The World Bank blocked a $90 million loan to Uganda last year because of its anti-LGBT laws, the first time it has explicitly linked a loan to the rights of sexual minorities. Has this had an impact? In a recent BuzzFeed interview, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim implied that it has — it seems to have slowed the passage of anti-gay laws in other countries. “Everyone knows now that I will do this and so everyone is watching very carefully,” Kim told the site.
That may be true. But the fact is that the Bank, and other international organizations, could still do a lot more to help LGBT individuals who are being criminalized and sometimes killed in their own countries, and the time to start doing that is now.
In 2014, when the Bank withheld the loan from Uganda, it did so because the country planned to deny gay men and men who have sex with men access to hospital HIV services provided by through Bank funding. This policy is rooted in the Anti-Homosexuality Law in Uganda, but the Bank did not say a word against it while it was being drafted even as the United Nations, UNAIDS and other institutions were warning Kampala to not pass the measure. Amid rising pressure from civil society groups the Bank finally moved to block the funding. But these people who risked their lives to protect human rights were not even acknowledged by President Kim in his interview.
Uganda is not the only country seeking to criminalize LGBT individuals, yet the Bank has remained largely silent as country after country moves to restrict gay rights or vilify gay people. Where has the Bank been when The Gambia, a country ruled by Yahah Jammeh, one of the most notorious modern day autocratic leaders, passed its anti-gay law and began the current practice of hunting LGBT individuals? Why is it silent when Democratic Republic of Congo proposed a bill similar to that of Uganda, and what does the Bank have to say now when lawmakers in Kenya, a country seen as one of the most liberal in Africa, are discussing presenting a similar bill to its legislature? Where is it on Cameroon, which has been in the news with increasing attacks on LGBT people?
All of these moves against the LGBT community have come since Uganda passed its anti-gay law. And yet the World Bank has remained silent.
The Bank may hope to avoid taking public political stances and stick to the work of infrastructure projects, but that work is not happening in isolation. In perhaps the starkest case, Nigeria passed an anti-gay law similar to Uganda’s and yet Bank projects are still funded there, including an HIV surveillance initiative, which is a direct threat to the safety of gay people. This program collects data on how many people are living with HIV, and in order to participate people have to state their sexual orientation. In Nigeria, being openly gay is illegal so either people jeopardize their safety by participating or they do not take part, limiting the impact of the Bank’s program.
The Bank is already under fire following a new report that says some 3.4 million people have been physically or economically displaced by various World Bank-funded projects over the last 10 years, violating its own pledge to protect the poor.
Kim has talked about a proposal for updated “safeguards” for human rights that is being drafted to guide the Bank’s lending policies. But the safeguards will still be rooted in the local laws of each country. So, in the case of Nigeria, the Bank has put itself in a very difficult position because it will still be dealing with a domestic legal framework that justifies criminalization of homosexuality. So there is clearly more work to go on crafting the protocol so that the Bank does not simply put its stamp of approval on local laws that facilitate discrimination.
I am not completely dismissing the efforts of the World Bank and I think what Kim did in Uganda was important. I am asking the Bank to be consistent in its policies and to treat all countries the same and to pull funding for projects that similarly exclude LGBT individuals.
Further, I am not dismissing the hard work of President Kim to restructure the World Bank and I commend him for creating a Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Advisory Group on which I serve.
But the fact is the Bank, and other major international organizations, could do a lot more to help the activists across the world who are paying with their lives to make their countries a better place to live and to the LGBT individuals whose lives are in jeopardy every day because of the restrictive laws. The Bank should be funding progress, not discrimination.
Adebisi Alimi is an LGBT advocate, an HIV activist, and the first person to come out as gay on Nigerian television. He is a 2014 Aspen New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.