8. Capacity Building in Emergencies

In emergencies, you’re often starting up in a new area, and need to use new people. Even if you do a great job hiring you will need to help people – staff or volunteers – learn how to do their work. You can’t do all the work yourself, so you have to train them. There are ways to train that are effective and ways where you’re wasting precious time and money. You need to focus on the effective ways of doing it.

– If you’re a manager, there are only two ways you can get your staff to perform better – train them to be better at their jobs, or motivate them to work harder. Training them makes the most effective use of your time. You spending a couple of hours planning and delivering training that makes a 5% improvement in how your staff work will save hundreds or thousands of hours of time over the next year. See more on this idea.

– It would be great if everyone you hired knew how to do their jobs perfectly straight away. That’s never going to be the case. The very best professionals are still going to need help understanding a new organization or learning the specific process for purchasing supplies.

– In lots of places where CARE works, it is hard to find the very best professionals. In those cases you will need to hire people with potential and train them up. Even brilliant people who haven’t been able to access education or training will need extra support.

– If you plan as if your staff will be able to work perfectly from Day 1, your plans will go wrong. There’s nothing wrong with high expectations; explaining expectations is an important part of training. But you will need to train them to reach those expectations.

Training and learning helps you to get more done. There will definitely be a learning process for new staff, whether you deliberately train them or not. Good training speeds up that learning process and gets a team doing more, faster. If you’ve got the right strategy, that means saving more lives.

Remember, training and learning are not the same thing! You are really interested in learning. Training is a common way to get people to learn, but it is not always the best. You need to think about other approaches, such as creating checklists and getting people to use them; how-to videos shot on your phone; coaching; mentoring; communities of practice and many others. The best ways to use some of these are below. This part of the toolkit does talk a lot about training though. That’s because it is a very common way to go about building capacity, and if you’re committed to that way, then we want you to do it right. It’s also often a good choice when people need to learn skills quickly and don’t have time to build them up slowly on the job.

Firstly, remember that by spending time on training you are saving time later in your work. Each person works about 2000 hours a year. If they do just 1% more as a result of training, then you would be gaining 20 hours per person. 20 people on a course, each gaining 20 hours = 400 hours of extra work! Keep this in mind.

Of course, you do have to move quickly in an emergency. You have many things to do, and you’re overworked. You need to find a quick way that works.

2.1 When is the right time to train staff in an emergency?

2.2 How long does it take to train someone?

2.3 How long does it take to develop training?

2.4 How long does it take to plan and organize training?

2.5 What are the methods that make training fast ?

What is cheap for you may be expensive for someone else – and what is expensive for you may be cheap for another! Whatever the number, cost and good value are always important. We have a responsibility to not waste money.

Without wanting to sound like a stuck record, the most important part of training being “cheap” is that it works. Training where you don’t spend much money, but where performance doesn’t improve is INFINITELY expensive. You spent something, but you got nothing back.

The most common way of wasting money is training people on the wrong thing. You train them on interacting with communities; they already know how, but managers are asking them to do another task, rather than spend time to build relationships. You train them on supply chain management, but the reason why things take so long is that your procedures aren’t appropriate for an emergency. You train them on conducting focus group discussions, when your main problems are in analyzing quantitative data. You train them on designing water supply projects, when they really need to know how to demonstrate the correct use of water treatment chemicals.

Take the time to think about where your problems really are, and whether staff skills can (help) fix them, and you will go a long way to avoiding the biggest waste of money. Ask yourself, could they do it if their lives depended on it? If yes, then you may not need to train them on it. Ask yourself, if they can’t do this, will the project fail? If no, then you may not need to train them on it.

3.1 Cost and complexity

3.2 Ways to save money

3.3 Ways to find money

So far, we’ve talked a lot about training, training courses or sessions and their practicalities. That’s because you often need to, or are being asked to deliver a course or session. You need to know what you’re doing on that, and how to make it worthwhile.

There are lots of other ways of learning, away from training though. As a manager or adviser, many of these will be open to you. They may be quicker, they may be cheaper, and they may be more effective. Just remember that often more structured training can be the fastest, most effective way of learning.

4.1 Coaching

4.2 Learning on the job: from others

4.3 Learning on the job: from books, videos, etc.

4.4 Online learning

4.5 Communities of practice

4.6 Manager feedback

4.7 Stretch assignments

You have learned things in your life. You probably remember the situation in which you learned them. That does not mean that this was the best way of learning. So if you’re training others, you need to let go of your previous experiences and focus on what works.

We’re not going to talk through everything you might want to know about adult learning theory, principles and their application. You should search for that if you’re interested. Watch out! There are lots of myths around learning. Look for the book “Make it Stick” for the state of the research on learning at the time of writing this. You could also look at resources here.

Here are some approaches that CARE recommends.

1) We said it before, but the first step is focusing on what the real problem is. By doing the analysis, you focus on the right thing. If you focus on the right thing, then you have a good chance of getting people to learn something they need – regardless of the particularities of the method you use.

2) Also mentioned before – be very specific about what you need people to be able to do. Re-check that if they do that, you will (help) solve the real problem you just identified. Sometimes, it really is just a matter of letting people know what they need to do. If they have to write a project code in one box of a requisition form, then they probably just need to be told where to write it, that it isn’t optional, and where to find the list of codes.

3) Make sure that people have reference information that they might need. In the example, you might find that you don’t have a list of project codes! Make that list and share it with them – that might be enough!

4) Focus on practising skills rather than transmitting knowledge. It’s not that we don’t want people to know things, but the focus is them doing their job better. If you focus on the skills they need, you are likely to create a more engaging session. Keep facts in course materials, references they refer to etc. The knowledge you need to impart is the minimum necessary to do that job task well.

5) Get people practicing the skill you’re trying to develop right away. Making mistakes is fine – as long as you give them feedback and they get a chance to correct them. Give them information after that first practice.

6) Practice elements of a task and then practice them together. Get people to practice a suitable way of introducing themselves to a survey respondent. Give them feedback (from you or a colleague). Then get them to practice explaining the point of the survey. Get them more feedback. Then asking difficult questions on the survey. THEN practice the whole process.

7) Create simulations which show realistic challenges or contexts. People remember better when the learning environment is close to the environment where something will be applied. If people need to be able to do something under stress, then get them to practice in a more stressful situation. Simulations provide a way to create those environments where people can make mistakes and learn.

Supply driven training

You’re an expert in a particular topic. You identified a weakness in a particular area that you can help with. And your deployment is ending soon! Part of your terms of reference was to build capacity… Stop!

CARE needs to focus on the gaps that are most critical for performance. By all means, train the people that need to share your expertise (or who will need it soon). But identify the NEEDS for training, not what you can provide. If they need training on Sexual and Reproductive Health programming and you are a logistician, then work with other advisors to address the gap. Or perhaps tailor training you could deliver so that it meets a PART of that need (maybe medical stock management, if you’re that logistician).

Information heavy training

It is very rarely the right choice or needed. It is often based on the expert’s perspective, not the learners. It can also be a “safe” choice to avoid criticism for not covering a topic. “Covering” something means nothing if people don’t learn.

Powerpoint dominated training

Normally this leads to information-heavy training as it is very easy to keep adding text to slides. It feels safe for trainers, as they have something to prompt them. It is very, very rare to see it done well. The presenter presents, and the information is not learned by the participants. They aren’t being asked to recall what was said, to use it in a meaningful way, and it may not recap the main points.

Overly broad training

If training is for too many different groups of learners, it is likely to not be specific enough on how they need to apply it. It will remain at the level of theory and high-level principles – nice, but not making a huge difference to performance. Learners need to understand how those principles are translated into action in their situation. Break the group up if needed and give it extra context.

Donor guidelines training

Of course, this is important. We see that often issues are not with not knowing the guidelines – people can look them up. If guidelines aren’t followed, it’s more likely because people didn’t know what THEY were supposed to do in a process, and that can lead to policies not being implemented properly. So fine, train people on the donor guidelines – but make sure they’re also trained in how to follow the CARE plans and policies that meet those guidelines.

You don’t have time to waste. Any time spent on training and learning is time not spent on something else. That is fine, because time spent on training will pay back in a way that almost nothing else can – but only if the learning activity has some impact


You never have an opportunity to make a difference to someone’s productivity like when they join. If you’re someone’s manager, you can’t take the risk of someone else doing a poor job of orienting your staff. You need them to get fully up to speed as soon as possible. So take responsibility for it. Orientation is high impact because you know there are gaps. Those might be different for different people. There are gaps though. Follow good practices for orientation.

Design based on a specific goal you need to achieve

This is drawn from the Action Mapping approach. Work hard at the start to find a measurable goal that you want to achieve. Use a measurement that you already have, if at all possible. Then work out how staff skills will contribute to achieving that goal. The discipline of doing this will directly tie the learning initiative to something that matters. You build in the impact from the start. Your first thoughts are about what impact you want to see, and not what content you want to cover.

Focus on the most critical things

Instead of trying to cover everything, think about what are the one or two things that will really make a difference. Focus relentlessly on them. If you think people already know how to do them – check that. If they do, then maybe you don’t need a training course. You need to spend time on creating reminders, or on improving a process so they can actually do it.

If people don’t know how to do them – don’t just spend a bit of time on them and move to another topic. Get them to practice it. Get them to practice again. Find ways to keep them engaged and motivated.

Plan for transfer to work

If you’re practising skills that people really need in their work, then you will have gone a long way to ensuring that they do get transferred. As well as keeping that focus, include action planning as part of a learning program. Get learners to think through realistic steps they can take to apply what they learned in their own jobs.

If you’re using coaching to help people learn, then you will already be  working with real-life issues that they have to grapple with. You may need to spend time structuring how they can bring a new skill into their work in a way that works.

Keep engagement and motivation high

The most engaging thing is learning how to do something well. Mastery is more motivating than a game. But there are lots of different ways to get a group working together and get them practicing skills. Role-plays, table-top games that get at the skills, group discussions, fish-bowls… the list is long! You can find lots of ideas online, so we won’t go over them here. Boring training leads to people switching off, and not taking anything in. Training that is dominated by techniques lacks substance. A combination of keeping the interest up and using approaches that really work is the way to go.

Showing impact – evaluations

A lot of the time you will be asked to show the impact of what you did. Quite right too! You want to be working in an environment doesn’t take this on faith. You might find this challenging, and it is.

Remember that you are not looking for cast-iron evidence of impact. You are looking for information that you and others can use to take informed decisions. So you are not looking for total proof. You don’t need to write a PhD thesis for each course. You do need to collect information and then analyse it to make robust judgements that are based on more than gut instinct.

There are approaches that can help you.

– Using the action mapping method you would already have identified a measurement of your success. If that shifts, after you do what you planned, then you have an excellent basis for showing the impact.

– Treat participant evaluations for what they are: an expression of how much participants liked the course. They tell you little (if anything) about what people learned, about whether the methods were good ones, etc. You can get useful information from them – especially on practical matters – did the trainer speak too fast? Was a handout clear or confusing? They tell you nothing about the impact of the course.

– the KatzellKirkpatrick model is widely used for training evaluation. There are some concerns about the validity of the leaps from one level to another. At worst it’s a useful reminder of the need to evaluate the impact that a learning initiative has, not just whether people learned, or whether they changed what they did. CARE does use a variation of this to show the impact of courses.

Whoever your learners are, you have a responsibility to them to use methods that work. You have a responsibility to yourself to not waste your time. And there is no bigger waste of time than working with people who don’t know what to do! So take the responsibility for developing your team seriously, spend time on the design, save it on the writing/development, and get better impact as a result.