Sexuality, development and continued colonialism?

Stephen Wood

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

13 Responses to Sexuality, development and continued colonialism?

  1. charlie says:

    I think the west doesn’t or refuses to understand how sexuality works in the global south. I annoys me greatly how the west not to long ago were completely shunning people that are gay.. (We were not too progressive not to long ago)
    A sexual preference is NOT a public issue to be flown in people faces sexual orientation is FAR to politicised. No sexuality is nothing to do with sexual orientation as it is part of your being gay or not. I think the south is whipping up the LGBT communities in all of these countries to get them angry. Although I do not for one minute support animosity that some states impose of their people. I think that it is going to blow up in the west’s face when they find that not everyone is going to swing their way and according to their timeline.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful post Stephen and highlighting the need to develop a more inclusive and nuanced approach to upholding LGBT rights.

    You mention the unintended consequences of such a policy, which the UK Government seems to have failed to consider. Another example in addition to Malawi is Ghana. After President Atta-Mills rejected the threat, legislators began discussions on strengthening legal sanctions against ‘practicing homosexuals’. Indeed, they may consider adding homosexuality to the penal code in response to the UK’s threat.

  3. Thanks for the feedback. I think you have both underscored how cautious those of us in the West campaigning on these issues need to be when stepping into this area. There may be times where aid conditionality can be a useful approach in the toolkit, but as Brendan points out, this can backfire spectacularly unless it is rooted in strategies devised and endorsed within the LGBT communities within that country (and ideally in partnership with other social movements).

  4. onSanity says:

    good points. it does seem like it is not a very thought out strategy…. The US on the other hand is very quick to penalize any ngo/ agency/… that goes against their policy, so obviously they have worked out that going through the agencies is where it hurts more. not such a large stretch to conclude that the agencies (supporting the good ones) might be the most effective and less political way to address a problem.

  5. Jeff K. says:

    Although I absolutely agree with your final point that the UK government should be giving support to local LGBT communities, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Grassroots pressure can be an important mechanism to stimulate political change, but it certainly isn’t the only one. In some of the countries you mention, local LGBT communities don’t currently have the political space to speak out, and that’s difficult to promote from within. I say that any pressure where pressure is due is probably a good thing.

    I’m also not as cynical about the Tories only promoting gay rights as a convenient political tool to make them look warm and cuddly. There are indeed a fair number of openly gay Tories, in the foreign office and elsewhere. Maybe I’m being too generous, but I do think that they think they’re doing the ‘right’ and ‘upstanding’ thing here.

    What I find more troubling is that aid is being used as a bargaining chip. I don’t think anyone want to see this often much-needed aid taken away from these countries. The British government has effectively backed itself into a corner where they have to choose between, for example, starving people and a persecuted minority. How is that even a choice? Which means these are but idle threats, and the government has yet failed to put LGBT rights on the agenda in any meaningful way.

  6. […] I’ve argued previously, there is a need for countries like the US (and the UK, whose Coalition Government has made […]

  7. […] As I’ve argued previously in an earlier post, these latest events present a challenge for the international community. I believe we need to see a nuanced, collective strategy that continues to build diplomatic support internationally for the human rights of all citizens, coupled with support on the ground for those NGOs with a proven track record in working with marginalised and vulnerable communities. International pressure should be available as a tool at the disposal of southern communities and exercised as their strategic political needs dictate. Their voices and needs should lie at the heart of our development policies, not least at a time when they are under sustained threat of being silenced. […]

  8. […] Sexuality, Development and continued colonialism (by Stephen Wood) […]

  9. […] the Obama administration must keep in mind the first principle of international development, as noted by British researcher Stephen Wood: “[Listen] to the lived experience of those you are […]

  10. […] laws against sexual and gender difference have begun to dominate the headlines.  As I have written previously, the methods by which Western Governments respond to these contexts can be fraught with political […]

  11. […] the Obama administration must keep in mind the first principle of international development, as noted by British researcher Stephen Wood: “[Listen] to the lived experience of those you are […]

  12. […] the Obama administration must keep in mind the first principle of international development, as noted by British researcher Stephen Wood: “[Listen] to the lived experience of those you are […]

  13. […] Sexuality, development and continued colonialism? Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

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