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This article proposes a theoretical framework, the Capacity-building Paradox, which defines individual relationship work as the basis for capacity building. It explains why capacity building has hitherto been largely unsuccessful. ‘Relationship work’ is central to the functions of practitioners. It consists of both ‘dependent work’ and ‘friendship work’, the latter synonymous with capacity building. To do relationship work, practitioners require power, in order to overcome environmental obstacles. Financial resources emerge as the predominant environmental influence, often prompting practitioners to use dependent work rather than friendship work. This results in a reduction in capacity and does not contribute to sustainable development. Most of the current literature provides organisational and institutional tools for capacity building. While there is an increasing recognition of the centrality of personal relationships in this work, there is as yet no theoretical framework within which to locate it. The article presents original research into people’s experiences of capacity-building work in a development context and proposes a conceptual model that may have important implications for capacity-building practice.

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