May 18, 2011 at 9:42 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
African activists oppose cuts to Ugandan aid

Responding to the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda by cutting off international aid to the country might not be a good idea.

That was the message on Tuesday from LGBT activists from Africa who participated in a panel discussion on the impact of homophobia in developing countries at the World Bank Headquarters.

The panel was sponsored by several organizations — including UNAIDS, World Bank GLOBE, Inter-American Development Bank GLOBE and the Council for Global Equality — to observe the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Speakers expressed reservations about urging multilateral development institutions, such as the World Bank, to cut funding from Uganda if the country’s lawmakers make another attempt at passing a draconian bill that would institute the death penalty for homosexual acts.

Val Kalende, a lesbian Ugandan activist, said LGBT people in her country have been facing “a lot of backlash” because of international criticism over the proposed anti-gay legislation and cutting off aid may make that worse.

In January, David Kato, a gay activist who was working against the measure, was brutally murdered after a publication in the country identified him as gay.

“We don’t want our government to come up and start blaming us for the things that have been imposed on them,” Kalende said. “It’s not a question [to which] I can give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, but I think it’s important for us to think about how to create spaces of better dialogue in Uganda.”

Kalende said she’d rather see an internal grassroots approach in Uganda to confront the anti-gay bill if it comes up again as opposed to restrictions on international aid.

“This is an issue of ignorance, and we need to address that within the Uganda kind of context and culture,” Kalende said. “Because without that debate, I don’t think cutting aid would change anything in Uganda.”

Joel Gustave Nana, executive director of African Men for Sexual Health and Rights, said he would “think twice” about calling for cutting off international aid because it would reinforce the idea that Western countries are imposing homosexuality on Uganda.

“When a condition is put on funding … my president then in Cameroon will not protect LGBT rights not because he doesn’t think that LGBT people deserve to be protected, but just because he wants to stand up for his country,” Nana said.

In Malawi, Joel said Germany has put a condition to protect LGBT rights as part of funding to the country, which has only prompted the African country to refuse the aid.

“And the Malawian government has said, ‘OK, keep your money,'” Nana said.

Kalende also cautioned the international community against voicing a greater outcry against the anti-gay bill as opposed to other injustices in Uganda.

According to the Associated Press, opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who finished second in the country’s presidential election this year, has this week been placed under house arrest, although the government denies that he’s being detained.

“So we don’t want to present ourselves as special people, we don’t want to present LGBT rights as special rights, we want to create a culture where LGBT rights are deeply entrenched in human rights,” Kalende said. “And I think that is going to bring about the social change that we need.”

The anti-homosexuality bill, which was introduced by lawmaker David Bahati, failed in the country’s parliament after the session ended last week without a floor vote on the legislation.

But the measure, commonly known as the “Kill the Gays” bill, alarmed observers across the globe after a committee hearing took place on the legislation and it seemed ready for a floor vote.

International activists are fearful that the bill could come up again for a vote once the parliament reconvenes.

Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, said the legislation could make a return.

Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality (photo courtesy of Council for Global Equality)

“Unfortunately, we are concerned that it will be introduced again,” Bromley said. “Nobody knows for sure, and we certainly hope that individuals who supported it in the last parliament in Uganda will recognize that it really did create intense concern internationally, and that if they were to introduce it again, Uganda really could become a pariah state in terms of its lack of attention to fundamental human rights.”

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the longest-serving openly gay lawmaker in Congress, is among those calling on an end to multilateral development aid to Uganda should the country pass the bill.

“If the bill before the Ugandan parliament becomes law, it must be the policy of the United States government to oppose any aid to Uganda from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, or any other international financial institution of which we are a member,” Frank said.

According to Frank’s office, Uganda has received more than $2 billion in debt relief from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Support for the country includes 23 active World Bank projects and 3 proposed projects.

In March, the House Financial Services Committee adopted an amendment introduced by Frank directing the Treasury Department to urge multilateral development institutions, such as the World Bank, not to offer aid to foreign governments that engage in gross violations of human rights against LGBT people and religious minorities.

But David Wilson, the World Bank’s global HIV/AIDS program director, said during the panel discussion that the act of cutting funds from a country is more difficult for the World Bank than it would be for a country such as the United States as part of a bilateral agreement.

“I think it’s harder for multilateral organizations who represent all the governments of global member states to take a clear cut lead on issues like that, but I think we’d often like to,” Wilson said. “I think it’s possible for the bilaterals to take a stronger stance than we are sometimes able to.”

Still, Wilson said calls for good governance and accountability could be “entry points” to take action against Uganda and said public pressure on the World Bank could prompt the organization to change its tune.

“Let me also make it clear that if there’s very strong bilateral pressure on the World Bank from its major investors, that’s likely to influence the position we take,” Wilson said.

Bromley said the decision isn’t an easy one on whether to cut funding from Uganda if the anti-homosexuality bill comes up again.

“Our response is generally that there is ‘no one size fits all’ answer to that question,” Bromley said. “There are certain investments that we think should not be conditioned once they’ve gone forward, but within that realm, there are certainly other investments that should not proceed in the face of extreme homophobia or transphobia.”

Bromley added that HIV/AIDS programs have been particularly effective in Africa and once the United States has made the commitment to put people on life-saving HIV/AIDS medications, those people should never be taken off as a result of the restriction of U.S. funds.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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