Can an interactive online map better inform LGBTQI aid worker security?

An online platform where LGBTQI United Nations staffers can look up information on a country's workplace and local culture may soon be available. Photo by: Highways Agency / CC BY

United Nations employees who wish to gain a clearer picture of a country’s workplace and local culture for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex staff may soon be able to head to a one-stop online shop for the sensitive — and often hard to find — information.

U.N.-GLOBE, the LGBTQI advocacy staff body of the U.N. system, has partnered with Fordham Law School’s The Leitner Center for International Law and Justice on a project examining the mobility of current and former LGBTQI U.N. staff in an effort to create stronger mobility policies, security and protections for LGBTQI staff worldwide.

A determined group of stakeholders is buzzing about the need to discuss staff welfare and security ahead of and during the World Humanitarian Summit in May. But if the issue of staff care is barely on the program of global aid meetings, the safety concerns faced by LGBTQI development professionals around the world — often above and beyond those faced by their peers — has a hard time making the agenda at all.

An important first step is the creation of a platform that would allow current or future LGBTQI U.N. staffers to search buckets of information — such as workplace culture, career advancement, family and personal relationship and local culture and political situations — by country using an interactive world map populated by real-time responses, according to project co-founder and ICT4D professional Mala Kumar.

The platform, still in prototype phase, will rely on responses from current or former U.N. staff members.

A screencap of the prototype online platform for LGBTQI United Nations staffers. View the full page here.

“The idea overall,” according to Kumar, “is for somebody considering a post or consultancy in a West African country, for example, to be able to click on the country and see all the things those who identify or have been perceived as LGBTQI who have worked there have said about it.”

Ideally, the tool will provide even more specific information than that, she added. Someone considering joining the U.N. system — say a lesbian female of color — would be able to note what the experiences have been of people of her particular demographic.

Among other issues, the project will explore the existence of homophobic or transphobic discrimination in the office or country, physical or digital risks specific to LGBTQI staff, and concerns around securing visas for spouses.

Examples of questions those who contribute will be asked — and of the information that will subsequently be viewed by visitors to the platform — include the following: 

• “Have you chosen to disclose to your LGBTQI identity to colleagues at work?”

• “Has your LGBTQI identity deterred you from applying or accepting an offer of employment with the U.N. (including a post rotation, promotion, consultancy or internship) in this country or countries?”

• “Do you think revealing your LGBTQI identity at work would threaten your physical security?”

For the first time it will give people the chance to get a feel for a place — or even determine if they can pose questions about sexuality or cultural norms to an HR professional, a piece of information Kumar hopes participants will share — prior to accepting a job. And in the absence of this information, the platform will be able to fill a gap for those who can’t be sure what’s OK to ask, “especially since whoever you’re speaking with is going to assume you are LGBT whether you’re comfortable with that or not … Why else would you be asking?” Kumar added.

But the project has proved difficult for a variety of reasons, Kumar noted, not least of which is that LGBTQI “is so charged and it’s obviously not a homogenous set of people, so to unpack that and get at the specific issues within that very large acronym has been a huge challenge.”

Even the proposed wording on the site and for the survey questions has been a detailed discussion. The word transgender isn’t used throughout most of South Asia, for example, and people who are of the third gender in India are treated differently than than how those in the Western world would define a transgender person in Thailand, Kumar noted.

Security must also be an immediate concern, especially the identity of those who offer insights for publication on the platform. Kumar and her project partners have debated whether to require participants to create an online profile, including sex, gender, year of birth, contracts held and countries in which they have worked, in order to answer questions — an action that would aid in the collection of important demographic information but also create greater risk in the event of a hack.

“If we collect any information whatsoever, it makes us vulnerable to hacks,” Kumar told Devex. “There’s all kinds of people that want to gain access to this information in an unethical way.”

The decision will in part be based on the available security protocols of the server on which the platform eventually lives, but even if platform creators choose to display any personal information publicly, a contributor would have the opportunity to opt in or out.

Currently, calls for participation in the survey is limited to current and former U.N. staff, including consultants, interns, contractors and volunteers who have worked in the field. Diplomatic mission employees and anyone who has turned down a U.N. or diplomatic mission offer of employment or been deterred from applying because of the inability to secure a visa for a spouse — or for fear of homophobia or transphobia in the assigned country — are also encouraged to contribute, as are U.N. human resources officers. The contribution of other international NGOs, nonprofits, foundations and private sector employees will be sought later.

Kumar hopes to have a live platform coded by September or October, though the launch, she said, is largely dependent on further funding.

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.