Capacity is a dynamic concept referring to both processes and outcomes. At an organizational level, capacity is the ability to function as a resilient, strategic and autonomous entity, a combination of individual competencies, collective capabilities, assets and relationships that enables a human system to create value. [1]

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Other definitions of capacity

European Center for Development Policy Management [2]

Capacity is that emergent combination of attributes that enables a human system to create developmental value.

RAND website

Capacity is understood differently across sectors and organizations, as different sectors are driven by differing sets of incentives: while private sector companies typically aim to generate and increase profit, public sector organizations tend to prioritize public service delivery and efficiency. Even within one sector, conceptualizations of capacity can vary depending on the size and mission of the organization or department. For example, smaller departments with an overseas delivery focus (e.g. development) may take a different approach than larger domestic service delivery departments (e.g. education). Despite these diverging definitions, there was agreement in the literature and among interviewees that organizational capacity is a multidimensional concept with culture as a core determinant.

Note: Figure ES-1 of this document consolidates the definitions presented in the literature and by study interviewees into a single conceptual framework.


Capacity Assessment

OECD [3]

A structured and analytical process whereby the various dimensions of capacity are assessed within a broader context of systems, as well as evaluated for specific entities and individuals within these systems.


Capacity Development

OECD [3]

The process by which individuals, groups and organizations, institutions and countries develop, enhance and organise their systems, resources and knowledge; all reflected in their abilities, individually and collectively, to perform functions, solve problems and achieve objectives.        

World Bank [4]

The process whereby change is enabled makes the challenge of monitoring and measuring results conceptually more tractable.


Capacity Building

WHO Health Promotion Glossary Update [5]

Capacity building is the development of knowledge, skills, commitment, structures, systems, and leadership to enable effective health promotion. It involves actions to improve health at three levels: the advancement of knowledge and skills among practitioners; the expansion of support and infrastructure for health promotion in organizations, and; the development of cohesiveness and partnerships for health in communities.

The capacity of individual health promoters is a necessary but not sufficient condition for achieving effective health promotion. The support from the organizations they work within and work with is equally crucial to the effective implementation of health promotion strategies. At the organizational level, this may include training of staff, providing resources, designing policies and procedures to institutionalize health promotion, and developing structures for health promotion planning and evaluation. The scope of the organizational capacity building encompasses the range of policies and partnerships for health promotion that may be necessary to implement specific programs or to identify and respond to new health needs as they arise. At the community level, capacity building may include raising awareness about health risks, strategies to foster community identity and cohesion, education to increase health literacy, facilitating access to external resources, and developing structures for community decision-making. Community capacity building concerns the ability of community members to take action to address their needs as well as the social and political support that is required for the successful implementation of programs. [6,7,8]


A process by which individuals, institutions and societies develop abilities, individually and collectively, to perform functions, solve problems and set and achieve their goals.     

OECD [10]

Means by which skills, experience, technical and management capacity are developed within an organizational structure (contractors, consultants or contracting agencies) - often through the provision of technical assistance, short/long-term training, and specialist inputs (e.g., computer systems). The process may involve the development of human, material and financial resources.

PubMed Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)

Organizational development including enhancement of management structures, processes and procedures, within organizations and among different organizations and sectors to meet present and future needs.

Freiler et al. (2013) [11]

A key process for implementing Health in All Policies (HiAP) contingent on the presence of appropriate and/or adequate human, information, financial or infrastructural resources for implementation of a HiAP strategy.

Cases of Capacity

*Note: Health Research Policy and Systems has published a number of articles on ‘capacity’:

  • Bennett, S., Corluka, A., Doherty, J., & Tangcharoensathien, V. Approaches to developing the capacity of health policy analysis institutes: A comparative case study. Health Research Policy and Systems, 2012;10:7.
  • Oronje, R. N., Murunga, V. I., & Zulu, E. M. Strengthening capacity to use research evidence in health sector policy-making: Experience from kenya and Malawi. Health Research Policy and Systems, 2019;17:1-13.
  • Krista, M. E. P. Increasing health policy and systems research capacity in low- and middle-income countries: Results from a bibliometric analysis. Health Research Policy and Systems, 2017;15
  • Uzochukwu, B., Mbachu, C., Onwujekwe, O., Okwuosa, C., Etiaba, E., Nystrom, M. E., & Gilson, L. Health policy and systems research and analysis in Nigeria: Examining health policymakers and researchers capacity assets, needs and perspectives in south-east Nigeria. Health Research Policy and Systems, 2016;14

*Similar papers on CHESAI, ORACLe, SPIRIT, Canada, and Africa universities in Health Research Policy and Systems. Other notable examples:         

  • Uneke, C. J., Ezeoha, A. E., Ndukwe, C. D., Oyibo, P. G., Onwe, F., Igbinedion, E. B., & Chukwu, P. N. Individual and organisational capacity for evidence use in policy making in Nigeria: An exploratory study of the perceptions of Nigeria health policy makers. Evidence & Policy, 2011;7(3):251-276. 
  • OECD's Donor Capacity Development Innovation: The European Commission. Issue Brief 7,. March 2010.
  • OECD’s Perspectives Note: The Enabling Environment for Capacity Development
  • Pearson J. 2011. Training and beyond: Seeking better practices for capacity development. Paris, France: OECD.
  • IMF. 2013. The Fund's Capacity Development Strategy: Better Policies Through Stronger Institutions. Washington, D.C.: IMF.
  • Foundation Center. Data Strategy and Capacity Building for Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. 2015-2017. URL:


[1] Sriram V, Sheikh K, Soucat A, Bigdeli M. Addressing governance challenges and capacities in Ministries of Health. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2020. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

[2] Morgan P. Study on Capacity, Change and Performance. 2006 May. p8

[3] OECD, 2006, DAC Guidelines and Reference Series Applying Strategic Environmental Assessment: Good Practice Guidance for Development Co-operation, OECD, Paris

[4] World Bank. Guide to Evaluating Capacity Development Results.


[6] Skinner S. Building Community Strengths: A Resource Book on Capacity Building. 1997. London: Community Development Foundation Publications.

[7] Hawe P, King L, Noort M, Jordens C, Lloyd B. Indicators to Help with Capacity Building in Health Promotion. 2000 Sydney, Australia: NSW Department of Health and the Australian Center for Health Promotion, Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of Sydney. 

[8] Catford J. The Bangkok Conference: Steering countries to build national capacity for health promotion. Health Promotion International, 2005; 20: 16-.


[10] International Labour Organisation. Employment-Intensive Investment Programme (EIIP).


[11] Freiler A, Muntaner C, Shankardass K, Mah CL, Molnar A, Renahy E, O'Campo P. Glossary for the implementation of Health in All Policies (HiAP). J Epidemiol Community Health. 2013 Dec 1;67(12):1068-72.