When opening a broadsheet newspaper in the last few weeks, you can’t have failed to see a disproportionate number of column inches devoted to a shift in policy from the UK Government towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. Making international aid conditional on a good track record on LGBT rights is now floated as a concrete policy, with countries such as Uganda and Ghana in the firing line for cancelled aid. On the surface an increased commitment to tackling sexual rights may be seen as a welcome development, but is this the right approach to achieve truly progressive policies?
Of course it is important for LGBT rights to play a greater role in our foreign policy outlook. However, cracks in the government’s new approach are already beginning to show – earlier this week a coalition of all the major African LGBT and human rights organisations released a strong statement illustrating their disquiet over the UK Government’s stance and calling for a more nuanced approach. Additionally, the UK approach to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting taking place this week has ignored the efforts and undermined years of lobbying from LGBT groups in the global South, whilst stepping forward to speak for others without any sense of history… or irony.
Once again, these UK activists and politicians are ignoring rule number one of working on international development, which is to start by listening to the lived experience of those you are campaigning to support. The truth is that activists in other countries have a more sophisticated sense of their own political contexts, know what strategies will work best and where to apply pressure. For those of us who want to see a more just and equal world, this means we must listen, pledge solidarity and apply pressure as and when requested. We are running the risk of being viewed as arrogant amateurs who think they know best: the worst kind of colonialism repackaged for the 21st century.
We are already seeing the unintended results of this policy strategy. In a number of African countries, homosexuality is portrayed by a hostile media and political elite as an imported cultural abomination. Reduction of international aid, (still desperately needed in severely poor countries) will be blamed upon Western imperialism and LGBT communities in these states will be convenient scapegoats. This can already be seen in Malawi, where this is another instrument with which to demonise communities already under siege.
A cynic might wonder whether this threat to reduce UK aid to homophobic states provides a progressive sheen to a longer-term policy of reducing aid levels. Why isn’t the UK Government pledging to provide aid directly to those NGOs with a proven track-record in extending human rights to LGBT citizens? Why isn’t more financial support given to the inspiring, frontline work these groups are undertaking in-country under the harshest circumstances?
Stephen Wood is the Team Administrative Co-ordinator for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and can be found on Twitter at: StephenWood_UK