In a bold move, the British government announced this week its new policy of tying foreign aid to LGBT human rights situations in countries it supports. The announcement – perhaps the strongest statement in support of LGBT rights made by a major donor government to date – has been met by LGBT activists in developing countries with a mix of jubilation and trepidation.
“Blue Diamond Society welcomes this news and urges other donors to follow this example,” said Sunil Babu Pant, a member of Nepal’s Parliament and a leading LGBT activist, in reaction to the news.
In Kenya, gay activist and politician David Kuria supported the move and compared it with other ties between aid and rights in Kenya’s history. He told LGBT Asylum News, “[Pressure from donors] is what made the [Kenyan President Daniel arap] Moi autocracy give in to internal democratic struggles and human rights activists in Kenya during the late 1980s and 1990s.”
But the expressions of support and excitement were quickly matched with concern.
LGBT Asylum News reported that Joseph Sewedo Akoro, Executive Director of The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIER) in Nigeria expressed concern, “what if this strategy of aid cut exacerbates human rights violation on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity?”
“Many countries in the global south are becoming sick of neo-colonialism and the global north’s imperialism. Therefore, they are planning strategies to become autonomous of foreign aid and challenge the hegemony of the Global north. Should they be succeed in this endeavour, this aid cut strategy will be counter productive.”
Jamaican LGBT activist Maurice Tomlinson believes in the power of donor countries to promote rights, but suggests they “employ more sophisticated approaches to addressing homophobic governments, instead of simply resorting to cutting aid.”
Tomlinson told Paul Canning that “targeted approaches will yield better results than a high handed neo-colonial … posture of cutting aid which will only serve to alienate entire national populations, along with useful allies.”
The British government made moves this year suggestive of its position on LGBT rights and aid, but no policy had been discussed until this week. For example, Malawi has received £200 million (about $316 million) from Britain over the past three years, suffered a £19 million (about $30 million) cut in their aid from after two men were prosecuted for getting married to each other.
The cuts caused government backlash against Malawian civil society organizations known for supporting LGBT rights.
But in spite of the repercussions, Prime Minister David Cameron’s proud and notorious comments about the Malawi aid cuts this summer presaged this policy shift. While hosting his second Downing Street LGBT reception in June, the PM said the government would continue to pressure governments, specifically those in Africa, on gay rights. “I’m very proud of the fact we [put] huge pressure on the leader of Malawi about an issue in that country,” he said in a speech given to the small crowd without notes, “but I’m convinced we can do more.”
Ghana has also recently come into the LGBT rights spotlight and, as Paul Canning reports, some sources say that West African country’s aid from the UK is in jeopardy due to recent increases in anti-gay moves by the government. But with this official UK policy freshly minted, the implementation is yet to be seen. In contrast to the threats to make cuts, other recent public documents claim that the UK government will increase its development assistance to Ghana in coming years.
While tying aid directly to observations of LGBT rights situations might be a novel strategy, donor country involvement in local LGBT movements is nothing new.
The European Union has taken a similarly vocal stance against countries with poor LGBT rights records. As reported by EU Observer, Loius Michel, former EU Development Commissioner expressed strongly that the EU, “will never accept that governments or politicians may use, or even exploit, any ‘cultural’ argument in an attempt to justify the hunt and demonisation of homosexuality.”
Material support for LGBT civil society groups has ranged from the casual to the official. For example, the first plastic chairs for Nepal’s Blue Diamond Society’s initial secret meetings were donated by American Peace Corps volunteers. Soon after, BDS had its first official grant – from USAID.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at the United States’ current position on its influence on LGBT rights around the world in a June 27, 2011 “pride” speech. She said she was proud of “the day-to-day work of our embassies and AID missions around the world to increase engagement around the issues affecting LGBT rights, especially in those places where people are at risk of violence, discrimination, or criminalization.”
As debate foments around this current announcement by the British government, discussions on the proper methods for exerting moral authority in developing countries will arise. There is no question that foreign influence has buttressed local LGBT rights movements around the world. However there is also little doubt that colonial influence established many of the discriminatory laws that LGBT activists are challenging today.
Whether this move by the UK will be the powerful tool that activists in the global south have been waiting for, or too blunt an instrument for such delicate work remains to be seen.
Kyle Knight is a Fulbright Scholar in Nepal where his research focuses on the LGBTI rights movement. He previously worked at Human Rights Watch, where he focused on children’s rights issue. For three years, he worked as a suicide prevention counselor for LGBTQ youth at the Trevor Project in New York City. He currently sits on the Trevor Project’s Advocacy and Public Policy Committee, is the president of the Duke University LGBT Network, and a is lecturer in Gender Studies at Tribhuvan University, Nepal’s state-run university in Kathmandu. You can follow him on Twitter @knightktm.
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