Mainstream me

So I’ve been pondering a bit recently on the riddles of what gets mainstreamed and what doesn’t in aid, and how it gets mainstreamed. A lot seems to go wrong.

What

Here’s what I reckon should get mainstreamed, in rough order of importance:

  • Aid Effectiveness. I mean if you’re not effective why do you even bother? And yet large parts of the aid industry seem to resemble nothing more than a giant job creation scheme. There was a good reason why all those structural adjustment programmes recommended drastically slimming down government bureaucracies that are now propped up by so many aid projects.
  • Sustainability. Oh yeah I’ve said this all before. Can easily be filed under effectiveness.
  • Good Governance. Governance is all about the processes we go through to achieve other goals, so tackling it as a separate item or bolt-on extra is surely nuts. Someone, however, needs to tell that to some of the government officials around here, who recently I overhead praising the importance of training on good governance … if you don’t know when you’re stealing from the very people you’re supposed to be serving then time to get another job!
  • Environment (including climate change). I’m an environmentalist so of course I’m biased on this one. But environmental issues impose important limits on what is and what isn’t achievable (and sustainable!), and externalities are often and easily generated that impose on other people, who are likely to be at least as poor as those you’re trying to help.
  • Disadvantaged Demographics (i.e. gender, but a lot more besides). I’m not saying it ain’t important, just I think the above are, on average, more important.

And here’s one that does not deserve to be mainstreamed in its own right:

  • HIV / AIDS. I mean if it’s a workforce problem then it falls under Aid Effectiveness (constantly ill staff = unsuccessful project). Or if it’s a critical constraint in the target community then what the **** are you doing trying to implement some other kind of project?

Of course, as my argument on HIV/AIDS demonstrates, all these are contextual. Most education projects are unlikely to be constrained by environmental issues or to generate much in the way of environmental externalities, so gender is probably more important to consider, and vice versa for infrastructure development projects.

How

How things get mainstreamed is equally important. Check boxes belong with job creating bureaucracies but rarely have anything to do with reality.

I was recently discussing gender issues with some colleagues and, at first, my natural suspicion of the gender-trumps-everything agenda kicked in, and I suggested that it isn’t particularly central to the work we do. But then just as I was moving on to the “But of course we treat it as important … blah blah …”, it occurred to me that the reason that it isn’t a big issue for us is that our excellent field team are all to some extent sensitive to problems of women’s marginalisation, and attempt to mitigate them at each step in their fieldwork. (Not saying that our practices in this area couldn’t be improved, just that they’re not too bad.) I.e. we had actually mainstreamed gender issues in our work. It gives us precious little to fill in those blank spaces on grant application forms that ask how we address gender issues, but it works a lot better in practice than some tokenistic additional practice.

Climate change seems to be the next big candidate for ubiquitous demands for mainstreaming. In tackling this I really hope that other donors follow the lead of Comic Relief (a UK donor) who, in tackling climate change, I gather have said they don’t want to fall into the same old mainstreaming traps, and instead want their grantees to really walk the walk.

Is it too much to hope that the rest of  the aid industry might finally mainstream good mainstreaming practice?

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