Why gay rights is a development issue in Africa, and aid agencies should speak up

Hannah Stoddart, on secondment as Oxfam’s advocacy manager in Rwanda, calls for aid agencies to take a stand in defence of beleaguered gay rights hannah stoddartin Africa (and I ask you to vote on her suggestion)

First Gambia, then Chad. Recent months have seen two more countries join the rising tide of State-led homophobia sweeping across the African continent. A bill recently passed in Gambia now means being gay will be greeted with a life sentence. In Chad homosexual relations could cost you up to twenty years in jail. Once the President in Chad ratifies the bill, it will be the 37th country on the continent to have outlawed homosexuality. Such legislation is likely to be followed by increased threats and attacks against gay people – as has been the case in Uganda since the anti-gay law was introduced last year.

The Economist last year ran a cover story on the increasing ‘gay divide’ between countries where there have been great leaps forward in equal rights for gay people, and countries where attitudes towards same-sex relationships are increasingly conservative and intolerant. Many – though not all – countries introducing anti-gay legislation are in the developing world, predominantly in Africa. This poses a particular dilemma for development agencies – whose presence in many countries is authorised by the same States that are preaching homophobia – but whose supporter-base by and large consists of liberal folk in the developed world who find homophobia distasteful.

The question often facing development agencies is whether or not to wade into a controversial debate on a country level, which could aggravate the authorities that give them their license to operate, when promoting gay rights is often not perceived to be ‘mission critical’ to their job – delivering services, running development programmes etc.

True, there are some examples of development agencies supporting the gay cause – for example both Oxfam and Action Aid have publicly condemned the anti-homosexuality law and the murder of gay activists in Uganda. However, public expressions of support are too often caveated with the somewhat bizarre assertion that ‘we are not a gay rights organisation’ – as if gay rights somehow sit in a different category to the other rights we claim to defend. Overall, large international development NGOs remain relatively quiet on the issue and are not prominent among voices condemning growing homophobia in Africa.

Gay rights AfricaThat is, at least, until donors have announced aid withdrawals – or threatened them – in response to anti-gay laws. Anecdotally, I have encountered many more debates within the sector on the risks of withdrawing development aid on the basis of anti-gay legislation, than I have on how the development community can best demonstrate solidarity with oppressed gay people. Partly as a result, a quick internet search uncovers as many – if not more – articles condemning this move, as expressions of outrage at the laws that prompted such a response. However fair and important the argument might be – that punishing one group of vulnerable people in the interests of another is not the way to deal with the problem – it has at times felt as if the development community has found the donor response more repugnant than the laws themselves – criminalising or even punishing homosexuality with death – on which it has not been particularly vocal.

This despite the fact that successive progressive commentators in Africa observe that the increasing tide of homophobia across the continent is just one facet of wider attempts to clamp down on freedom of expression and civil society mobilisation more broadly, including women in particular: issues that development agencies have always claimed to hold close to their heart. And that attempts by a State to persecute any vulnerable groups – whether on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity or sexuality– does not bode well for development that is fair and inclusive.

Development agencies have a proud history of recognising the connections between oppression of minorities and crucial development issues – as we have with HIV/AIDS and the gay community in the past. It is crucial now for us to build on these foundations by recognising and publicly condemning the tide of homophobia sweeping across Africa for what it is – an attempt to stifle dissent, to oppress minorities, and to undermine a rights-based approach to development that many of us have spent decades fighting for.

Large development INGOs especially could take advantage of their media reach, public profile and their supporter base, to rally support for gay rights campaigners – brave, courageous people who are often risking their own lives. We could also channel our own funds to support national, regional and international groups and platforms who are fighting for gay rights, and commit to lobbying donor governments to put appropriate pressure on recipient States who are criminalising homosexuality. For the sake of good, fair and equal development, we must speak up.

Interesting, let’s have a vote – see right

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13 Responses to “Why gay rights is a development issue in Africa, and aid agencies should speak up”
  1. Raquel Reyes

    I fully agree with the post.
    My question is: is Oxfam really working on that? I have asked about Oxfam’s work on this issue at country and global level and the answer is not really clear.

    • Maggie

      Simon, Stonewall’s international team have been working with a group of INGOs throughout 2015 on LGBT rights and international development as well as with key global business players. Great if Oxfam and Save can link up with that group. There’s also interesting work going on at the Bank and elsewhere.

      In terms of the post, I agree that this is a core development issue, and a governance issue in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, though the potential role of INGOs is something that needs to be explored carefully, to ensure that it isn’t counterproductive.

      The first step should be for INGOs to build relationships with the wide diversity of gay, bisexual, intersex, transgender and other sexuality and gender identity actors that are out there, to understand how the sector might best support their objectives. From my experience not all Southern actors identify with the Western ‘LGBT rights’ label nor see this as a relevant pathway (progressing civil and political rights) for the change that they seek. But there are an array of broader ways in which organisations like Oxfam should be supporting, not least ensuring that they are not unintentionally excluding diverse individuals and families through their own assumptions and procedures.

  2. Natalia Adler

    Well said, Duncan!

    UNICEF has recently come up with an organization-wide position paper on LGBT rights calling on the universality of the rights All children, “irrespective of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity… The same principle applies to all children irrespective of their parents’ sexual orientation or gender identity.”

    Here’s the link: http://www.unicef.org/media/files/Position_Paper_Sexual_Identification_and_Gender_Identity_12_Nov_2014%282%29.pdf

  3. Thalia Kidder

    LGBT rights is not only an issue of rights in terms of protection against violence or imprisonment. LBGT equality issues are also significant in terms of criticism, and marginalisation of women leaders and gender equality:
    First, Women who chose to challenge norms and practices of patriarchal society (in their studies, employment, roles, dress, politics, socialising, choices not to marry or to have children etc) often have the label ‘lesbian’ thrown at them to discredit and disempower them… although many of these are heterosexual women. So if we allow the discrimination and hatred of lesbians/gay men to exist, we will fail to protect many heterosexual women who are challenging the status quo.

    A second example – Status is also accorded to women who choose a recognised relationship with a man – in language (Miss, Mrs… or ‘muchacha’ vs. ‘señora’) but also sometimes in attitudes to women professionally and socially. Unmarried women can be considered ‘not quite grown up’, not ‘serious’, if she has ‘not yet’ married a man… even if she is 10-20 years older or more experienced than her married colleagues.
    Third, It is assumed that women will prioritise their relationships with men (in all ways – time, energy, where they live, work etc) over their relationships with women. Women who prioritise time and energy with women may be criticised or shunned, again, as ‘lesbian’ no matter what their sexual orientation.
    It is important to understand how protecting and promoting LGBT rights also protects women (and men) challenging other forms of gender inequality.

  4. Halima Begum

    Yes, we should and fully agree, question then is how. We spend a lot of time embedding equalities work within our organisational structures and recruitment policies, though fail to reflect the principles into programming and advocacy – except where it comes to gender inequality. As a result it falls on the shoulders of individuals working in development to organise advocacy in their free time -exposing colleagues to risk and making them vulnerable in some ways.

  5. INGO Worker Uganda

    I agree with this completely in principle, and thank the author for voicing this vital issue. However, it is important to consider that the very INGOs you are calling to action may be completely (or largely) staffed on the country level by local employees who, while being well-educated and well-meaning, share the views which spark anti-homosexuality laws. Anti-homosexuality laws are not legislated in a vacuum — they almost always reflect the sentiments of a large swath of the population, and can (and have been) used as an issue around which constituents can be rallied to provide a distraction from continued bungling of aid dollars and socioeconomic projects. These sentiments are, of course, tied to a number of factors, prominent among them religious values and readings of sacred texts which are taken and interpreted to condemn gay acts and people. If INGOs were to, as a block, take a stand on this issue, they would first need to rally the support of those whom they employ, which will require sensitization, education, and, unfortunately, time.

  6. Pete Hennessy

    I disagree with the majority here. I don’t think gay rights are a key development issue. It is perfectly possible for a country to improve its development without improving gay rights. The UK, where homosexuality was illegal until 1967, is proof that it is possible to have a highly developed and very rich country with dreadful gay rights.

    I do however think that gay rights are very important in their own right, whatever a countries state of development is.

    The question of whether aid agencies should speak up depends on the mission of the agencies. Yes, if they aim to overcome poverty and suffering, maybe not if they ‘only’ exist to provide clean water or cure malaria.

  7. Hannah Stoddart

    Thanks for all the insightful comments – I’m really glad the blog has generated some discussion.

    In response to some of the questions/comments – Oxfam has no official gay rights programme, though as I mentioned it has on occasion spoken out against anti-gay legislation and attacks on gay rights activists. As I understand, some of our country programmes also have links to gay rights organisations (though please bear in mind that Oxfam is a large organisation and I do not know everything it might be doing formally or informally in this area). The point stands that in general, INGOs approach to the issue is relatively ad-hoc.

    In the edits to the blog an important point was perhaps lost that was raised by others – the need to build relationships with and consult gay rights organisations about how INGOs could play a role. I couldn’t agree more that this absolutely must happen.

    Simon/Maggie – perhaps we could communicate via email about the possibilities for taking these conversations further? If there are individuals in both Save and Oxfam interested in exploring this agenda, and a group already exists, perhaps we could join this group to discuss further, after we’ve raised the issue internally. My email is hstoddart [AT] oxfam.org.uk. Great if you could get in touch so we can discuss further.

    If any others who have posted here are working for development NGOs or gay rights organisations and are interested in joining the conversation, please also get in touch.

  8. Fabienne Simenel

    Many thanks for starting this valuable discussion. Although the term “LGBTIQ” or “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” (SOGI) would be preferable to the more limiting term “gay rights” in the piece, and Africa is most definitely not the only region where we face this crisis, I am thrilled to read about this plea for more engagement of the INGO sector when it comes to advancing the rights of LGBTIQ people.

    Fortunately, a number of international development organisations and funders already have a history of investing in international LGBTIQ rights. I work with Hivos, a Netherlands-based international development organisation that has over 20 years of experience in working with LGBTIQ groups in developing countries. SIDA has put much work in policy development on sexual orientation and gender identity in development, while the Global Philanthropy Project, a consortium of foundations and INGOs, has been working to increase attention and funding for international LGBTIQ rights since 2009. This is just to point out that resources are available for those who are willing to take up this critical area of work.

    I think we all have encountered the same dilemma’s that are mentioned in this discussion. Although there is no one-off solution, it is my experience that many good actions come from sitting down with the actual LGBTIQ activists to become properly informed about their agendas. These should always be leading, for reasons of safety, agency, ownership and effective support. Support does not have to be limited to financial resources or international advocacy, but could also consist of dialogues with partner organisations from other areas to see if alliances could be built between the LGBTIQ movement and other civil society organisations. This kind of alliance building is crucial to a movement that is constantly isolated and threatened, and it is a role that could and should be taken on more by the INGO sector.

    In any case, I would be happy to assist in providing more information or documentation that could help to advance this discussion among INGOs.

  9. Marc DuBois

    Interesting debate (apologies for coming to it late). Is there an assumption here that having big Western NGOs champion this issue would be a positive development? Is there a meaningful invitation to do so among the gay communities of these countries? Certainly, I can imagine so. But I can also imagine that is not the universally the case. I only have to remember women’s groups in Somalia telling MSF to keep its big mouth shut on FGM. Lesson: good intentions may not be enough. The last thing those Somali women wanted was for their issue to be re-branded as Western one.

  10. Stephen Wood

    Thanks for prompting a useful discussion, Hannah. I think you and others in this thread are right – development agencies and INGOs have collectively struggled to see the relevance of LGBTIQ issues within their broader mandates.

    But here I must disagree with Peter’s contention that LGBTIQ equality work is not compatible with development. Here at the Institute of Development Studies, we have spent the last 10 years undertaking research and advocacy to draw these links out and see how issues of poverty in particular have complex and unforeseen impacts on those with same-sex desires. Our current programme Sexuality, Poverty and Law


    has involved working with LGBTIQ groups, sex workers and feminist organisations in the global south to examine and work towards transforming policy-making processes surrounding poverty alleviation in ways that challenge conventional development thinking that has at times marginalised these communities further and increased inequality.