Thursday, 23 June 2011

The dangerous vacuum at the heart of Cameron's international LGBT strategy

Yesterday, David Cameron held his second reception at Downing St for the LGBT community, inviting many well-known faces working to promote equality, as well as thanking a number of volunteers and activists for their tireless work. In his speech, the biggest headlines sprang from his commitment to do more in using his position to apply moral pressure to foreign governments (notably African) to improve their records on LGBT rights. He specifically held up his commitment to retaining the 0.7% GDP spent on international aid as a concrete sign of his engagement.

In his favour, this is a positive move for someone who had a patchy record on LGBT issues before the election. I'm pleased to see he has a strategy moving forward, but I remain to be convinced by how robust this will prove to be beyond an encouraging speech. In recent years, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has built a strong record on promoting and monitoring LGBT rights in-country and even under the new coalition government, continues to improve it's support for LGBT communities.

However, the Department for International Development (DFID), whilst doing some amazing work generally, has a long way to go before it matches this record. The new Secretary of State, Andrew Mitchell, has shifted much of their focus to explicitly support development outcomes amongst women and girls. In itself, this isn't a terrible thing, but it results in making LGBT people almost as invisible as heterosexual men in their work and boxes women into a particular conception of femininity. Funding for explicitly-LGBT human rights work is exceptionally rare in DFID's funding portfolio.

So, DFID needs to improve it's record on LGBT rights through the provision of aid and the conditions attached upon it. Yet we also need to remember that withholding aid to countries criminalising LGBT people gives credence to the view being pushed by our opponents in those countries that gay rights is imported cultural imperialism. We have to tread a very thin line here. Even amongst LGBT activists in western countries, in the past there has been a danger in publicly denouncing the behaviour of foreign governments in a manner that can aggravate the danger LGBT people experience in those countries. For our opponents, this strident approach is as offensive as the strategy used by fundamentalist US christian groups when they visit Africa and finance anti-gay campaigns.

More than ever before, we have to give voice to southern activists in these situations to decide their own country-specific strategies. The British Government (and LGBT activists) need to be listening and learning from their particular political contexts and letting that determine what assistance we can give. Cameron's promise to use his moral authority is one useful element in our armoury in this, but I'm concerned that he needs to back this up with concrete resources from DFID for those struggling civil society groups on the ground. Because in the end, it is authentic voices located in grass-roots communities that will create real change, not a Downing Street speech. He needs to put his 0.7% GDP where his mouth is.

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