Capacity Development - Sustainable Sanitation

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This article is based on a factsheet that provides an overview on basic principles of capacity development and addresses current challenges and gaps in capacity development for sustainable sanitation, including strategies and instruments. Below is part of the list of examples and contact details of capacity development initiatives from the sector. This is intended for individuals who require or are engaged with capacity development for sustainable sanitation.

Capacity building takes place at individual, organisational and at the level of an enabling environment. It requires a trans-sectoral approach to health, infrastructure and water, environment, agriculture, and education (source: seecon GmbH).

The key messages are:

  • Capacity is knowledge, information, and attitude.
  • Capacity development is the process of unleashing, strengthening, creating, adapting and maintaining capacity over time. It takes place on three levels: individual, organisational and the enabling environment. An enabling environment encourages sustainable sanitation thinking and action at local and national levels, which is necessary for policy development.
  • Capacity development for sustainable sanitation requires cross-sectoral cooperation with individuals and within organisations from health, infrastructure, water, environment, agriculture, education, economic development etc.
  • It considers the complexity of sanitation systems along the sanitation chain (from the user interface, collection, treatment, reuse and safe disposal of sanitation products), considering all technical, financial, social and institutional aspects.
  • It is an internal process of change led by communities and nations.
  • It insists on knowledge sharing and management and involves development, transfer and use of both explicit and tacit (undocumented) knowledge.
  • It includes a variety of methods: education, professional training, support for documentation of appropriate local infrastructure and sharing knowledge in print, online and through multimedia.


In the field of sustainable sanitation, capacity development is particularly important due to system complexity and the various sectors and authority levels involved. Governments and decision makers need to be aware of the importance of sanitation and the benefits of sustainable sanitation in order to show leadership and allocate the resources necessary. Leadership involves coordinating different governmental and non-governmental institutions to create an enabling environment across sectors - health, infrastructure, water, environment, agriculture, and education. Institutions and organisations, local governments, planners and the private sector need technical and managerial capacities in order to implement sustainable sanitation within allocated resources. At the same time, the civil society needs to show a demand for sustainable sanitation to ensure that sanitation is put on the local political agenda and to activate the private sector to respond to this demand.

What is capacity development?

Participants of SSWM Experts Training Course at the CHRDU Training Centre in Nagarkot, Bhaktapur, Nepal in 2010 interacting in group work (source: seecon GmbH).

For the SuSanA Working Group 1, capacity is the collective actions of groups of individuals, organisations and societies that possess as a whole a collection of specific abilities, which enable them to manage their affairs successfully (Bos, 2006; OECD, 2006).

In a more practical sense, capacities can also be described as knowledge, information, and attitudes (Bos, 2006). Capacity development is the process in which these groups unleash, strengthen, create, adapt and maintain their capacity over time (OECD, 2006). This implies that (Morgan, 2005):

  • individuals have personal abilities, attributes, or competencies that contribute to the performance of an organisation or a system;
  • organisations or broader entities have capabilities to do something (the building blocks of an organisation’s overall capacity to perform); and
  • organisations or entities try to connect these competencies and capabilities into a coherent combination or system that allows them to perform.

There are three levels on which to pursue capacity development objectives (OECD, 2006), which are equally important and interdependent:

  • the individual level: increasing the knowledge and skills of individuals - the “micro” perspective (Baser and Morgan 2008);
  • organisational or institutional level: individuals make up organisations and institutions; the sharing of skills, knowledge, experience and values amongst the individuals will translate into the organisation’s capacity, consisting of procedures, systems, policies and culture (organisational procedures); and
  • the enabling environment: incentives, policies and governance influence the behaviour of organisations or institutions and individuals – the “macro” perspective.

Principles of Capacity Development in Sustainable Sanitation

Hands-on training in secondary composting at SIDA’s International Training Programme in 2005 (source: SEI).

Without developed capacity there is limited exchange and transfer of knowledge; inefficient use of available resources; poor service delivery, second-rate performance; inadequate infrastructure, that is poorly adapted to the local context and insufficient maintenance.

Five key requirements for capacity development for sustainable sanitation:

  • a multidisciplinary approach with attention to the various social, political and institutional, environmental, technical and financial dimensions;
  • a trans-sectoral approach;
  • attention along the entire sanitation chain – from the user interface, collection, treatment, reuse and safe disposal of sanitation products;
  • action at all three analytical levels: individual, organisational and enabling environment; and
  • inclusion of local and national actors from civil society, the private sector and the government.

For examples of the following principals below, refer to our full document at: Compilation of 13 Factsheets on key sustainabile sanitation topics.

  • Capacity development at individual and the institutional levels
  • Creating an enabling environment

Strategies and Approaches

Capacity building is neither an output nor project but a continuous process (Bos, 2006). It is important to develop strategies according to the specific level (individual, organisational, enabling environment) and the domain (knowledge and information, skills, and attitudes) of the capacity being built.

Organisations may have the following strategies and approaches:

  • assess gaps in capacity within a country and support planning, implementation and monitoring of performance for capacity development within the country;
  • consider a country-led approach and build on internal processes by identifying local drivers for sustainable sanitation (e.g. groundwater pollution, food security, etc);
  • adapt language and means of communication to the local context;
  • create strategic partnerships between different actors e.g. businesses, local governments and institutions that are implementing capacity development such as knowledge sharing and training;
  • focus on relationships between the enabling environment and other levels to align training and development of individual skills with organisational reforms and institutional changes; and
  • increase awareness of sustainable sanitation through the media and special events, such as the World Toilet Day on the 19th of November each year.


Knowledge management is the continuous process of generating new knowledge or repackaging old knowledge; of creating a knowledge base; of knowledge adaptation; and of knowledge transfer (source: Cap-Net, 2004).
  • Education: educational institutions need to acknowledge the importance of sustainable sanitation and incorporate this interdisciplinary topic into teaching curricula.
  • Training: professional engineers, policy makers, managers and operators working in the field can be trained in special courses, workshops, seminars, and on the job training.
  • Research and documentation: it is important to document research, pilot projects and examples of scaling-up in the ongoing process of capacity development.
  • Knowledge and information management and sharing: the transfer and exchange of knowledge is a precondition of capacity development. Different users respond to different types of information and channels. New media on the internet make it possible to share and exchange knowledge much more easily. Academic books and journal articles require purchase, but usually information is more carefully reviewed than what is freely available online. Compiling and making relevant information accessible fosters capacity development. Universities and schools should be equipped with the skills to enable them to share and manage knowledge. Institutions that manage knowledge consistently are better poised to meet the ever-changing management and development challenges. Networks and learning alliances play a major role in improving knowledge sharing and management.

SuSanA Partners in Capacity Building

Conventional capacity building and North-South knowledge transfer have proven inadequate for scaling up sanitation innovation. A number of SuSanA partners, however, have acted strategically and pioneered a variety of promising approaches. For a list of examples that is updated regularly, visit us online:

Within that list you will find:

  • reference centres and knowledge nodes;
  • research institutions or degrees at universities;
  • training courses for professionals;
  • web-based libraries and Open Source Publications;
  • e-mail discussion group, online forums, blogs, and newsletters;
  • learning alliances, communities of practice and networks; and
  • video clips