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Building Independent Institutional Capacity for Sustainable Development

Ashok Khosla

One of the primary outcomes of the Brundtland Commission and the UNCED process is a heightened
understanding of the need to build institutional capacity in developing countries to enable them to design their own
sustainable development strategies. Such capacity is an essential prerequisite for governments and communities to
identify priority development problems, to formulate them in meaningful manner and to address them with effective
For governments and communities to make informed decisions, they must have access to reliable information, be
able to analyse the issues and know how to communicate them with those concerned, namely, policy makers on the
one hand and the public on the other. Building the kinds of institutions needed, requires a major commitment of
Current project – based funding by both international donors and national governments is not geared to the
requirements of building institutional capacity. In principle, a well-defined, but adequately flexible project is an
excellent device for achieving specific results. However, many, perhaps most, development issues need greater
flexibility and real time mid-course decision-making adjustment than is possible in the current blueprint-type project
mode. Worse, most projects are not even ideally constructed in the first place and lock the researchers or
implementers into pre-determined tracks of activity which cannot be changed, even when it is apparent that they are
inappropriate. Worse still, they generally reflect the priorities (usually artificial) constraints imposed by donors rather
than the needs of the recipients.
It is difficult to build institutional capacity purely on the basis of individual projects. Donors, and more particularly
Government funding agencies, sanction projects with highly specific inputs and outputs. The budget heads under
which may be made are limited and clearly specified. The maximum expenditure under each usually cannot be
exceeded. Unspent money in any budget line must be returned. Funders are generally uncomfortable with
supporting the acquisition of land, building, vehicles and even certain types of essential equipment needed to carry
out the project. Government agencies also often do not allow any kind of overhead item to cover organizational
expenses such as rent, utilities, administration or other services.
Any activity funded by public money must, of course, be fully quality and deadline requirements not only in reporting
on their projects, but also in their accounting of expenditures. There is no substitute for integrity or transparency –
and properly audited accounts can easily be provided to satisfy the funding agencies.
Yet, funding agencies regularly provide generous and often wasteful financial support to government agencies while
extremely tight control and funding conditions are applied to non-government organisations. Often the funding
pattern has little to do with specific needs of the project. It is largely determined by bureaucratic fears of audit
objections and parliament questions which are safely precluded when funds are used by another government
agency – no matter how wastefully or unaccountably.
Sustainable development requires a major shift towards self-defined, self-reliant decision making by communities
within the context of a global vision – “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally”. To achieve such decision
making, we now need to create and nurture the ability to think independently at all levels of society. Few
investments could yield better returns for the nation than to support independent agencies working for sustainable
development. 