The issue of Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender rights is a contentious one in the world. In recent years homophobic trends in countries such as Nigeria, India and Russia have triggered a hostile reaction from the USA and western allies. In particular Uganda’s anti-homosexual act and the United States’ resulting cuts to aid, cancelation of military exercises and restrictions on visas for certain Ugandans have exacerbated a debate which was already polarised. The need for less confrontational and more nuanced discussion provided a good incentive for a recent event hosted by The Kaleidoscope Trust and the Overseas Development Institute asking, ‘Can aid donors help support LGBT rights in developing countries?', which the RCS attended.
The panel discussions provided a range of views on whether and how aid donors could potentially help with supporting LGBT rights but the subject of aid conditionality provided a subject of consensus. There was a strong sentiment from the panellists, including: Elizabeth Ohene (Ghanaian journalist and former Minister of Information), Sunil Pant (Head of Blue Diamond Society, a leading gay rights group in Nepal), Jessica Horn (Women's rights consultant), Elizabeth Mills (Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies),Bjørg Sandkjær (Senior advisor NORAD Department for Global Health, Education and Research), Fabrice Houdart (World Bank Senior country officer in Maghreb), Ajit Joshi (Senior LGBT Advisor for USAID) and Marta Foresti (Director Politics and Governance programme at ODI), that aid conditionality was not a sensible approach to addressing discrimination against LGBT rights in aid recipient countries, and could do more harm than good. Although Fabrice Houdart made the point that donors could take steps to ensure that aid wasn’t used to discriminate against LGBT people, there was an agreement that aid conditionality played into the hands of other political motives around anti-LGBT legislation.
Jessica Horn made a clear argument that anti-LGBT activities are often done tactically and can be used as a cover for clamping down on civil society or boosting a politician’s credibility with a conservative electorate. In this context a reoccurring theme was how to widen the debate from a narrow focus on human rights and a misleading and incorrect polarisation of the West versus Africa. Jessica and others drew attention to key African champions of LGBT rights including Kofi Annan, Graҫa Machel and Joaquim Chissano. Points from the floor and from Sunil Pant urged the conversation to include southern activists and for donors to engage with grassroots organisations. Meanwhile Elizabeth Mills opened up the idea of exploring multiple entry points to the LGBT conversation including examining the impact of discrimination on access to health, HIV rates in society, human rights and economic development.
What was clear from the event was that for the debate around LGBT rights to move forward across the world the discussion needs to include wider voices, broader perspectives and much less-polarising confrontation. In the Commonwealth 42 of the 53 member states criminalise LGBT relationships in some way. The legacy of British colonialism has left a variety of homophobic laws on the statute of many Commonwealth countries. For those fighting for LGBT rights there is a ‘Commonwealth problem’ with homophobia. However, there is fertile ground for a Commonwealth solution. As a family of nations with equal membership rights, with commitments to promote tolerance, respect and understanding enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter, and with a vibrant civil society, the Commonwealth is well placed to encourage this broader discussion, support multiple voices and produce constructive forward steps. In this way the Commonwealth can use its diversity, civil society and a culture of respectful debate in order to expand equality and promote development across its member nations. The themes of inclusive and respectful dialogue, the role of inclusion in economic development and the need to promote marginalised voices were key at the ODI and Kaleidoscope’s event, and they are themes that the Commonwealth should take forward in its dialogue on LGBT.
The Kaleidoscope Trust will also be hosting ‘LGBTI Human Rights in the Commonwealth’, a free one day conference in partnership with the Equality Network, Pride Glasgow and the Glasgow Human Rights Network. The event is being held in Glasgow on Friday 18th July, five days before the opening of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. Get more information and register.