Sexuality Policy Watch

Aid, resistance and Queer power

Hakima Abbas*

LGBTIQ Africans are currently at the crux of an ever-increasing conservative (dare I say fascist) assault perpetuated primarily by the ruling elites in collusion, and often financed by, global right wing forces using the apparatus of the state and institutions such as the Church.  African progressive forces, through LGBTI and Queer movements and allies in the feminist, academic, human rights and social justice communities, have been resisting this onslaught and attempting to bring to bear a new understanding and discourse on so-called LGBTI issues in Africa notably by contextualizing these in the ever growing democratic regression and class struggle on the continent.  In light of this situation, global attempts to stand in solidarity with African LGBTI persons and communities have brought these issues to the forefront of international attention. Western policy makers, often at the demand of European and US civil society, have responded with several forms of intervention including the threat of tying development aid to human rights protection of LGBTI persons.  These attempts have not always been met with elation by Queer communities or movements in Africa. In order for us to understand some of the resistance within the Queer movement to the use of aid as a stick to African governments to shift their policies and laws towards LGBTI persons, we have to deconstruct and understand the foundation of aid in general, the history of aid in Africa as well as the context and politics of Queer organizing.

In the 1950’s as Africa was gaining independence and attempting to create South-South alignment outside of the cold war allegiances, the development paradigm was gaining grounds in international affairs with the United States of America (US) in particular positioning themselves as the benefactor of both a crumbled post-war Europe and of Europe’s former colonies.  The Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) also sought to gain ideological alliance based on socialist principles and effects.  While the war was cold for most of the world, it was cataclysmic in Africa where legitimate governments were overthrown, proxy wars were fuelled, natural resources exploited and economies devastated.  With capitalism offering little in the form of social and economic rights for the masses, as was the call during the struggle for independence, what it did offer was ‘aid and development’, while its liberal proponents further expounded the virtues of a singular brand of democracy and human rights (read as civil and political).

The end of the USSR would spell the dominance of liberal capitalism, and therefore dominance of the aid and development discourse in Global North-South relations. It is with much fanfare that developed nations continue to pledge significant sums of money in aid to countries of the Global South, but none more than in the continent of Africa.  However, a large proportion of aid pledges to Africa remain unfulfilled while another large proportion of aid serves to contribute to the donor nation, being tied to services and products provided from companies in donor countries.  Most foreign aid has been provided in the form of loans, bearing high rates of interest and creating a crippling debt crisis that has perpetuated the underdevelopment of African economies.  Africa today pays more in debt servicing than it receives as aid from Western countries and blocs: it is estimated that while Africa receives less than $13billion in aid annually, it spends $15billion annually on debt repayments. For every dollar that an African country receives in grants, it pays $13 in interest on debt.  While some aid conditionality is used to protect and promote human rights, the majority of conditions are elaborated to entrench further dependence on donor countries creating for example trade preferences, sole contractor agreements, etc.

Aid, as it is currently constructed between the West and Africa, is therefore not sufficient to redress the conditions that maintain the levels of poverty in Africa despite the continent being one of the richest in raw materials. Rather the aid and debt crisis is a reflection of the historical and present relationship that Africa and the rest of the world maintain.  In short, it is about power – a relationship based largely on dependence and exploitation.  I have argued elsewhere (1)  that while many are focused on reforming the aid architecture, African energies should be spent on seeking alternatives such as fair trade, reparations and cancellation of odious debt.

So if aid is not in the interests of African peoples’, why would aid conditionality be a tool for African social justice?  The language of human rights has been lauded by liberal western democrats who assume that they must coerce Africa into understanding notions of equality and justice without acknowledging the devastating effects of globalized neo-liberal economic policies and the limitations of elective democracy as practiced by two party states with only one acceptable ideology.  In the last decade LGBTI issues have been put squarely in the geopolitical arena.  In Africa, the homophobes are using the very notions of citizenship and African identity as rhetoric to exclude and oppress LGBTI persons and communities.  This does not come in a vacuum of oppression.  Indeed a democratic regression and looming economic recession has created systematic entrenchment of various forms of oppression.  Notably, oppressions that seek to exert power over bodies and sexuality are gaining ground in an increasingly fundamentalist state and religious rhetoric armed with populist power.  On the flip side, LGBTI issues have gained ground in the international arena as a barometer to determine who the ‘good liberal’ countries versus the ‘bad backward’ ones are.  With racist undertones about the ‘barbaric’ and ‘uncivilized’, it has been written that the ‘cultures’ and ‘traditions’ of the Black and Brown peoples of the world have not yet been civilized enough to tolerate gay and lesbian people.  And with this undertone, ‘gay rights’ (terminology used as if it should suffice to encompass the collective diversity of LGBTIQ equality and liberation) has become a card on a bad deck for Western governments to use as political mileage internationally, again with much fanfare. It is truly unfortunate, because behind some of these efforts there are indeed individuals who sincerely seek to stand in solidarity with LGBTI communities and people all over the world.  And perhaps that is the place at which we start, a discussion about what we understand by genuine solidarity and how to achieve it.

Receiving criticism from the African LGBTIQ movement about their broad aid withdrawal statements, some Western governments have rather talked about a redirection of some aid to civil society movements who are working on LGBTIQ rights and equality. All movements need resources and there is a myth that the LGBTIQ movement in Africa has been inundated with funds, and will continue to be because of the special interest bestowed upon it by Western governments.  The reverse is in fact true: on very little, the African LGBTIQ movement has made great strides.  If funding is to genuinely be a strategy for solidarity, the African LGBTIQ movement must be afforded the space to dictate its own funding priorities. In spite of the divergent opinions that will inevitably exist, there are certainly priorities that can be agreed among a broad spectrum of activists. The movement also needs to begin to set the parameters of what money is acceptable given the political framework in which the movement operates and seeks to have an impact on.

Aid conditionality for LGBTI rights is currently being used to show muscle for an otherwise vulnerable minority, but this action, not taken with the full consultation ignores the adverse effect that the action would actually have on LGBTI Africans.  All Africans would suffer if, for instance, our education and health systems were further crumbled.  Certainly, the withdrawal, or threat therein, of foreign aid only reinforces the argument that homosexuality is a Western construct.  And of course the homophobes, knowing full well the illegitimacy of their argument, encourage this connection as when President Museveni talked about why he withdrew the Anti-Homosexuality bill ignored or obliterated the significant widespread Ugandan and African movement to fight the bill, but focused only on Western pressure thus stirring backlash.

An emerging Queer movement in Africa is engaging in this context and conversation not from the point of view of ‘gay rights’ but from a framework of queer liberation.  Attempting to dismantle the binary notions of gender and sexuality to talk about pluralism and complexity.  This movement seeks not to separate LGBTI issues from the broad spectrum of issues that affect all Africans including Queer Africans.  This implies that what affects Africans negatively is indeed bad for Queer Africans but also, and critically, that the reverse holds strong.

There are a myriad of opinions in the LGBTIQ movement about the use of aid as a tactic.  This is exactly as it should be and reflects the plural and multifaceted nature of a steadily growing movement. Just like sanctions for South Africa became a tactic that the liberation forces had to debate and build consensus around internally: whether the effects on Black people could be counterbalanced by the potential victory over the Apartheid system.  So, too these are tactics that must be debated, discussed, and decided by the African Queer movement.  When difficult measures that will impact whole communities and nations are used, they must be used responsibly, as an urgent resort and always with the decision making of those directly affected.  Nevertheless, while aid for LGBTIQ rights and equality are being discussed, significant shifts in global geopolitics almost render the discussion futile.  With so-called ‘emerging’ powers wielding as much political and economic clout as former colonial powers, the aid system is likely to significantly transform and aid conditionality may be rendered obsolete.  In this context, the Queer African movement must again consider how to make global alliances, with whom and with what tactics, and must continue to engage critically on the nature of genuine solidarity with these allied partners.

(1) ‘Aid and Reparations: Power in the Development Discourse’, Hakima Abbas with Nana Ndeda (2009) published in ‘Aid to Africa: Coloniser or Redeemer?’, by Pambazuka Press (Edited by Hakima Abbas and Yves Niyiragira), ISBN: 978-1-906387-38-9


Hakima Abbas is the Executive Director of Fahamu Network for Social Justice.



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