Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 35 Nos. 4

Gender, Myth and Fable: The Perils of Mainstreaming in Sector Bureaucracies

Published on 1 October 2004

This article is concerned with the ways in which gender and development discourses and frameworks have been appropriated into a particular area of development policy and practice, namely gender mainstreaming efforts in developing country sector bureaucracies.

Its origins lie in practical encounters with these efforts while working over the last few years in health sector development programmes in poor countries that are funded by substantial amounts of external aid. It is an attempt to understand why these efforts cause me considerable unease. The myth, in this context, is not a single overarching one. Rather, it is a set of linked mythical assumptions about the nature of social and political transformation and how it is brought about which led to, and became encapsulated in, the practice of gender mainstreaming in bureaucracies. The article also argues that there are fables embedded in some of the common discourses of gender and development. The common thread is an inadequate understanding of the policy domain and how gender and development advocates can engage with it.

Gender mainstreaming in the sector bureaucracies of poor countries has been associated particularly with sector-wide programming in areas such as health and education. Rather than each financing discrete projects, agencies seek to work with governments in a coordinated way to move towards an agreed strategic planning and financial framework with a common funding pool. Progress in embedding gender equity goals in processes such as this depends on building some level of national and local ownership of these objectives (Foster 1999). While clearly in many countries there is advocacy for gender issues from civil society and grassroots organisations, this is much more rarely the case in national and local bureaucracies. This has led to sometimes considerable efforts by donors at developing bureaucratic advocacy for gender goals, mainly through gender training and financing and encouraging institutional means of mainstreaming, particularly gender cells, or the designation of focal points in ministries such as health. Yet a common complaint from gender advocates is that of “policy evaporation” – the tendency for policy commitments to gender equity to be lost, reinterpreted or heavily watered down as they move through (or become mired in) the bureaucracy.

To borrow from anthropology, myths can be good to “think with”. For projects of transformation, they offer powerful ways of capturing and framing complex messages in pursuit of desirable outcomes. They can equally be problematic in reducing the complex to the banal and seeming to promise the riches of political change without the long work of politics. As one of the major policy tools with a direct lineage in feminist inspired gender and development, gender mainstreaming in bureaucracies can be an uncomfortable bearer of some of its more mythical thought and practice. The first task is to assemble the mythical elements through an actual event.

Related Content

This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.4 (2004) Gender, Myth and Fable: The Perils of Mainstreaming in Sector Bureaucracies

Cite this publication

Standing, H. (2004) Gender, Myth and Fable: The Perils of Mainstreaming in Sector Bureaucracies. IDS Bulletin 35(4): 82-88


Hilary Standing

Emeritus Fellow

Publication details

published by
Institute of Development Studies
Standing, Hilary
IDS Bulletin, volume 35, issue 4