By Luis Abolafia Anguita*
In late October 2011, during the Commonwealth Meeting of Heads of State, David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, threatened to reduce development aid to countries that criminalize homosexuality. A few weeks later, the Obama administration also announced that they would use all available mechanisms, including measures related to development cooperation, to promote the rights of LGBT persons (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans). These announcements revived the debate on the appropriateness of the aid conditionality as a tool to promote human rights, and have provoked different responses on the part of affected governments and their societies, as well as of human rights activists.
In countries like Ghana and Nigeria, indirectly fingered by Cameron, the reaction was immediate. In Ghana, the democratically elected president declared that he would never legalize homosexuality and religious groups took the opportunity of the British Prime Minister’s speech to trigger homophobic sentiments in the society. In Nigeria, the Senate passed a bill criminalizing same sex marriage, any public expression of affection between two persons of the same sex, as well as the public defense of the rights of LGBT people.
The response of African organizations working with LGBT people also came quickly in the form of a statement signed by more than 50 organizations and many individual activists have also publicly rebuffed the British threat. The main argument raised by these voices was that the withdrawal of aid would cause a violent reaction against LGBT people, producing a rift between LGBT organizations and other social movements. The African statement also affirmed that the reduction of aid would negatively affect LGBT people, a social group that already experiences high levels of vulnerability. The statement also emphasizes that the affected population should have been previously consulted and that Western governments should seek more respectful ways of working with the African continent.
The reaction of Northern organizations working in the area of LGBT rights was more slow and confused, because they were trapped between the satisfaction of seeing top leaders of some powerful countries making explicit statements about their support of equality at the international level and the necessary caution regarding the impact of conditionalities in recipient countries. Internal discussions amongst organizations of different countries kept evolving during many weeks and no consensus was reached reached in relation to the appropriateness of conditioning development cooperation to the domestic respect for the rights of LGBT persons. It should be noted, however, that discussions about this matter is not new among Northern organizations. Since 2008, a specific group has been working on the issue and meetings have been organized that included the participation of African activists who shared their point of view on conditionalities.
The African organizations that signed the public statement highlighted the case of Malawi as an example of how international pressure and threats of aid reduction may cause a witch-hunt against the LGBT people in the country. In late 2009, a couple of men were arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison because they celebrated their wedding. After an international campaign and various threats from countries like Germany, UK, Norway and Sweden indicating that they may cut development support to Malawi, President Mutharika granted a pardon to the couple. Even so, the UK and Germany withdrew their aid, claiming that the reason was growing authoritarianism and misuse of funds. The Malawi government blamed the LGBT people for aid reduction, thereby increasing the levels of homophobia and as a result, the leading LGBT activists were threatened and had to hide or leave their homes.
In retrospect, the experience in Malawi, as the prime example of international pressure and aid conditionality to ensure the respect for the rights of LGBT persons, is, at best, a bittersweet episode. From a short-term perspective, the action was successful: the Malawian president granted a pardon for the couple. However, the medium-term effects have been negative: increased persecution of LGBT people; reduction of government funding, which probably will increase poverty levels; the weakening of local LGBT organizations; executive power overriding the judiciary system to grant a pardon, a procedure that sets a bad precedent.
Whom may we ask for explanations on what happened? Northern based LGBT organizations? Organizations from the South? The governments that cut off aid? I have written myself a press release, on behalf of my organization, criticizing the couple’s arrest, and many other Northern based organizations did the same. Some of these organizations asked their governments to condemn this episode explicitly. I suppose that many of these organizations contacted the reference group in Malawi, CEDEP, to ask about the appropriateness for them to speak or not publicly on the matter, as I did.
From my point of view, the main problem is the misguided focus on trying to determine whether it was suitable to condition development aid to the respect of the human rights of LGBT people. I do think we should challenge ourselves to climb a step further and try to see the whole scene, to abandon for a moment the detailed picture (LGBT) and look at the broader one (human rights). In doing so we notice problems such as: the incoherencies between development policies and foreign and trade policies of donor countries; the power dynamics between North and South and between former colony and colonizer; the systematic marginalization of sexual and reproductive rights; the division between civil and political rights, on the one hand, and economic and social rights, on the other; a sort of disconnection between North and South based organizations, as well as in relation to local agendas; and, finally, great uncertainty in respect to the role that BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia India, China and South Africa) may or not play in the promotion of the human rights of LGBT persons.
For many years, organizations that worked in development cooperation from Northern countries have done their best to ensure that cooperation policies were disassociated from foreign policy rationales, to attempt to eradicate neo-colonial biases and avoid using aid merely to promote the economic interests of Northern countries’ administrations. As a result, in many countries, including Spain, we have advanced in the direction of a rights based development cooperation approach, designed as a tool to reduce poverty and promote citizen awareness that everyone certain inherent rights. However, foreign policy has continued to serve national interests, sometimes in frank opposition to guidelines adopted by the development cooperation branch of the same government. Spain provides a sharp and clear example of these contradictions. Morocco is one of the main recipient countries of Spanish development cooperation, but it also receives specific earmarked funds to police the European Union border. These funds finance a repressive apparatus that prevents people from black Africa from crossing to Europe. It is also important to call attention to the shameful agreement of re-admission, signed by Spain with Morocco and Senegal, that allows for the expulsion of unaccompanied children from these countries. What is the rights based approach of this policy?
It is also necessary to more closely analyze the power dynamics behind development cooperation and impregnating the present relations between former colonies and former colonial powers. David Cameron launched his threats to cut development cooperation to countries that do not respect the rights of LGBT people at the Commonwealth Meeting of Heads of State. Perhaps, someone should have reminded him that the Commonwealth is a legacy of the former British empire and that it is, at least, quite embarrassing to see a British authority publicly instruct the heads of states of former British colonies on what is or not acceptable in terms of human rights. Many of the problems currently experienced by a number of African countries have originated in the policies adopted by former colonial powers, including the support given over many years to dictatorial, violent and corrupt regimes.
It is important to reflect on the marginalization of sexual and reproductive rights in those countries where homosexuality remains criminalized. It is necessary to place the violation of LGBT rights in the broader context of denial of sexual and reproductive rights. It is not exactly a coincidence that in those countries where these rights are curtailed, women, children and LGBT people endure greater poverty, exclusion and have less access to fundamental economic and social rights, such as health and education. Therefore, in certain contexts, the main challenge is to work towards preventing the dominant sexual morality of prevailing, as a broader strategy to defend LGBT rights.
When we locate LGBT rights in the broader framework of sexual and reproductive rights we can also identify how current debates around aid conditionality and the lives of LGBT persons has been restricted to civil and political rights, ignoring the relevance of economic and social rights. As spelled out in the statement issued by the African organizations, which was mentioned above, when aid is suspended in the case of countries that do not respect LGBT people, the economic and social rights of the population as a whole will deteriorate, particularly in the case of the most vulnerable groups, including LGBT persons, who are not sheltered by the neo-patrimonial social protection networks of many states. Thus, those who are supposed to be protected will be the very first affected by its detrimental policy effects.
Another more general problem is the insufficient communication between North and South based organizations and the divergent agendas between them. Sometimes, because of our excessive zeal, organizations from the North want to quickly respond to rights violations in other areas. Even when consulting Southern based organizations many times we do not allow them enough time to reflect on what could be the best strategy to pursue. Furthermore, we must be aware that many times these organizations do not have enough staff, or most of the work is done by volunteers, who find themselves flooded with questions raised by hundreds of Northern organizations. There are also times when we prioritize making our own governments and societies take action in response to the violation of LGBT rights in another country, in ways that give primacy to our own political agenda in detriment of the needs of Southern organizations.
We must also recognize that we have not reflected enough, across North and South, about the potential role to be played by the BRICS as new actors in development cooperation. India and Brazil are already performing a very important role in Africa and their development cooperation budgets today match the level of funds channeled by Canada and Sweden. A country like India, where local meanings of sexuality do not coincide with Western concepts and categories can maybe provide support to LGBT rights in more flexible terms, which can eventually be more easily understood by certain African governments. Regarding Brazil, despite recent and worrying setbacks, the existence of a vibrant civil society is a potential platform to enable the state to start promoting internationally sexual and reproductive rights that are formally guaranteed at the domestic level. Organizations from both North and South working in the realm of human rights of LGBT people should engage in collective efforts to push Brazil, as a leading Southern country, to contribute to the enhancement of sexual and reproductive rights in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific. However, as far as I know, no consistent strategy has been yet designed by any organization working for LGBT people.
To summarize: when we analyze more in depth the problems and effects of aid conditionality as a means to protect human rights, we realize that more effective alternatives exist, such as:
- To promote greater coherence between foreign and cooperation policies in our own countries.
- To prevent the continuation of neocolonial dynamics.
- To situate LGBT human rights in the broader framework of sexual and reproductive rights as to circumvent the rejection on the part of homophobic governments.
- To avoid the fracturing of human rights through the prioritizing of civil and political rights in detriment of social and economic rights.
- To ensure a constant flow of communication between North and South based organizations engaged in LGBT rights work.
- To subordinate the interests of Northern organizations to definitions and strategies of South based organizations.
- To develop a common strategy aimed at persuading some BRICS countries to more fully engage in the global promotion of the rights of LGBT people.
And other ideas may be also added such as:
- The freezing of assets, bank accounts and adoption of travel bans in the case of leaders proved responsible for the systematic violations of the rights of LGBT people.
- To ensure the control of North based organizations that are providing funds to fuel intolerance against LGBT people in the South, there including criminal and economic sanctions when necessary.
More funds to support the work LGBT organizations in Southern countries.
- To promote and increase networking among organizations that provide support to South based LGBT rights initiatives.
- To promote accountability and juridical safety in regard to the relationship between donor and recipient countries. This would imply negotiating new agreements including specific provisions concerning the respect for the rights of LGBT persons, not imposing then overnight.
- To require donour countries to include LGBT organizations on every consultation forum with civil society regarding development cooperation agreements.
- To invest more funds in the implementation of accountability mechanisms in recipient countries as to ensure that local civil society organizations, including those working with LGBT people, are able to hold their government accountable.
It is quite evident that many positions exist among Northern LGBT organizations – as well as among organizations based in the South, I would say – in regard to the appropriateness of aid conditionality as a tool to promote the rights of LGBT people. However, a significant number of Northern LGBT organizations share common ideas in relation to this matter, which resulted from our joint work and reflection about what conditions must be advocated before resorting to aid conditionality. These conditions include: the rule of always consulting with organizations working with LGBT rights in the country where violations have occurred before requesting our governments to take any measure; to always make sure that if aid conditionality is eventually adopted that it is linked to a broader human rights frame; to recall that LGBT people may be the victims of backlashes and warn donor governments of these risks; always consider the redeployment of funds as an alternative to the suspension of aid (although this is not feasible when aid comes in the form of state budget support).
I left to the very end the thorny problem that arises whenever we talk about LGBT people’s rights, which is: the clash between cultural relativism, affirming that not all rights are applicable in all cultures, and universalism, arguing that human rights are inherent to all people. Fundamentally this is the kernel of the question and it will remain so. Meanwhile Northern states will continue to misuse the language of rights as an excuse to impose their own values and, most principally, their interests. This makes it crucial for Southern organizations to address LGBT rights in their own cultural references and language. Southern organizations must teach Northern based organizations how to do rights work under the conditions in which they live and claim rights, in the same way as they have taught us how to more fully understand the limits and caveats of aid conditionality.
* Luis Abolafia Anguita is member of Fundación Triángulo, a Spanish LGBT organization wich works with development cooperation. Nowadays, he is in charge of advocacy issues at the organisation. Luis represents Fundación Triángulo in a network of Northern LGBT organizations advocating on their own countries for a more inclusive and tolerant development cooperation and foreign policies for LGBT people. This network has been tackling the issue of aid conditionality and better ways to engage with organizations from the South for more than 2 years now. Last working meeting was held last September in Madrid, co-organised by Luis.