A proposal I helped to write has just come back from the donors with comments. They’re good sorts, and we think they’re going to fund the proposed programme, which we’re very happy about and grateful for. But, of course, we didn’t agree with all the comments, and one we didn’t agree with was a request that we mainstream gender into it more thoroughly, and even seek “the assistance of a gender specialist”. At the risk of attracting the ire of half of the international development community here is why I disagree.
Firstly I should acknowledge that gender issues can be very important in development. I am informed that one of the most cost-effective interventions one can make to reduce rural poverty in the long run is to invest in primary education for girls. (Although, of course, we shouldn’t just stop at primary education.) Anyone who has much experience in working in rural communities knows that women tend to be much better managers of money than men (e.g. see this), who may just splurge it on beer, cigarettes and (other) women. And there is no doubt that women in the communities where we work are often treated as second class citizens, and this is just morally wrong.
Secondly, in common with most environmentalists, I think environmental issues need more mainstreaming. Every time the World Bank (or another donor) approves funding for a big new dam or road going through virgin forest I wish they had considered environmental issues a little bit more carefully. Even at the local level we have seen another NGO cause siltation in a critical river through an ill-judged vegetable gardens project. So if we wish our concerns were better thought through, then equally one can understand how gender specialists (and those who specialise in youth issues and HIV/AIDS etc etc.) can all want their own pet subjects mainstreamed.
But, and here’s the rub, for the most part I don’t think environmental issues need to be particularly considered in, say, a programme to distribute HIV/AIDS antiviral drugs or to improve maternal health (although the links between environment and health, mean you could develop such a programme around environmental interventions). I would be more than happy for someone writing such a proposal to merely note that there were no environmental issues at stake, and to move on. I would not want them to devote 10% of their project to dreary recitation of environmental platitudes just to get the cash. Their heart won’t be in it, and not being experts they will probably miscommunicate some of the issues.
Community conservation work involves introducing at least one radical new idea into most communities (conservation), and often, in order to satisfy legal requirements, a whole bunch of others (e.g. agreeing and mapping defined boundaries between neighbouring villages, where people have been able to freely come and go for decades if not centuries). By and large, if we want to succeed with this programme, we have to work with existing power structures. (This is something that donors should be very familiar with from every time they sign a large cheque to a government they know is corrupt, but have no choice but to work with.) Turning the community power structures upside down so that women have an equal voice with men is not likely to lead to rapid success with our other work. And, just as health workers are unlikely to be the best environmental advocates, so we are not the best at grappling with gender issues.
I prefer to take a do no harm approach. Of course we should be cognizant of gender issues (and youth, and HIV/AIDS etc), and we should endeavour to ensure that we do not inadvertently make things worse. For instance our field staff always make the effort to encourage women to speak up in meetings. But to require that we should be explicitly addressing gender issues in every component of our work is madness.
I am sure that sensible gender advocates would retort that of course that’s not what they mean, and might suggest I am being a little hysterical about the issue. Unfortunately, this is not how most donors seem to interpret the problem; instead they expect detailed planning on gender issues on every single project they fund. A sensible, middle way can surely be found which does not involve throwing out the baby with the bath water. But for now, it appears that many donors have been captured to some extent by gender and HIV/AIDS activists, such that it distorts sensible development programmes. A good business stays focused on its core competencies, I wish we could be allowed to do the same.