THE BLOG
08/06/2014 01:25 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Prosperity in Africa Depends on Rights and Equality for Every African

Every year, billions of dollars flow from the United States to Africa in aid, investment and trade. Partially as a result, Africa's economy is the second fastest growing of any continent in the world. This week, President Obama is sitting down with 40 African leaders for the first summit of its kind to talk through how to promote joint economic opportunities. As global citizens, we should ask ourselves if these conversations -- and U.S. economic power -- will be leveraged for maximum benefit of all. Will President Obama raise questions about who is excluded from the economy and why?

All signs seems to indicate that the answer is no.

The agenda at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit focuses on everything from climate change and wildlife trafficking to food security and transnational threats, but it ignores a core value that could help broaden prosperity -- the recognition that human rights must be at the center of all economic development. Missing from the official agenda is any discussion of the recent proliferation of legislation that targets freedom of expression and assembly of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Africans.

In principle, I support the President's loftier goal of greater prosperity for all Africans and for American business. But while the U.S. government convenes this dialogue and pushes for greater American investment in Africa, it makes economic sense to advocate for all Africans to share in the benefits. Without human rights protections, I fear that American corporations and African governments will come out ahead, and ordinary Africans generally and LGBT Africans specifically will be left behind.

The White House has an opportunity this week to call for inclusive economic development. By doing so, the U.S. government would promote a stronger business climate for Africa, and, at the same time, support the calls of vibrant African LGBT movements for recognition of basic human rights.

We've already seen what leverage the United States has in this setting. I believe it was no accident that the Ugandan Constitutional Court overturned the Anti-Homosexuality Act -- which drew international condemnation and tarnished its image -- days before President Museveni arrived in Washington for the Summit. If the U.S. government disregards the predicament of LGBT Africans during the Washington summit, it will be a wasted opportunity and the situation for many will likely remain bleak.

LGBT Africans are deliberately excluded from the labor market and economic mobility by discriminatory laws, old and new. In many countries, anyone who does not conform to gender norms is penalized through laws that impose prison sentences for anything from cross-dressing and consensual relations to artistic expression that appears to support LGBT inclusion. This forces LGBT individuals away from medical care and treatment, school, jobs and even housing. As a result, LGBT Africans are overrepresented among the under-educated, under-employed and homeless.

What can the United States do to help advance rights for LGBT Africans alongside a pro-trade and pro-investment agenda?

First, President Obama must explicitly engage African government leaders on this issue and urge them to confront the economic and social devastation caused by discrimination, violence and laws that undermine basic rights. Specifically, the President must reinforce with trading partners the fact that discrimination against LGBT individuals would violate eligibility requirements under the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives virtually all marketable goods produced in eligible African countries the ability to enter the U.S. market duty-free.

Second, the President should demand guarantees from African government trading partners that endemic violence against LGBT individuals will be fully, independently and fairly investigated with those responsible held to account. When vigilante violence and hate crimes are left unpunished and unfettered by the government, the rule of law suffers, inevitably leading to instability and a less fertile business environment.

Lastly, President Obama must direct his U.S. Trade Representative to develop a plan to implement the 2011 presidential memorandum to advance the human rights of LGBT individuals internationally in the context of U.S. engagement in Africa.

At the same time, U.S. corporations that work in Africa should also leverage their economic participation to promote greater equality.

American businesses will be on the frontlines of the U.S. investment effort and could have enormous impact by showing leadership in how they treat their employees. They can do so through LGBT-inclusive personnel policies for employees regardless of nationality and location; recognition of same-sex couples and their families with full, equal access to all company benefits, including those stationed in Africa; and ensuring that global health coverage includes full health benefits for transgender employees. Corporate partners should also engage with the U.S. Trade Representative's Africa Office to explicitly address the productivity cost of homophobia and transphobia in trade talks.

Currently, homophobic and transphobic laws marginalize LGBT Africans, preventing their full participation in the economy -- and in society overall. In economic terms, this represents a huge loss in human resources, which, in the long run, will only blunt the prospect of economic development. I applaud the President's overall goal of expanding prosperity throughout Africa. Now, he must make sure that the United States inspires greater economic opportunity based on full human rights at the Summit. Advocating for equality for everyone is a moral imperative; in addition, it makes good business sense.

Jessica Stern is the New York-based executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, which operates programs throughout Africa, with staff based in Johannesburg.