BACKGROUND Recent economic growth in Kazakhstan has been accompanied by slower improvements in population health and this has renewed impetus for health system reform. Strengthening strategic planning and policy-making capacity in the Ministry of Health has been identified as an important priority, particularly as the Ministry of Health is leading the health system reform process. CASE DESCRIPTION The intervention was informed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) framework for capacity building which views capacity building as an ongoing process embedded in local institutions and practices. In response to local needs extra elements were included in the framework to tailor the capacity building programme according to the existing policy and budget cycles and respective competence requirements, and link it with transparent career development structures of the Ministry of Health. This aspect of the programme was informed by the institutional capability assessment model used by the United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS) which was adapted to examine the specific organizational and individual competences of the Ministry of Health in Kazakhstan. DISCUSSION AND EVALUATION There were clear successes in building capacity for policy making and strategic planning within the Ministry of Health in Kazakhstan, including better planned, more timely and in-depth responses to policy assignments. Embedding career development as a part of this process was more challenging. This case study highlights the importance of strong political will and high level support for capacity building in ensuring the sustainability of programmes. It also shows that capacity-building programmes need to ensure full engagement with all local stakeholders, or where this is not possible, programmes need to be targeted narrowly to those stakeholders who will benefit most, for the greatest impact to be achieved. In sum, high quality tailor-made capacity development programmes should be based on thorough needs assessment of individual and organizational competences in a specific institutional setting. CONCLUSIONS The experience showed that complementary approaches to human resource development worked effectively in the context of organizations and systems, where an enabling environment was present, and country ownership and political will was complemented by strong technical assistance to design and deliver high quality tailor-made capacity building initiatives.