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Can Aid Donors Help Support LGBT Rights in Developing Countries?

By Rachel Hammonds
on July 10, 2014

Rachel Hammonds reflects on Monday’s half-day event at ODI exploring whether international aid can play a role in defending lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) rights in developing countries.


The 7 July Overseas Development Institute (ODI) conference addressing this issue was a lively, thought provoking event. The excellent chairing by the witty Simon Fanshawe (Kaleidoscope Trust) ensured that the packed panels (7 minutes per speaker!) progressed more smoothly than my fraught Channel crossing Eurostar ordeal involving over eight hours of delays.


LGBT Discrimination – a Trojan Horse?

Jessica Horn (African based women’s rights consultant) argued persuasively that the choice to discriminate is a political one and that LGBT-phobia is a Trojan Horse through which African leaders can distract voters and restrict debate on other power related issues.  Several panellists suggested that Western grandstanding helps further polarize the issue and is counterproductive.  There was much agreement that it is time for Westerners to get off the moral high horse and quietly fund the priorities of grass roots activists and engage with global and regional mechanisms like the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.


Is LGBT Discrimination the Most Important Issue?

Elizabeth Ohene, former Ghanaian Minister for Information, asked the audience a key question, “are LGBT rights the most important”?  The discussion around this topic ranged from calls for more research into the impact of exclusion on LGBT by Fabrice Houdart, (Washington based World Bank official) to the view advanced by Ms. Marta Foresti, (London based ODI Director of Politics and Governance), that this issue is no different from many other complex development issues.

I would agree with both and draw a parallel to reproductive health. Prior to the 1980s very little data was collected on maternal mortality in low-income countries. Once the 5000 000 deaths per year figure was announced it became a rallying point for calls for more attention and funding to reproductive health and rights through countering multiple discriminations and strengthening health systems.  Like other marginalized groups, (e.g. disabled people and women) the impact of exclusion ranges from the personal to the macroeconomic.  So, yes, the evidence base matters for policy advocacy and should be strengthened.  We know about the murder of high profile LGBT activists like Uganda’s David Kato but little about the impact of exclusion on individuals and their families and still less about the economic consequences of excluding LGBT people (read Adebisi Alimi’s piece arguing for more research).

To answer Ms. Ohene I would argue that discrimination and exclusion are the key issue that we need to address through an economic and political prism and there are parallels with other complex development issues. As Ms. Horn argued the entry points for LGBT rights are similar to those for women’s rights; including human rights and building an evidence base to document the multiple costs of exclusion. One approach, building an evidence base to show that exclusion has an economic impact on a country is not new. However focusing on the economic impact of excluding the LGBT communities will help to quantify the problem. Documenting the impact of discrimination and exclusion on mental health deserves much of our attention but is unlikely to be of as much interest to those that fund research, like the World Bank. To effect the long-term societal change that makes such exclusion unacceptable is a long hard struggle in all societies that requires solidarity with the LGBT communities.

So, yes, ‘aid donors’ can help support LGBT rights but not through conditionalities or loud denunciations.  How? By better understanding the politics behind the LGBT backlash, working with local organisations (not rushing in with a neo-colonial agenda), quiet multi-level diplomacy (like that of Norway which actively supports sexual rights on the international stage with money and programming but does not issue loud condemnations – i.e. lots of carrots little stick) and by supporting research to build an evidence base.

Despite over eight hours of travel delays, and no time to visit Marks & Spencer to buy biscuits, I am happy I attended in part to show solidarity with LGBT communities– we are all engaged in the same struggle.

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