Posts Tagged ‘gender mainstreaming’

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.


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 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?


My ideal donor

I just received a delightful email from a chap who was setting up a new grants scheme for somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. He had read my rant entitled Preposal Prepostery, and wanted to know what advice I would give to a donor wanting to do the right thing. My dream come true: a chance to design the ideal donor! Smile

Here are ten tips I gave him. Please suggest more in the comments, and I’ll pull the best together into a second piece.

  1. Offer funding that is presumed to continue (unless there is a bad evaluation or something) rather than presumed to stop (but where you can apply for follow-on funds). Obviously your ability to do this will be constrained by your own funder(s) – you don’t want to make promises you cannot keep – but maybe this is the kind of innovation which might make you more attractive if sold to them in the right way. This doesn’t mean promising to fund projects in perpetuity, but there should be a sensible strategy to achieve long term sustainability (handing over to the local government does not count!) either because need for the external assistance will eventually subside (e.g. farmers will have learned the new techniques being promulgated) or because alternative funding can be found. But these should be long term issues to be reviewed and gradually refined over the length of the project, not something to be dreamt up for the initial proposal.
  2. Give 100% funds upfront at the beginning of each year. If you feel the need to incentivise report production, do it through personal perks like invites to lesson-sharing workshops. Never let grantees suffer funding gaps!
  3. Keep budgets short. I reckon 10 different budget lines should generally be enough. Don’t demand ridiculous levels of detail in financial reporting, but do demand proper audits. Even ask to be consulted over the auditing process so you can ask auditors to look for specific issues of concern to you. (You might have to pay extra for that.)
  4. Don’t get too hung up on large proportions of budgets going on certain things. Maybe the grantee needs that. In particular a high % going on salaries might mean they are employing high calibre staff which is about the best indicator of success I can think of.
  5. Consider funding 6 month inception phases as a matter of course. After 3 months the grantee should submit a full project document setting out their plans in a lot more detail. This can be further negotiated, until satisfactory. Funds release beyond the 6 month inception phase is dependent upon a satisfactory agreement over the detailed project document. This can be repeated every year so long as the grantee has at least 3 months funds carry-over so they can keep on working in the meantime. Major asset purchases should be held off until after the inception phase. Inception phases are really useful where you’re not sure about an applicant: maybe they just don’t have the writing skills to prepare a good application, and you can offer support to the applicant to this phase, assessing for yourselves what needs to happen. Conversely don’t demand highly detailed proposals before the inception phase.
  6. Require applicants to complete a risk analysis together with how they intend to address these risks. This should be reviewed annually.
  7. Focus on impact / outcomes over outputs / immediate objectives. Grantees should clearly communicate what’s important; that way when things go wrong (as they always do) you can hope they focus on the impact and not on which outputs they promised to deliver.
  8. Beware of box ticking exercises. A logframe is no substitute for a clear strategy, and if you have a clear strategy the log frame is relatively unimportant. (Tho some people may find it useful in both formulating their strategy and communicating it.) Equally, SMART objectives are all very well but sometimes can get a bit silly, e.g. time-bound should simply be assumed to be by end of project unless otherwise stated. On the other hand they do force the indisciplined to get properly specific.
  9. Allow for free-form proposals with some suggested headings, making it clear applicants should feel free to add their own, and exclude any that are not applicable.
  10. Be very careful about your call for proposals: restrictive calls simply force people into straitjackets, writing proposals for what you want to fund rather than what they want to do. Even quite general restrictions can have this effect. E.g. I recently review applications for a small conservation grant which required applicants to include a local communications / outreach component. There were some good proposals which suffered from having this bolted on where it didn’t make full sense.

And here’s an eleventh I just thought of:

11. If you must demand certain issues be mainstreamed, then allow applicants to mark them as not applicable without that being a black mark against them.

The Aid Effectiveness Officer

During my Xmas break I was able at last to put flesh to what, for me, was a mythical creature: the Aid Effectiveness Officer. The lead character in John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener is an Aid Effectiveness Officer, but I’d never previously encountered one. I had thought / hoped that they might only exist in legends designed to keep aid recipient bureaucrats on their toes lest they get a visit from the Aid Effectiveness Officer ghost. I even wondered whether they came in tripartite form: the ghosts of Aid Past, Aid Present and Future Aid. (Although, given the course of Aid history, maybe the Ghost of Aid Present would be the scariest; an IMF inspection team of headless wraiths?)

But now I can reveal to you the truth: yes Aid Effectiveness Officers actually exist – I’ve met one in the flesh. It was the season of goodwill and we were all pretty merry, so though one’s trusty blogger’s ears perked and nose twitched, the impassioned tirade had to be put to one side. “An Aid What Officer?” I wanted to ask. Are other Aid Officers not effective? Of all the things the Aid industry has sought to mainstream did they somehow forget effectiveness? … Cos if there’s one thing you’d think you might want to mainstream, surely that would be it?

In fact the guy talked some reasonable macro-economic sense and decried the dysfunctional government systems of the country where he worked. It’s maybe not fair to blame the guy for the job he does; we should blame the idiots who pay him instead. And, let’s face it, Aid often isn’t terribly effective, and could do with someone who could improve its tarnished record?

But, I’m not sure he should get off all that easily. He no longer works in the UN system, but is now a consultant. This may be as much to do with the UN’s own lack of effectiveness, but consultants are usually limited to short-term work, whereas in my book  one critical ingredient of aid effectiveness is long term engagement. So he’s raking in the money, advising his former employers, other donors and recipient countries how to be ‘effective’. One is tempted to wonder whether they might not all get better value for money if some kindly fellow would just point them the way to the self-help stand in their nearest airport bookstore?

Yes, alright, this is something of a rant, but I do have a problem with a system in which effectiveness is not required to be built in right from the start but which somehow has to be bolted-on on top. In business, if you’re not effective you’re fired, the company goes under, or both. And if you tried suggesting to your boss that you need a Business Effectiveness Officer, you might well be fired too.

Any human system is ultimately made up of the people within it. Awhile ago I asked: “Did you turn up to work today to alleviate poverty … or to claim your pay cheque?” I challenge any Aid Effectiveness Officer to answer that question without caveats.

Conservation & Gender Mainstreaming

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.

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