International Development Cooperation and LGBTQ+ Rights in Africa

By Stephen Brown / New Rhythms of Development blog series

Sexual and gender minorities are under attack in several African countries. For instance, over the past couple of years, extreme anti-LGBTQ+ legislation has been introduced in Ghana and Uganda, where homosexuality was already illegal. Kenya and Tanzania could well be next. International actors are struggling with how to respond to the various bills, whose draconian new penalties include life imprisonment and even capital punishment.

In general, Western aid donors are hesitant to address broader questions of LGBTQ+ rights in countries where doing so puts the donors on a collision course with partner governments. Public condemnations and punitive approaches rarely work, but development cooperation actors could have a greater impact if they adopted certain practices, including providing more – and better – support to local LGBTQ+ rights defenders.

The ineffective punitive approach

Sometimes international actors do take a strong public stance. For instance, an international outcry followed the sentencing of an LGBTQ+ couple in Malawi to 14 years of hard labour for holding a traditional engagement ceremony in 2009 and a senior government official’s threats of rounding up LGBTQ+ people in Tanzania in 2018. In both cases, donor actions generated a backlash against sexual and gender minorities that actually increased anti-LGBTQ+ animosity and, in the case of Malawi, led to the passing of more restrictive laws.

Public condemnations are usually paired with punitive measures, especially threatening to withhold or actually suspending development assistance. Although these actions can be well intentioned, they respond to domestic pressure on international actors to do something quickly, rather than contributing to well thought-out strategies. As an approach, it is rarely effective. It also repeats longstanding, problematic dynamics of actors in the Global North telling countries in the Global South what to do and reinforces harmful neocolonial tropes of the “enlightened” North having to “save” vulnerable people in the South from “less advanced” governments and attitudes.

Principles for a more effective approach

Paradoxically, in these national-international skirmishes on homosexuality, the voices of those most affected – LGBTQ+ people and organizations – are usually the least audible. Yet they are the ones who best understand what is likely to work or not, and who are put at the greatest risk in any ensuing backlash. International actors should therefore follow their lead. If local actors recommend public condemnation and aid suspension, then donors should act accordingly. But they should not do so unilaterally.

Moreover, if aid donors are serious about defending the rights of sexual and gender minorities, they should fund domestic LGBTQ+ organizations and other organizations that work in the area of LGBTQ+ rights to carry out the activities and programs that they think will be most effective. In some instances, strategies could involve working with journalists, teachers, chiefs and the police to help build more inclusive attitudes towards sexual and gender minorities, and fight stigma and discrimination. Strategies could also involve educating and lobbying parliamentarians to help bring about legislative change, such as repealing colonial-era “sodomy laws”, enacting non-discrimination legislation and allowing individuals to change their legal gender markers. The point is that domestic actors are best suited to decide which strategy (or strategies) is most likely to work under their national circumstances.

These human rights organizations are usually starved for funds and require financial assistance to carry out their programs. But they also need core funding so that they can pay rent offices, buy office furniture and have telephone lines and internet access. Funders are reluctant to pay for such recurring expenses, but it is essential. Donors also need to be radically less bureaucratic when providing that support, not only so that small, less formalized groups can access the funding, but also that they don’t spend all their time working on proposals and reports, rather than carrying out their actual work.

Deciding which organizations to support will be difficult. The temptation is to fund those with which donors already have a relationship or which other donors fund. But that just reinforces the status quo. A portfolio approach is required to ensure support for a range of initiatives that represent different groups under the rainbow banner: not just male-dominated organizations located in the capital, but groups in different parts of the country, including regional centres and rural areas, as well as ones that represent different categories of people, as women- and transgender-oriented groups tend to get neglected. It is also essential to adopt different approaches, e.g., public education, health and social services, counselling and support groups, lobbying, legal challenges and cultural activities.

In addition, the concerns of sexual and gender minorities should be integrated into development programming more generally, as has been done with gender mainstreaming. Niche programming can be extremely helpful, but mainstreaming LGBTQ+ rights into development activities in all sectors would have a greater impact. It would also align with the “leave no one behind” principle that underpins the Sustainable Development Goals.

Aid donors will also have to resist their compulsion to make their aid visible, which they like because it shows their home-country constituents where their money is going and allows them to burnish their pro-LGBTQ+ credentials. As in foreign aid more broadly, donor visibility often comes at the expense of effectiveness. And in the case of support to LGBTQ+ organizations, it can taint them as “foreign agents” rather than representatives of marginalized citizens.

Uncertain outcomes

Those broad principles will improve the odds of international development cooperation playing a positive role in defending the rights of sexual and gender minorities in Africa and elsewhere. They are, however, no guarantee of success and experiences will vary tremendously according to national contexts. As international actors gain more experience in implementing, a clearer picture could emerge on what works better under which circumstances, always from the perspective of those concerned.

In the most extreme cases where donor support to LGBTQ+ rights defenders puts their lives in danger because of domestic opposition to their activities, Western countries have a duty to provide protection. The risk is real. For instance, activists have been murdered in both Uganda and Kenya. Violence against LGBTQ+ people often increases when national homophobic rhetoric is on the rise, including during backlashes against international actors’ pressure. Donor countries therefore need to have in place a streamlined process to grant asylum or refugee status to LGBTQ+ rights advocates who need to make a quick exit.

Stephen Brown is Professor of Political Science at the University of Ottawa (Canada) and currently an International Fellow at the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies, University of Bayreuth (Germany). This blog’s argument draws on his article entitled “Visibility or Impact? International Efforts to Defend LGBTQI+ Rights in Africa”, published in the Journal of Human Rights Practice. He is a co-convener of the panel on “International development cooperation and LGBTQ+ rights” at the 2023 EADI General Conference in Lisbon.

Image: Maggie Jones und a Creative Commons Licence on Flickr