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

January 9, 2015 13 By Duncan Green

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