Workshops that aim to strengthen individual and institutional capacity are a routine feature of the lives of administrators and development practitioners in large parts of the world.
By generating awareness on a particular topic or strategy and by providing necessary training for skills required to undertake complex tasks, workshops are frequently organised by a wide range of actors, including development agencies, civil society organisations and academic institutions.
But how useful are these for the oft-stated goal of building “capacity” in the civil service?
There has been considerable attention in recent years on the issue of allowances. Many organisers have for long lamented that workshops are impossible to organise (and few participants would indeed show up) without the per diem incentive.
And despite initial reservations of increased costs and the risk of trainees simply attending an event to boost their monthly incomes (and in the process neglecting their regular jobs), the workshop culture gradually became an accepted component of “doing development”. In an attempt to garner more attention on the learning component rather than supplementing meagre salaries, some agencies have proposed the full-board model.
This practice, where meals and hotel-related expenses are covered directly by the organisers rather than distributed as a cash payment to participants, has met with considerable opposition. Many civil servants claim that full-board is unfair—that rather than benefiting the hotel industry and their already well-off owners, the money is better spent by directly supporting the families of under-paid officials.
Apart from the per diem issue, I have long wondered how the knowledge and skills acquired during a training session are actually put to use in everyday life. What happens when newly trained individuals return to their work desks, where they typically confront a complex range of challenges—lack of equipment, costly, weak or non-existent Internet services, and the pressure to not criticise existing practices for fear of upsetting higher-ups. There is also the small matter of trainings not being particularly inspiring or relevant to resolving specific local challenges.
Then there is the constant stream of invitations, or a directive from one’s boss, to attend yet another workshop, perhaps with the added bonus of interacting with friends and colleagues in an exotic location. All of this can result in under-prioritising the tasks one is expected to perform at the office. But does this mean we should abandon workshops altogether?
Certainly not. The obsession with per diems can indeed be problematic when the financial incentive overrides the thirst for knowledge. But I do think we must not ignore the extent to which workshops actually achieve their intended objectives. Indeed, how new knowledge is applied to daily administrative tasks once a workshop is over is, for me, the more interesting question.