Capacity refers to all the strengths, attributes and resources available within a community, organization or society to manage and reduce disaster risks and strengthen resilience.

UNDRR Terminology, 2017

Thai student volunteers planting mangroves to prevent flooding
Students planting mangroves to prevent flooding in Thailand. Source: KenSoftTH/Shutterstock

A capable and accountable state, supported by an effective civil society and engaged private sector, is indispensable for the sustainable reduction of disaster risk.

UNDP, 2010

What is capacity?

It is important to emphasize people's capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from disasters, rather than simply focusing on the vulnerability that limits them. Like vulnerability, capacity depends on social, economic, political, psychological, environmental and physical assets and the wider governance regimes - and like vulnerability it can be described using different terms.

For instance, capacity is sometimes described as the opposite of vulnerability, but this overlooks the fact that even poor and vulnerable people have capacities. Indeed, the starting point for capacity development is the existing knowledge, strengths, attributes and resources individuals, organizations or society has. Capacity may include infrastructure, institutions, human knowledge and skills, and collective attributes such as social relationships, leadership and management.

A related concept is ‘coping capacity’, which is the ability of people, organizations and systems, to use available skills and resources, to manage adverse conditions, risk or disasters. The capacity to cope requires continuing awareness, resources and good management, both in normal times as well as during crises or adverse conditions. Coping capacity also depends on adequate household assets and supportive social and governance relations and can be thought of as a component of wider capacity development for disaster risk reduction.

Capacity development is the process by which people, organizations and society systematically stimulate and develop their capacities over time to achieve social and economic goals. It is a concept that extends the term of capacity -building to encompass all aspects of creating and sustaining capacity growth over time. It involves learning and various types of training, but also continuous efforts to develop institutions, political awareness, financial resources, technology systems and the wider enabling environment.

Why does capacity matter?

Capacity (or the lack of it) is central to reducing disaster risk and therefore critical to meeting development objectives. Disaster risk reduction requires an all-of-society engagement and partnership. It also requires empowerment and inclusive, accessible and non-discriminatory participation.

UN, 2015

At the household level, capacities are often internal (sometimes called endogenous') to communities, meaning that people have more control over them. Rather than attempting to reduce vulnerability, building capacity may therefore be an easier strategy for individuals, since many of the drivers of vulnerability are not influenced by households but instead by economic and political conditions, e.g. governance.

In many low- and middle-income countries, the impacts of regular disasters (extensive risks) are often absorbed by low-income households, thereby maintaining and increasing poverty and undermining development outcomes. Enhancing capacity offers vulnerable communities the opportunity to reduce their disaster risk, develop and adapt to climate change

How do we measure capacity?

Capacity assessment is the process by which the capacity of a group is reviewed against desired goals, where existing capacities are identified for maintenance or strengthening and capacity gaps are identified for further action. Capacity resides at three related levels: in individuals, in organizations and in the overall working environment within which individuals and organizations operate - ‘the enabling environment’, which strongly relates to the concept of resilience. Each of these can be an entry point for capacity assessment:

Enabling environment

Sometimes referred to as the ‘societal’ or ‘institutional’ level, capacities at the level of the enabling environment relate to the broader system within which individuals and organizations function. Understanding the enabling environment can be obtained from the ‘institutional analysis’, ‘power analysis’ or ‘drivers of change analysis’ increasingly being undertaken by donor organizations as the basis for country assistance plans.

Capacities at the level of the enabling environment relate to all the rules, laws and legislation, policies, power relations and social norms. Governments, civil society and the private sector therefore have an opportunity and obligation to work together to commit to a safer future, and therefore their capacity for engagement can be assessed across all sectors (e.g. climate change, finance, planning) and levels (e.g. small and medium enterprise, farmers, insurers).

The Organizational Level

This level is a common entry point for capacity assessment. This level relates to the internal structure, policies, systems and procedures that determine an organization's effectiveness and ability to deliver on its mandate and allow individuals to work together. Organizational level capacities help develop and apply internal policies, arrangements, procedures and frameworks, which is necessary to deliver the organization's mandate.

Organizational level capacities help develop and apply internal policies, arrangements, procedures and frameworks, which are necessary to deliver the organization's mandate. It is not only about skills, but also incentives and governance. People and organizations can have strong or weak incentives to change, develop and learn, as a result of their environment or internal factors.

The Individual Level

This level relates to the skills, experience and knowledge of people that allow them to perform. Capacity assessment at this level is commonly implemented by researchers and non-governmental organizations working at the local level, as well as by some local level governments. However, individual capacity has to be understood within the context of both the organizational level and enabling environment.

Four key issues common to most capacity assessments are institutional arrangements, leadership, knowledge and accountability. Not every assessment needs to cover all four of these issues, but they should be at least considered when defining the scope of an assessment.

How do we enhance capacity?

Capacity building refers to the initial stages of building or creating capacities. Capacity development is a concept that extends the term of capacity building to encompass all aspects of creating and sustaining capacity growth over time. It is the process by which people, organizations and society systematically stimulate and develop to achieve social and economic goals, including through improvement of knowledge, skills, systems, and institutions.

It involves learning and various types of training, but also continuous efforts to develop institutions, political awareness, financial resources, technology systems, and the wider social and cultural enabling environment. Furthermore, capacity development commonly refers to a process that is driven from the inside and starts from existing capacity assets. Integral to capacity development is bringing about transformation: changing mindsets and attitudes rather than just performing tasks. However, measuring change and results in concrete terms remains a major challenge.

Locally generated, owned and sustained capacity is essential to the success of any DRR enterprise.

UNDP, 2010

The development of disaster risk reduction capacity is the concern of an entire society, rather than of any single agency, professional discipline, or stakeholder group. An enabling environment i.e. strong political ownership and commitment at the highest levels of authority, extensive participation, transparency and clear public accountability is essential for translating capacity into performance. Indeed, for risk information to become risk knowledge, the basic parameters of accountability have to be clarified in a way that provides clear incentives to manage risks and to ensure compliance.

Organizations provide the framework for individuals to work together for a common vision and act on a shared set of goals. Organizational capacity may be enhanced and assessed in the areas of governance, administration, human resources, financial management, organizational management, and program management. Within the context of disaster risk reduction, capacity building provides the basis for a proactive strategy that starts with the creation of awareness about risk assessment, risk reduction, and risk prevention, while also examining potential threats or dangers and their mitigation.

Capacities at the individual level can be acquired formally through education and training, whilst others emerge through observing and doing and increasingly through networking, leadership development, action learning, and multi-stakeholder platforms. Local level capacity building should build on the existing knowledge of local communities, established often through their experience of disasters. Local level capacity development activities include:

  • Anticipate (e.g. awareness raising of risk, education, participating in and implementing risk assessments, etc.);
  • Cope (e.g. training in first aid, securing home, learning to swim, etc.);
  • Resist (e.g. preparedness measures including establishing early warning systems, designing evacuation strategies, stock piling emergency equipment, etc.); and
  • Recover (e.g. alternative means of income, i.e. diverse livelihoods, networks, social protection, etc.).

But capacity development is more than the building of technical capacities - it is associated with professional disciplines or particular sector requirements (e.g. environmental management). It needs to be combined with the promotion of leadership and other managerial capacities, known as functional capacities, which include the capacity to:

  • Engage stakeholders;
  • Assess a situation and define a vision;
  • Formulate policies and strategies;
  • Budget, manage and implement;
  • Evaluate.

Source: UNDP, 2009

There is much to be learned from the experience of implementing capacity development programmes for disaster risk reduction. To date, there is a high degree of ambiguity in the terminology used regarding what disaster risk reduction, capacity development and ownership means in theory and practice. There are also different notions of understanding the local context, capacity assessment, as well as the division of roles and responsibilities. Enhancing the disaster risk reduction capacity of organizations and individuals is an ongoing requirement to build a culture of resilience.

One study suggests that there are seven elements for capacity development for disaster risk reduction that have been applied with noteworthy results, across many contexts:

  • Terminology;
  • Local context;
  • Ownership;
  • Capacity assessment;
  • Roles and responsibilities;
  • Mix of activities;
  • Monitoring, evaluation and learning.

Source: Hagelsteen et al., 2014

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