For IDRC and its partners in the South, the goal of the development process is empowerment. IDRC assumes an explicit relationship between the generation of knowledge and development, and the Centre annually invests over $80 million in research institutions worldwide to help build and enhance indigenous research capacity.
Each researcher and/or research setting receiving IDRC support is unique and driven by its own specific set of circumstances. Some researchers are within universities, some are independent but have university links, and others are associated with community-based, non-academic centres. One of the Centre's distinguishing policies is that, within Centre program priorities, research institutions and researchers in the South set the agendas and make key decisions regarding the areas of research and the specific research questions to be pursued.
Leading researchers and development theorists agree that creation of effectively performing institutions is central to a country's development. The phrase "institutional capacity development" is used within the international donor community to capture the intent of a wide assortment of strategies used by donors to help strengthen Southern institutions. It is widely believed that through building institutional capacity, both the partner nations and the international donor community can obtain good value from investment dollars. Furthermore, focusing on institutional capacity permits investors to measure the cost-effectiveness of investment choices through examining a broad range of performance criteria.
In addition to its project support, IDRC has frequently supported the capacity development of its partner institutions by providing equipment, training, and improved management systems. Since the Centre's 1987 review of institution-strengthening approaches, the IDRC has increasingly moved beyond direct support of research to fund such research-complementing activities as:
Enhancing the capacity of institutions to carry out research-supporting functions provides an interesting and potentially important avenue for IDRC investment activities. It holds promise both as a way to fulfil IDRC's mission and as a methodology that can enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of IDRC disbursements.
While institutional capacity development is strongly assumed to be beneficial, there has been relatively little systematic analysis of institutional capacity and its growth subsequent to intervention. Organizational capacity is a complex phenomenon involving multiple variables; both the literature of institutional capacity development and the history of evaluation practice are replete with attempts to conceptualize and measure capacity. The methodology for assessing organizations in general and research organizations more specifically remains in early developmental stages, however. Governments of countries including Norway, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Australia are presently experimenting with approaches to evaluating the research institutions they support.
IDRC and other donor institutions have for decades been conducting program and project evaluations. The fact is, our methodologies and approaches for conducting these evaluations are much further along than are those for conducting institutional assessments.
Clearly, some configuration of the key variables of organizational capacity does make a difference in institutional functioning and performance. Donors need a way of evaluating these to learn the circumstances of where and how to invest.
Institutional performance is of central importance to capacity. Generally, it is the need or desire to change performance that drives people to engage in institutional evaluations. Performance can be conceived as the tip of the iceberg, the fruits of organizational capacity made visible to the outside world. In the case of research organizations, these fruits are the research and training products and services as well as changes within the organization itself, such as its organizational learning and adaptiveness over time so as to maintain relevance. The organization's underlying capacity either supports or impedes its performance; thus, an examination of the performance of funded institutions can be a tip-off to weaknesses (as well as strengths) in underlying capacity.
As IDRC develops a more strategic approach to institutional strengthening activities, proportionally greater resources may be directed to broader forms of institutional support. To direct these resources effectively, IDRC will need to approach the measurement of performance and the diagnosis of institutional need more systematically than it has in the past. In the next chapter we will propose a model for IDRC to use in assessing institutions in which it has invested. The model is presented as a framework for IDRC program officers and other personnel to use to assess client institutions' performance and to develop a profile of institutional capacity.
Any diagnostic approach must be sensitive enough to identify areas that are progressing well, and to reveal capacity gaps those institutional deficits that are restricting outputs or compromising the quality of research and training activities. (Such deficits might include, for example, the lack of ability of investigators to access needed information in relevant journals, inadequate means for researchers to attend international conferences in their fields, an inability to access training in needed research techniques, or inadequate operating funds with which to keep laboratories supplied.)
The aim of our model is to guide IDRC in identifying issues and collecting information that will be helpful in devising strategies to enhance institutional capacity and performance. It is hoped that the data emerging from this process will be used to enlighten funding decisions and to document any growth in institutional capacity that can be ascribed to IDRC's investments.
Because of the uniqueness of each institution receiving IDRC support, the evaluation framework is not meant to be prescriptive. Using the recommended strategy as a guide, each institution must engage in its own analysis and formulate its own conclusions. The process of institutional evaluation advocated here should further empower those involved by helping them learn about their organizations and about strategies for supporting them.
We recognize that IDRC's resources are finite and that the Centre is a relatively minor investor in global development and indeed, within some of its client institutions. However, by initiating a comprehensive assessment of partner organizations (which could be undertaken by multiple partners) and by directing support to areas that could dramatically improve institutional capacity, IDRC can continue to assume a leadership role in promoting sustainable development. Moreover, by encouraging the process of self-reflection which assessments inevitably entail, IDRC will help its partners develop into organizations with the capacity for ongoing learning.