Mainstreaming: Getting busy people to pay attention to your issue

When trying to mainstream an issue like gender or governance, remember your audience is probably busy people with little capacity to take on a new topic. To overcome the mainstreaming challenge try: 1) understanding your audience; 2) applying your issue directly to your audience; and 3) choosing the right delivery method.

Mainstreaming Overview

‘Mainstreaming’ is a trendy term in international development. It’s particularly applied to gender issues, which itself is often referred to as a ‘cross-cutting’ issue.

What does mainstreaming mean exactly?

It means that an issue like gender shouldn’t be addressed alone or especially, as is often the case, an afterthought in a program. It needs to be considered at each step of the program cycle such as an initial assessment, developing indicators, program design and implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. But of course it’s not just a matter of making sure that men and women are addressed proportionately in a program. A mainstreamed issue like gender should also be addressed in program logistics. Say you’re running workshops to take in the views from a local community on service delivery: What is the life style of men and women in the area so that you can coordinate a workshop around their schedule? Is the venue for the workshop safe for women and minors to attend? How would you set up the workshop so that everyone feels comfortable contributing their thoughts? Do men and women have to have separate session? On top of these considerations there’s also considering gender balance in your own program team.

All this to say there’s obviously quite a bit to think about. And this is just one cross-cutting issue to be mainstreamed. Increasingly donors are asking about the environmental impact of a program on a funding proposal. There’s also ‘governance’, or issues of accountability and preventing corruption. Then how are you considering local ownership? How is your program not just focusing on a main objective (e.g. improve the irrigation system in a rural Bangladeshi community to obtain greater crop yields), but also passing on skills and building capacity to achieve sustainability (e.g. ensure at least three local citizens are engrained in the process of program implementation to establish local institutional memory that can be passed on)? Not to complicate matters further, but what if you’re in a conflict or fragile setting?

These are some of the main issues that I’m aware of and have tried to mainstream myself. You don’t always have expertise, and importantly, you don’t always have time to consider it all, even if you know all of these considerations are exceptionally important and worthwhile (maybe sometime you don’t).

The Challenge to Mainstreaming

This is where mainstreaming can run up against a wall. A lot of issues are competing for the time of overworked practitioners with limited resources. They could also be jaded from previous attempts to mainstream an issue that never went anywhere.

This challenge goes beyond foreign aid practitioners. With the rise of corporate social responsibility, the ‘do-gooder’ crowd faces convincing private sector professionals to implement all of these issues with not only the obstacle of time, but also competing with the ‘bottom line’ on profits. While there are a number of businesses explicitly committing to values as much as profitability, there’s still a ways to go.

Sitting down with a former senior staff who worked for Shell in West Africa he explained that far from intentionally doing any harm in his business, corruption issues simply weren’t an issues to be considered. He was exceptionally busy making sure that barrels of oil got shipped, and that’s what he thought about.

Overcoming the Challenge

So what are some ways to get cross-cutting issues picked up effectively? As always there are no silver bullets, but here are some recommendations.

1. Understand your audience

While you might feel passionately about your issue and think that everyone should know the topic inside and out and be just as concerned as you, place yourself in your target audience’s shoes. Establish how much they know about the issue already. Find out how important they think this issue is. Where is the mandate coming from for this issue to be mainstreamed? Was there demand from the people you will be addressing or was it ordered by their superiors? What are the work streams of your target audience that they have to integrate your issue into?

2. Apply your issue directly to your audience

There may need to be a little bit of conceptual discussion about your issue, but don’t dwell on this without showing how the issue you are mainstreaming is relevant to your audience’s work. How does your issue improve the chance of achieving their objectives? Beyond just making an issue applicable, make it light. Your audience, even if they care about what you are talking about, will be asking themselves ‘how much extra work is this creating for me’? This goes back to understanding your audience. If you can demonstrate that your issue can be seamlessly integrated into pre-existing workflows this can lessen resistance.

3. Chose the right delivery method.

Don’t just jump on the training bandwagon. No doubt there will need to be some training involved in mainstreaming, but there’s different ways of giving training and additional tools to complement training. In this sense, before taking on a mainstreaming initiative an initial assessment should go beyond a training needs analysis. To get a scope of the work ahead of you conduct interviews with senior management requesting the mainstreaming, and review key materials such as strategy papers, org charts, and recent project evaluations. Extensive staff interviews may even need to be undertaken depending on the depth to which you are trying to mainstream an issue. All of this information will then give you a better sense of who in an organisation, department, or unit will be targeted. This process will also move your delivery past general awareness raising to truly integrating an issue into the way people work. It might be that some people in an organisation only do need general awareness raising while a core group need advanced training, guidance tools, one-on-one mentoring and follow up interviews.


If an issue like gender or environmentally friendly initiatives is going to be mainstreamed into people’s work stream and you don’t take the time to think through this process, you risk turning an important issue into a ‘box-ticking’ exercise. Your issue sits there as one line on a project planning or evaluation form asking the reader if they ‘considered’ the issue. Even if the form asks for details the person filling it out might just make up a response to satisfy the need for the box to not be blank.

Mainstreaming is of course a resource intensive process requiring people to deliver the mainstreaming, the time of the target audience, and funds. While you might have an elaborate program worked out with multi-staged training for all staff in an organisation, follow up one-on-one evaluations, and the desire to write an interactive piece of software for additional guidance, you might just be given an afternoon to talk to a pre-selected audience. While you are passionate that East Africa regional UN program staff need to know how to better integrate accountability into their program design, the specialists on climate change already soaked up all the staff capacity building funds last month. In this case, take the long view. Make sure to win over the crowd that you have and keep them interested in knowing more.