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Pieterse, Edgar and van Donk, Mirjam  (2002) Capacity building for poverty eradication. South African Regional Poverty Network (SARPN) : 1-36.


This concept paper is the outcome of a study on capacity building for poverty eradication, commissioned by Sedibeng Centre for Organisational Effectiveness. In part, the initiative was stimulated by startling evidence from the Non-Profit Study that 53% (over 52 000) of the non-profit organisations in South Africa are informal, located in mainly poor communities and cut-off from the services of professional NGOs. Furthermore, at a focus group discussion organised by CS Mott Foundation in April 2002 it became apparent that there was indeed a great disjuncture between the coverage of capacity building and/or organisational development (OD) NGOs and the numerous grassroots organisations of poor people in need of capacity building services. It was broadly agreed that this situation must be understood better and addressed in a more systematic manner.

The central problem statement in this paper is defined as follows:

    In a context characterised by endemic poverty and inequality, what is the role of capacity building / 'OD sector' organisations in contributing towards strengthening the capacity of development organisations that seek to contribute to poverty eradication?

Before presenting the findings and recommendations of the study, we want to state the following assumptions that have informed our approach to the problem statement, based on a literature review of the topic as it pertains to other contexts:

  1. Civil society organisations (CSOs) 'potentially have roles to play in building more democratic political institutions, enlarging political space for grassroots change, and generating alternative thinking and approaches to poverty reduction' (Lewis and Wallace 2000: x);

  2. Notwithstanding this potential of CSOs, few CSOs have an explicit and coherent theory of poverty, why it exists and how it gets reproduced and sustained (see Fowler 2002a);

  3. Few CSOs are adept at making the right linkages between their work at the micro level and the wider systems and structures of which they form a part (see Edwards and Hulme 2002).

To try and address the central question of this study, the methodology adopted combines literature review with interviews of
stakeholders in the capacity building sector. In total, 13 interviews were conducted with service providers and donors
in five urban centres in South Africa (see list of interviews in the References section).1 The feedback from interviews is presented throughout the report. The paper also builds on research undertaken by one of the authors for the Mott Foundation on how best to strengthen the non-profit sector in South Africa, which included interviews with Mott grantees that work in the field of capacity building and OD.

Structure of the paper

In seeking to articulate some provisional suggestions in response to the problem statement, this paper starts with an exploration of the context. In particular, the next section looks at the following issues:

  • The scale and manifestation of poverty in South Africa;

  • Government interventions in relation to poverty, both at the level of policy and intent and at the level of implementation and impact;

  • Potential gaps in the reach and coverage of government interventions and possible areas of coordination and cooperation (partnership) between government and CSOs to address the multiple challenges related to the eradication of poverty;

  • The size, nature and types of interventions of the non-profit sector in South Africa, specifically in relation to poverty eradication.

The contextual sketch is followed by a section that aims to clarify the core concepts, i.e. capacity building and poverty/poverty eradication. This section is crucial as it provides the basis for beginning to address the complex challenges that have surfaced in the contextual analysis by using the same reference points. Too often organisations speak past each other because of different starting points and conflicting conceptual assumptions.

The fourth section of this paper seeks to explore what form capacity building actions aimed at poverty eradication would take. Two approaches to capacity building for poverty eradication are suggested and each approach is elaborated on. The paper concludes with a summary of issues for further discussion to foster greater coherence and coordination between stakeholders in the sector.

Given the infancy of this debate, this concept paper is not intended to provide all the answers or solutions. Rather, its purpose is to stimulate and focus discussion on capacity building for poverty eradication.


  1. The interviews were complemented by correspondence with the Education, Training and Development Practices Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA).

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