It may seem like a paradox: capacity builders building capacity on capacity building. Nonetheless it was reality on the 26th – 27th February when 15 senior consultants and probation managers with extensive experience in capacity building and bilateral training projects came together in Sofia, Bulgaria to share their experiences. “The meeting has produced very rich, very useful content which has the potential to result in a framework for capacity building”, says Steve Pitts, one of the organizers of the Expert Meeting.

In the last ten years, the number of capacity building projects in the field of probation in Europe has soared. Almost all Central and Eastern European countries have profoundly changed their justice systems and penal policies, among other things resulting in the establishment of their own probation systems and practices. “In all steps of this complicated and often delicate process the newer EU member states have regularly been assisted by agencies and experts from countries where community justice has been in existence for decades, and that process is still going on today”, comments Steve Pitts, who is International and Business Development Manager at NOMS, the probation service for England & Wales, and a former Residential Twinning Advisor to Bulgaria. “Therefore the moment seemed right to hold a meeting uniting those who delivered the expertise and those who benefited from the change, and discern best practices and discuss how these could be developed further and taken forward”.

At the expert meeting not only the experiences in EU member States including Bulgaria, Latvia, Hungary and Romania were highlighted, but also those in Russia, Turkey and Georgia. “It was a very interesting meeting, with high quality contributions”, says Steve Pitts. “Many of the different aspects of capacity building have been discussed. I, and Bulgarian colleagues also involved in organizing the event, have taken notes of the discussions and will produce a paper. We haven’t yet decided finally about the form it should take, but it may be a sequence of steps to consider and, importantly, things to avoid in capacity building. For instance, when an aim is to build up the delivering capacity of that staff, it is obvious that you think about a training programme. But then you also need to pay attention to the sustainability of development, which implies consideration of the new service’s capacity in terms of, for example, practice support, recording and management systems and personnel, evaluation, and of course funding.”

“Moreover, you shouldn’t forget that these forms of capacity building take place against the background of the culture of the beneficiary country. Therefore, you have to take into account the differences in the management style and political style. And the aim must always be to build a service which is informed by the experience of the donor country but is not a replica of it. In addition, in most cases, the bilateral partnership in probation is only one of the many bilateral partnerships in the field of justice. For example, when I was working in Bulgaria, there were at least nine or ten projects taking place within the realm of the Ministry of Justice, involving about half a dozen partners, including the United States, the Netherlands and other European partners. All these projects impact on each other whether intentionally or not, so it is important to find out what the other countries are doing and try to build some consistency, a relationship between donor countries. So you see that capacity building is a very complex matter.”

Another aspect which became clear in the expert meeting is that the field of capacity building is very dynamic. “The settings within which capacity building is taking place are changing quickly”, Steve Pitts explains. “Countries that were beneficiaries of capacity building are developing quickly into modern probation organizations. Some have recently started to ‘export’ their knowledge on capacity building to other countries where the process of establishing a probation system has begun only  recently. That is a significant change, and for sure this trend will continue. Therefore, one of the results of the expert meeting was that, due to the speed of development, we agreed we should have a follow-up meeting, in maybe two years time, to revise what we know about capacity building. I think that the paper which will result from our first expert meeting will be will be a good basis for our further discussions.”

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