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What do we mean by capacity and capabilities?

In this section we will explore the link between training and capacity building.

If an organisation or individual’s capacity for effective response is insufficient, we must review and implement changes and improvements. Capacity-building refers to an individual or organisation’s ability to absorb change or new approaches effectively.

We might think of capacity in terms of an amount, volume or change in new processes or activities that can be absorbed by a person, group or organisation. Issues that are likely to influence capacity include the time over which the change or development is expected to happen, the resources available and the degree of skills and understanding of those likely to be affected.

We all know people who have a great capacity to cope with change, and I am sure we can think of others who don’t. We can, of course, extend this to organisations - those with traditional, fixed or bureaucratic processes and systems might have a limited capacity to build new ways of working.

Organisational capacity can be expressed in terms of the following resources:

  • Physical: equipment, buildings, real estate etc

  • Financial: money and lines of credit

  • Information: ready-access to good quality information sources and databases

  • Human: number of staff, their skills and experience

  • Institutional: while used interchangeably with organisational capacity, here let’s focus on systems, structures and mechanisms used by the organisation to support the personnel in undertaking their roles

Capacity development or capacity building is defined by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) as:

The process through which individuals, organisations and societies obtain, strengthen and maintain the capability to set and achieve their own development objectives over time. (UNISDR 2011)

Capability normally refers specifically to the skills and knowledge required to successfully achieve a particular task. An individual or organisation may have the potential capacity to change, be able to identify the need and define the process or mechanism required, but lack certain key capabilities in the workforce to implement it. Conversely, they may identify the need to implement new or revised capabilities such as a new procedure, but lack the capacity to do so because of a lack of staff, budget or supporting structures.

The key point here is that in order to improve our disaster and emergency risk management and response we need to build the capabilities of the people and organisations involved as one of several approaches to building our capacity and monitor and facilitate the feedback mechanism between the two.

This, of course, is where training and developing the experience and expertise of those involved comes in.

Your task

Can you give some examples of situations and consequences where capacity or capability was lacking?

This could be related to work or other activities, or be related to an individual or an organisation. Be sure to define whether the issue was limited capacity or capability (or both). If you choose to talk about an individual or an organisation, please ensure you do not name them.


UNISDR (2011) Basics of Capacity Development for Disaster Risk Reduction [online] available from https://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/publications/18061 [27 April 2020]

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This article is from the free online course:

Emergency and Disaster Training and Exercising: An Introduction

Coventry University