Friday, 22 July 2011

Why politicizing aid has hidden costs for African LGBT communities

The situation for LGBT people in African states continues to deteriorate at a frightening pace. The frequent scapegoating of homosexuality in public debate means that there is a danger of these communities becoming collateral damage in a number of diplomatic rows between the UK and African governments. Troublingly, growing "aid scepticism" amongst politicians and voters here in the UK has the potential to make matters worse.

Last week, the UK Government cut £19M of it's £90M aid programme to Malawi in response to ongoing issues with governmental corruption and a deteriorating human rights record. We aren't alone - the European Union, World Bank and several other European countries have curtailed their support in Malawi. Concern over the effectiveness of aid and the disconnect between the desperately poor population and the governmental elite is widespread in the international community. There is genuine cause for concern that taxpayers money is going into the pockets of politicians and business whilst dissent and civil liberties are curtailed. This particular aid cut is newsworthy because the UK has traditionally been Malawi's greatest donor and in recent months an increasingly fractious relationship has developed between our country and President Bingu wa Mutharika.

Secretary of State Andre Mitchell's decision on Malawi is consistent with the new doctrine promoted by the Department for International Development (DFID) since the last election. Whilst international aid remains the only government department aside from Health protected from austerity cuts, a stringent new regime of transparency and accountability has taken root that insists upon measurable value for money in our spending. Even this hasn't been enough to ward off the increasingly shrill calls for cuts. Backbench Conservative MPs and increasing numbers of voters argue that we should be putting public services in the UK first before lending assistance abroad.

As I commented upon a few weeks ago, David Cameron has been keen to draw the connection between our commitment to international aid and making the moral case for LGBT rights internationally. Malawi has a particularly bad record on the human rights of gay citizens, with homosexuality criminalised and the arrest last year of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chumbalanga, who were freed and pardoned after an enormous amount of pressure, both within Malawi and from international solidarity and political leaders. Accusations that foreign organisations are trying to promote homosexuality by stealth are regularly reported in the local media.

Unfortunately, the UK's unilateral withdrawal of aid has caused an uproar within Malawi and our government's stance on LGBT rights has given President Mutharika an opening to blame the cut on a western gay agenda. This has neatly taken the heat off the accusations of corruption and bad governance leveled at him. According to LGBT Asylum News, the government has been publicly accusing opposition protest marches of being gay and funded by homosexual paymasters, something that is gaining traction after being reported on state television. This view plays into wider public concerns around western imperialism, worsened by the realities that this loss of money will mean for a country still struggling with widespread poverty.

I don't pretend to have all the answers, but there are things we can consider. Work is needed to gain a clearer understanding of where resources are used effectively on the ground and working with in-country civil society organisations with strong reputations to ensure aid gets through to those who need it. If this means working around the Government, then so be it. We also need to tackle the politically-damaging argument that western donors are funding NGOs that promote homosexuality. This toxic narrative will continue to proliferate unless we can effectively counter it . And as I've said before, we need to bring the LGBT communities into our deliberations - above all, they know the political context much better than we do - and are directly in the firing line in this crisis.

The situation in Malawi clearly illustrates the political complexity involved in international aid. It is obvious that we need to take a more nuanced approach to promoting LGBT rights in African states, ensuring that aid gets through to those most in need, whilst building capacity within developing countries and tackling corruption. By that measure, the UK Government's approach in Malawi last week has failed on all four counts that matter.


  1. Good stuff. I posted after Cameron's comments that they were dangerous rhetoric

  2. That's a really interesting post, Paul. Thanks for sharing it. There is definitely a disconnect between Cameron's eagerness to portray himself as a modern conservative that is at ease with homosexuality, with his disinterest in engaging in a sophisticated dialogue with the needs of those communities.