An oft-told African proverb (whose precise culture of origin often changes with the teller) asserts that "When elephants fight, the grass suffers." Put another way, the powerless are trampled in the clashes of mammoth decision-makers. An elephant match is currently underway between the government of the United Kingdom, which has threatened that it will consider reducing foreign aid to countries that criminalize homosexuality, and the governments of many African nations, who have stridently rebutted the threat. In the process, the "grass"--that is, Africans who support the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people--is suffering. But African social activists are refusing to take the trampling lying down. These are standing up and speaking out.
In October of this year, a coalition of pro-LGBTI African social activists came together, representing 51 organizations and 86 individuals from at least 19 countries in Africa, all four regions of the continent, and the African diaspora. This spontaneous coalition released a strongly worded statement that essentially rejects the UK's proposed aid conditionality. This "not in our name" statement--by which these activists used virtual tools like listservs, emails, teleconferences, and discussion forums to reach rapid-fire consensus--argues that the UK's decision would create backlash against LGBTI people across the continent by positioning them as scapegoats for decreases in aid revenue. The UK's position also undermines the burgeoning LGBTI movement in Africa, the coalition claims.
"We developed this statement for three reasons," explains Joel Gustave Nana, the Executive Director of African Men for Sexual Health and Rights and the author of the first draft of the statement. "First, we were tired of being collateral damage in international politics. Second, statements by Britain and other Northern countries affect the work that we do on a daily basis to ensure that LGBTI people are protected on the continent. And third, and perhaps most importantly, we needed to say, 'not in our name.' If you decide to cut aid to these countries, do not do this in our names."
Nana explains that the UK government did not consult any African activists before taking its decision and making it public. When I asked the Office of the Prime Minister of the UK about the activists' concerns, it replied with a statement that reiterates its reasoning: the UK hopes to ensure that its foreign aid contributes to the international strengthening of human rights. The reply does not address the concerns raised by the coalition of African activists, most notably the potential scapegoating of LGBTI people in the wake of the UK's announcement.
For their part, the African governments that continue to criminalize homosexual acts have responded vociferously to the UK. As collated on the blog Towleroad, the governments of Uganda, Ghana and Malawi responded angrily, with a Malawian government spokesperson calling the threat "unacceptable and provocative" and a Ugandan presidential adviser describing the UK's position as "an ex-colonial mentality." ("We are tired of being given these lectures by people," the adviser is reported to have told BBC Newshour.) A Ugandan newspaper reported additional reactions from Zanzibar, Tanzania, and Kenya, in which officials argued that they would rather lose foreign aid than kowtow to the Brits.
Nana believes that these government reactions were predictable and reflect the very concerns that the coalition of activists laid out in their statement. "African leaders who feel that they are being bullied to embrace values that they don't believe in feel like this aid conditionality is an attempt to violate their sovereignty," he says. He predicts that the UK aid conditionality will be more harmful in countries with more heavy-handed rulers, asserting, "The more authoritarian a government, the more strongly it will come out in opposing this conditionality. And the more severe the impact will be for LGBTI people."
Issues of aid conditionality are always tricky, especially where human rights are concerned. Nana concedes that there are legitimate concerns for donor governments who want to ensure that their citizens' tax dollars are not blindly handed over to oppressive regimes. Moreover, just last year, some Ugandan activists praised the role that some European countries' threats of aid reductions played in combating Uganda's infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, deemed odious by Barack Obama himself. Nana points out, however, that no human rights or LGBTI activists from Africa have publicly opposed the coalition's recent statement.
Whether or not the UK's decision will help or harm the cause of LGBTI people in Africa remains to be seen. The early verbal reactions by some African governments do not bode well. What is evident for now, however, is that the UK government has so far neglected to engage with or to listen to the very people whom its policies purport to assist. The African activists' statement is a tremendous opportunity to hear the voice of the grass, whispering its crystalline message on the wind, even as it is being stomped by those elephants on high.