A discussion on how the developing world spends its aid has run rampant the past few weeks. Not long after Uganda signed the infamous anti-homosexuality bill into law, Holland, Denmark and Norway pulled out millions in direct governmental aid. Statements from John Kerry and Obama have put many in Uganda on the defensive with speculation that aid cuts are on the way.
Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador in Uganda, Scott DeLisi, recently told The Daily Monitor that, “If Uganda doesn’t want our assistance, let the government tell us and we shall turn to another African country.”
President Museveni has previously stated he’s ready to stand up to the United States if they choose to withdraw aid over the law. With tension in Kampala reaching palpable levels, such exchanges have only inflamed the debate. “Let them keep their money,” said one Ugandan man dismissively. Well versed in foreign aid and law after attending university in the UK, he continued, “Where are the complications against Afghanistan for their treatment of homosexuals? Where are the prerequisites for Kenya?”
There is a takeaway point here. The top ten recipients of U.S. aid are Israel, Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, Jordan, Iraq, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Out of those ten countries, the vast majority suffer from anti-homosexuality laws, including laws against women and minorities. Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania all have laws on the books mandating prison time ranging from 2-30 years for homosexual behavior, while in Afghanistan it carries a possible death penalty. And although Egypt has technically legalized homosexuality, it can still merit prison, with crackdowns noted fairly often.
A look at further human rights abuses against women, minorities and migrant workers in places like Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan and Israel also shows consistent issues. Israel in particular has broken more UN resolutions than any other member country in its history, with numerous human rights abuses recorded. And Jordan’s laws regarding migrant labor mirror near slave-like conditions. So if the United States is going to use its aid as a bartering point for human rights that we hold dear, then why isn’t this mandate implemented across the board?
It is certainly the prerogative of countries to stipulate where their money goes and why, after all, this is the essence of how most transactions exist. However, many also forget that the LGBT community in Uganda didn’t simply vanish the day Museveni signed the bill into action. Sharp cuts in aid not only have the ability to increase the negative reactions against them, but often take money from those in the most vulnerable of situations. As Museveni put it, during a meeting in Kinshasa, “Homosexuals need electricity too.”
At the moment, many Ugandan attitudes regarding homosexuality mirror those held in the United States 50-60 years ago. Change didn’t occur in the west overnight and it will take years, and perhaps decades, for Uganda to shift their social ideals.
While western nations certainly shouldn’t turn the other cheek to egregious human rights abuses in the countries they send money to, it would be prudent of them to cease with public threats. Rather than removing aid, the government would do better redistributing it to social causes it truly cares for. This needs to include promoting avenues for LGBT activists and citizens to seek asylum in western nations and setting up discourse with NGOs who work with activists in the region. The public can encourage companies that currently work inside Uganda (Barclays, Standard Chartered, Heineken, British Airways, KLM, KFC, and Turkish Airways to name a few) to state their concerns publicly and demand protection for their employees. And funding could be increased for LGBT legal defense and activist security within East Africa.
We won’t shift the current situation with simple threats and extensive rollbacks. Former colonies, starkly resolute in their own sovereignty, don’t see this as anything less than coercion by western powers looking to continue dictating their lives. There is no quick fix to LGBT oppression worldwide. While cutting aid and stark reprimands sit well with constituents, such actions don’t suddenly free LGBT communities throughout the world; they can make the situation even worse. Meaning that if we really care about how the rest of the world treats their LGBT sectors, our response could use some evolution as well.