:

  • Having a more nuanced and detailed understanding of capacity helps us identify different types of capacity deficits and subsequent solutions to overcome them. For example, there is little point investing in systems capacity at an organisational level, if the deficit is about individual capability or performance. This perspective allows policymakers and practitioners to design social protection programmes which can be sustained in crises.
  • Using the capacity cube also clarifies the distinction between technical and functional elements of people’s jobs. The former referring to hard skills such as designing a targeting algorithm, or doing expenditure basket analysis to set benefit levels, while the latter refers to soft skills, such as negotiating with local military actors to access recipients. Ultimately, it helps us to identify behavioural, structural and environmental impediments to social assistance delivery that we often ignore.
  • The capacity cube also enables more disaggregated analysis to explore how capacity deficits may differ across gender, age, ethnicity, or other dimensions. Evidence from the Covid-19 pandemic confirmed that in households where both parents work, women bore the brunt of children and home-schooling during lockdowns. This affects social protection programme delivery, because so many social workers and other street level bureaucrats are women.

Overall, the cube helps us to overcome the assumption that, so often, plagues programming in fragile and conflict-affected situations: that the government doesn’t have the capacity to deliver social protection, and so humanitarian actors must step in as the provider of last resort. Instead, a multi-dimensional mapping of capacities may enable more effective investments in capacity and, in turn, more effective programmes that support vulnerable people in crisis situations.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.
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