Uganda's anti-gay law: A silver lining for LGBTI aid?

A man protests Uganda's anti-gay bill in New York City. Since the government passed the controversial law, international donors have started reviewing their aid policies toward the country. Photo by: Kaytee Riek / CC BY-NC-SA

Several international donors threatened and a few have confirmed they will cut aid to Uganda after the government passed a controversial law targeting homosexuals. But there is now a clear opportunity for the donor community to invest in protecting the human rights and health of the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community.

But first — and in order to send a strong message — Ugandan and international LGBTI allies will need support to fight this bill in court; and donors such as the U.S. Agency for International Development can increase rule of law funding on an emergency basis to help support this effort, according to Chloe Schwenke, vice president of global programs for Freedom House and former USAID senior advisor for LGBTI global policy.

Seasoned LGBTI activists in the country contacted Freedom House to express their fear and the profound threat they are currently facing, she said — but it’s not too late to fight the legislation in constitutional court, as it contravenes Uganda’s constitution.

“There are plenty of lawyers in Uganda who are LGBTI supporters who could step in and do this with the right funding,” Schwenke said.

The call for further action isn’t limited to Freedom House, as many aid groups and NGOs around the world are also joining the campaign.

“The international community must collectively denounce this law, and there must be serious consequences for the government of Uganda,” Santiago Canton, director of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights Partners for Human Rights, said in a statement.

Donors appalled

International donors are already reviewing their aid policies toward the country, with some of them hinting at reallocating the money to civil society organizations in response to the law signed by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Monday, which strengthens existing penalties for homosexual acts — already illegal in Uganda — with up to life in prison for a repeat offender.

Following Norway’s aid cut and redirection announcement, both the Netherlands and Denmark are reported to be considering slashing their aid package to Uganda, saying they would also redirect the nearly $20 million of aid currently earmarked for Ugandan state programs instead to activities in the private sector and with civil society organizations.

Sweden will consider redirecting its $10.7 million in aid to Uganda to other programs or countries when it completes an evaluation this spring, while members of the European Parliament called for an end to a political agreement with Uganda over the law — which EU High Representative Catherine Ashton described as “draconian.”

The United States and Canada, two of Uganda’s largest bilateral donors, are also reviewing their relationship with the anti-gay Ugandan government over the new law that makes it a criminal offense to sponsor or encourage homosexuality, and even criminalizes failure to report homosexual practices.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged it be repealed and said in a statement on Monday that Washington is “deeply concerned about the law’s potential to set back public health efforts in Uganda, including those to address HIV/AIDS, which must be conducted in a non-discriminatory manner in order to be effective.”

HIV aid now illegal?

As far as the legislation’s potential impact in on health initiatives, UNAIDS pointed to the example of a “drop-in center” — a discreet office in an urban neighborhood where gay men can go for counseling, HIV testing and medical care, that may now be considered illegal under the new law.

But this is another way donors can positively support the Ugandan LGBTI community at this time, Schwenke suggested. Health budgets are a massive part of foreign assistance, though many health programs routinely exclude LGBTI from receiving funds.

On Friday, the World Bank will vote to approve $90 million in funding for the Ugandan health sector, she noted, which could also be an opportunity to send a clear message.

“This is crucial funding for maternal health and family planning, so the bank could put a conditionality on this financial aid that ‘you must be able to demonstrate inclusion of sexual minorities,’” Schwenke said.

Not just Uganda

The debate over whether donors should or shouldn’t cut aid to countries with homophobic policies was most recently raised once again when President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria signed in January a law that criminalizes same-sex unions and other homosexual activities.

And this isn’t the first time the aid community has taken a strong stance against the adoption of harsh anti-gay law.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, has in the past threatened to withhold aid from governments that refuse to reform legislation banning homosexuality, and temporarily suspended aid to Malawi in 2011 over concerns about its attitude toward gay rights.

So what would happen if the United States decides to adopt targeted sanctions, such as visa refusals for specific officials who promote hate and violence against homosexuals? Let us know what you think by leaving us a comment below, joining our LinkedIn discussion or sending us an email to news@devex.com.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, 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.

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