Posts Tagged ‘Uganda’

How did homophobia become the most important development issue of the day?

Oh Museveni what have you done? Of all the problems that Uganda faces, is the ‘wrong’ kind of sex really the most pressing? (More pressing, say, than having a minister who thinks there is a ‘right’ kind of rape?!?) You state you are concerned that “many of those recruited were doing so for mercenary reasons – to get money – in effect homosexual prostitutes”. So now you are legislating to shut off some people’s route out of poverty? Much better to focus on your implied root cause – poverty – which everyone agrees in a widespread ill in Uganda than to veer off on this sideshow.

But let’s not kid ourselves too much. With his regional (East African Community) leadership ambitions thwarted, M7 wants to be re-elected as Ugandan president for another term (or at least ensure his placeman gets the job). As I understand it (sorry cannot locate link), M7 was under pressure that if he didn’t sign the law then he wouldn’t get the political support he needs, and his veto might have been over-ridden any way, undermining his authority.

The fact that Western leaders then resorted to megaphone diplomacy really didn’t help, instead making M7 out to be ‘a son of the soil’ hero to millions of Africans across the continent. Yes many Africans are also anguishing over the hate-filled bill, but they are the liberal intelligentsia, a tiny minority. Blame it on Western missionaries and evangelicals if you will (I do), but the reality is that most Africans are pretty homophobic. So whilst they may feel free to ignore my advice on such matters, surely Western leaders should listen to those many African voices urging caution (e.g. this).

That all said, however, Museveni and his fellow homophobes’ own standard of debate leaves much to be desired, especially in the framing of the debate in anti-neo-colonialist terms.

“We Africans always keep our opinions to ourselves and never seek to impose our point of view on the others. If only they could let us alone.” [Museveni again]

Leaving aside the ridiculous hypocrisy of this claim (made in the moment that they impose their intolerance on gay people throughout Uganda), I reject the notion that the West is imposing its values on Uganda. Receiving aid is a privilege, not a right. Every day providers of charity across the world choose who should receive their largesse based on a range of issues, many of them ethical. There is a reason why the government of North Korea receives no Western aid (other than emergency food relief in times of famine).

Nonetheless, I am worried by the closing of Western ranks, even in apparently neutral bodies. For instance the reasons given by the World Bank for publicly postponing a $90m loan intended to boost Uganda’s health services do not ring true, but instead strike me as Western liberals seeking inappropriate economic arguments for a fundamentally moral question. Why should Ugandan mothers-to-be and new born babies suffer for their political leader’s ignorance and intolerance?

Uganda has enacted a truly odious bill, but the debate around it on all sides is muddled and dominated by domestic political concerns that do the noble cause of international development a serious injustice.

Homosexuality and development aid

A cynic might suggest that this threat by David Cameron is a ploy to wriggle out of the 0.7% GDP promise on the UK’s aid budget. (See here and here for my thoughts on this commitment.)

However, I was intrigued by this quote from Uganda Radio Network journalist, Charles Odongpho:

“I welcome any move to pressure our government to be respectful of democratic values and human rights but speaking as a Ugandan I think we have much more important issues to deal with than the rights of homosexuals.”

One could equally retort that given all the challenges facing developing countries such as Uganda, legislating to ban relations between members of the same sex should be the least of their worries.

Having foisted homophobia on Africa 150 years ago through the work of our missionaries it is perhaps appropriate that Britain plays an active role in trying to roll it back. As Odongpho goes on to say:

“This is your money and you know where you want to put it”

On the other hand, attitudes to homosexuality, highlight the clash of cultures challenge that we face in trying to actively develop poorer countries. Homophobia does genuinely appear to be an attitude commanding substantial popular support in many developing countries. Unlike the gender issue there is not even much of an economic argument to be had in favour of gay rights.*

Nonetheless, locking people up for engaging in consensual sex with other adults offends many Britons, and it is indeed our government’s money to dispense with as it sees fit. Like the fox-hunting debate of a few years ago in the UK, I think there might be more important issues on which to engage, but by my liberal values, both issues are simple moral questions, and on both counts the reactionaries are just wrong. If I were the UK prime minister I do not think I would have picked this fight, but now that Cameron has picked it, I find myself unable to disagree with him.

UPDATE: See the strong response from local activists here and then my refined thoughts here.

* On the basis that as a hidden characteristic sexual orientation does not greatly determine career prospects.

Democracy, Authoritarianism and Development

So the surprise winner of the Rwandan presidential election is … Paul Kagame! Who would have thought it? The Economist epitomises the dominant view in the Western media as Paul Kagame has gone from aid darling to the flawed leader we’re stuck with. Texas in Africa has a much more nuanced discussion. I note striking parallels with how everyone viewed Museveni ten years ago. The sad thing is that these are often popular leaders who could win a fair election by a country mile, so resorting to the strong-arm tactics seems awfully short-sighted.

The interesting comparisons are with the more contested polities in neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania. Some Tanzanians (admittedly a rather small sample size) would seem to prefer a strong man who would stamp out corruption and bring much faster economic development.

“Is Africa ready for democracy?” is one of those horrendously patronising debates which comes around every now and then. My response is usually to suggest that I am not about to tell any disenfranchised African keen for their voice to be heard that their society is just too immature for democracy. However, there are some interesting observations that can be made in relation to this.

Firstly, strong men such as Museveni and Kagame have become popular precisely by maintaining a strong hand on the tiller, part of which involves taking a hard line against official corruption. News stories of coups often report initially a high level of public support for the intervention because ordinary citizens are fed up with corruption and hope this new broom will be different. (Such support, e.g. in Guinea, often fades pretty quickly.) Reducing corruption and increasing efficiency of government (as Museveni, Kagame and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia have done to different degrees) also greatly increases the efficacy of development aid, and is one of the oft quoted reasons why the donors continue to hold their noses and deal with such leaders.*

Secondly, many outcomes of economic development are viewed as important to a well functioning democracy, e.g. a large middle class, an educated population, and a strong civil society including diverse independent media. The Chinese government have long argued that their citizens are far more interested in economic development than airy-fairy human rights. Indeed I have noticed international commentary gradually becoming more intrigued as to when the tipping point in favour of democracy in China will come – the implication being that the pressure which is building up cannot be held off forever. Is there a greater good to be found in that argument? Development first, then (properly functioning) democracy later?

Apart from the obvious moral issues, there are two big flaws that I can see in this argument. Firstly that as a big man stays in power for longer and longer, they have to subvert the system more and more, and patronage politics returns in force. Thus initial gains in eliminating corruption are in time reversed, albeit with possibly a different crowd whose “turn it is to eat”. The second argument surrounds long term stability and the succession, e.g. as recently elucidated by Chris Blattman with respect to Ethiopia.

If civil society etc are strong enough, and the strong man himself can perhaps be persuaded of the error of his ways, then it might in the long run be worth suffering the authoritarianism. But the example of Zimbabwe also shows us what can happen when a strong man (and the patronage system which supports him) is determined to hold on to power whatever the costs.

In conclusion, I am not sure what is the optimal approach. Since my opinion doesn’t matter much that seems just fine. Most bilateral aid agencies also seem caught between two stools, berating sham democracy when they see it, but making minimal adjustments to the flow of  funds. As a British citizen I do have a right to an opinion as to whether this is the right way for DFID to act, but as for the governments in Africa … (alert! platitude ahead) … well that surely has to be for their own citizens to decide.

* In the various indicators does this come out as good or bad governance? Single index measures always cover up more than they reveal.

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