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United Nations Desa Capacity Development Office

Partnering with countries to integrate global development knowledge into national development strategies.

Capacity is defined as the ability of people, organizations and society as a whole to manage their affairs successfully. Capacity development is understood as the process whereby people, organizations and society as a whole unleash, strengthen, create, adapt and maintain capacity over time.

Capacity Development in DESA

DESA’s operational work is aimed at developing capacities of developing countries to translate internationally agreed policy frameworks into strategies and programmes at country-level. Capacity development is the third functional pillar of DESA’s overall mandate, alongside its normative and analytical work. It brings to its contribution at country-level not only global knowledge, but a global perspective on development drawn from its support to inter-governmental policymaking.

The Internationally Agreed Development Goals, including the Millennium Development Goals, provide the main framework for DESA’s international development cooperation. The outcome of the General Assembly’s High-level Plenary Meeting on the MDGs, the recently concluded Conference on the Least Development Countries (LDC-IV), and the Rio+20 review provide further guidance in sharpening the focus on DESA’s operational priorities. Member States particularly call for greater attention to the needs of Least Developed Countries, those farthest from reaching the MDGs and with large inequalities, and those in post-conflict transition. Meanwhile, the General Assembly’s comprehensive review of operational activities for development provides guidance for system-wide coherence of operational activities at country-level.

DESA pursues an integrated approach that brings together inter-related strands of work in each of its priority areas to ensure synergy, and tailored as needed to specific country-level or inter-country cooperation requirements, also taking into account the support provided by other United Nations system partners.

DESA works with groups of countries based on common needs, providing them with shared platforms of learning and exchange of experiences, including on development policies that work. It supports piloting of innovative approaches, models, and instruments, and promotes replication and scaling up where successful.

DESA offers analytic and methodological tools, including those that it develops drawing from its in-depth analytic work. Its assistance is delivered through specialized advisory services of national and international experts; training; diffusion of knowledge through expert groups and practitioners meetings; and on-line knowledge platforms that provide access to analytical reports/studies, best practices, and other learning materials. DESA also draws on the support of and collaborates with numerous partners, including the UN Funds and Programmes, Regional Commissions and other Secretariat entities in the development field, multi-lateral development banks, bilateral aid agencies, and civil society.

Capacity Development Strategy Capacity Development Tools

DESA’s Capacity Development Strategy was approved in July 2011. It informs Member States, partners, and stakeholders within the United Nations system and beyond, of the guiding framework and principles of DESA's capacity development work, areas of priority and expertise, resources, and services.

A compendium of capacity development information and knowledge resources developed by DESA and produced in collaboration with DESA partners for practical application in policy making and implementation.

Priority Areas of Capacity Development

DESA's capacity development activities are centered around five priority areas, which show the greatest potential for demonstrating DESA's unique added value, clear demand from Member States, and complementarity with the role and contribution of other parts of the UN system.

In the five areas defined below, DESA has a comparative advantage based on: (i) accumulated in-depth knowledge and expertise derived from its global normative and analytical work and experience in operational activities with outstanding results and good practices; (ii) global networks of experts, policy-makers and institutional partnerships; and (iii) distinctive value added to the work of the United Nations development system partners. DESA’s contribution to capacity development will vary from country to country based on assessed needs and existing capacities, comparative advantage vis-à-vis other actors, and the principle that no “one size fits all”.

  1. Strengthening of statistical capacities, including monitoring of MDGs

    DESA , through its Statistics Division, serves as the coordinating centre of the global statistical system under the guidance of the UN Statistical Commission. It brings together global expertise, state-of-the-art knowledge, and best practice in development statistics. While supporting the development of international guidelines, it assists national statistics offices in using these guidelines and develops their capacities to produce quality data for policy making.

  2. Macro-economic advisory services and international tax cooperation

    DESA assists countries to integrate macroeconomic, fiscal, environmental, and social policies in national development strategies, to make macro-economic stabilization compatible with the long-term goals of poverty eradication and sustainable development, and to strengthen national tax systems. On the request of governments, DESA provides alternative macro-economic policy advice.


  3. Social integration and inclusion of vulnerable groups

    DESA assists countries develop policies to address societal conditions that create vulnerability and social exclusion, and strengthen mechanisms of inclusion, paying particular attention to the situation of older persons, youth, families, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, persons in situations of conflict and other groups, including women, marginalized from society and development.


  4. Sustainable development including climate change mitigation and adaptation, and forests

    DESA supports countries to develop, implement, monitor, and review national strategies for sustainable development including responses to climate change, particularly in the areas of water, energy, forests, and sustainable consumption and production. DESA is currently assisting countries with national preparations for Rio+20. DESA assists countries to transition from unsustainable to sustainable practices, through integrated water resources management, development of clean energy alternatives and sustainable transportation modes, and demand-supply management including through regulatory and institutional frameworks linked to macro-economic and spatial planning.

  5. Public administration and ICT for development, including e-government

    DESA assists countries to transform governance and public institutions to be effective, efficient, transparent, accountable, innovative, and citizen-oriented in the development and delivery of public services. This involves strengthening of public sector human resource capacities and institutional mechanisms for civil society engagement. DESA particularly supports the development of capacities on use of information and communications technology (ICT) for governance.

From Technical Cooperation to Capacity Development

DESA's current capacity development approach reflects an evolution of thought on how best to support Member States in their national development and in achieving internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals. Until the 1990s, the role and contribution of external assistance, including that of the UN system, to developing countries was essentially described as technical assistance, a term that gave way subsequently to technical cooperation. The approach was to allow developing countries to acquire the information, skills and knowledge needed for their development.

But technical cooperation proved to be insufficient in many countries. Targeted skills transfers often did not permeate the larger institutional or societal context and achieve the multiplier effect desired. While many technical cooperation projects achieved their immediate objectives, they were less successful at developing sustainable national capacities. Emphasis shifted from the use of expatriate technical cooperation personnel to the nurturing of national leadership and expertise. The external contribution to capacity development henceforth aimed at individuals (training), institutions (organizational development) and the enabling environment (support to policies and strategies) in greater synergy. Capacity development was seen to encompass attitudes, relationships and values of individuals, groups and societies at large. Capacity development being at the core of the UN system’s contribution to national development strategies is strongly linked to its normative roles.

The UN development system has a direct role in capacity development at country level, drawing from the collective mandates, expertise, and experiences in the system. Its capacity development efforts include all roles assumed by the UN system: a) facilitate capacity assessments; b) strengthen national capacities to implement and monitor international norms/standards; c) provide catalytic support for technological and knowledge acquisition and innovation capacities; d) support capacity to develop and use information, data and robust results-based management systems for greater accountability; e) facilitate consensus-building processes and broker relations between key development stakeholders, to promote capacities for inclusion and empowerment in decision making; f) support the capacity to review and analyze pro-poor policy options; g) facilitate participation of societal and government actors in, and enhance capacities for, national coordination of development and humanitarian assistance; h) provide international good practice in all the above and promote knowledge networking capacities around them.

DESA is a member of the UNDG and aligns itself with the UNDG position statement on Enhancing the UN's Contributions to National Capacity Development (2006).

Intergovernmental Guidance on Capacity Development

The General Assembly's comprehensive policy review of the United Nations operational activities for development establishes system-wide policy orientations for the development cooperation and country-level modalities of the UN system in response to the evolving international development cooperation environment.

General Assembly resolution (A/RES/62/208) of 2007 recognizes that capacity development and ownership of national development strategies are essential for the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals, and calls upon United Nations organizations to provide further support to the efforts of developing countries to establish and/or maintain effective national institutions and to support the implementation and, as necessary, the devising of national strategies for capacity-building.

It reaffirms that each country must take primary responsibility for its own development and that national efforts should be complemented by supportive global programmes, measures and policies aimed at expanding the development opportunities of developing countries. The comprehensive review which now takes place every four years has stressed that capacity development is a core function of the United Nations development system. Further, it has identified measures to ensure a coherent and coordinated approach by the United Nations development system in its support to capacity development efforts of programme countries. In December 2008, the General Assembly's (A/RES/63/232) decided to change the comprehensive review from a triennial to a quadrennial cycle (TCPR/QCPR).