The Ugandan Aid Question

Gaz Morris

Based in and around Manchester, Gaz has studied a BA and MA in various types of history at the University of Manchester. When not embracing his love for all things historical, Gaz can be found indulging his other interests of cooking, travelling and languages to whatever degree his current bank balance permits.

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The LGBT community and the wider world watched and waited and hoped amid the will-he, won’t-he rhetoric issued from both sides of the debate. Threats from left, right and centre hurtled into focus before being subsumed amongst the next in the sequence, the product of groups queuing patiently for their turn to bash Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Then, in a scene much akin to a pantomime baddie taking the stage amid a tirade of boos and hisses from the assembled media, Museveni signed Uganda’s anti-gay bill into law. The details of the law are surely familiar by now, with members of the LGBT community having their very essence criminalised.

In response, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have retained millions of dollars otherwise earmarked for financial aid in Uganda. Other countries (including numerous groups within the UK) are threatening to follow suit, outraged at what has justifiably been labelled an affront to human rights and one of the most deplorable pieces of legislation in recent times.

And I couldn’t be more angry at this turn of events.

Leaving aside the age-old adage of ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ (with the dual meaning of ‘right‘ particularly poignant here), one wonders what these sanctions are meant to achieve. Countries no doubt mean to withdraw money in a gesture of defiance of the regime and a lack of support for what the President intends to achieve in Uganda. However, what this really suggests is that, as Beyers de Vos wrote, Western, (mostly) European, aid-giving countries are the moral compass by which the rest of humanity may be judged.

This may seem a little confusing that I, a gay man, do not condone the limiting of aid in response to the suffering of my LGBT brethren abroad. This, however, would be mixing my words – I fully condone the efforts of the international community to ‘kill the bill’, though I think that stopping aid only damaged Uganda further. For example, of the $44 million aid Norway has threatened to cut, precisely how much of that loss will impact upon the living standards of Museveni and his cronies? Suppose that large chunks of Uganda’s $2 billion foreign aid budget are slashed in response to this bill – I wonder what the ensuing odds would be of the President turning to those responsible for enacting the law and proclaiming that they, as a consequence, must tighten their belts?

My point is that the very people that feel the pinch of such actions are not those that need reprimanding. Instead, international bullying might well lead to deepening tensions between Uganda and parts of the world, and further entrenchment of Museveni’s regime in a hailstorm of ‘anti-imperial’ rhetoric (think of almost any Kim-Jong-Il/Un, Idi Amin or Robert Mugabe and you get the gist).

To put the $2 billion aid budget in perspective, it is estimated that almost a third of this is spent on education, health or welfare. Yet one suspects that these might be some of the first to go in the wake of a Ugandan budgeting crisis (it’s either that or the military, and no prizes for guessing which is most directly useful for the President). The knock-on effects of health budget cuts in a country with around 5% of its population living with HIV or AIDS is truly horrifying, yet this is a likely outcome of increased foreign aid cuts to Uganda. Add into the mix a country that, in 2009, spent a paltry 3.2% of its GDP on education and we see how hard-hitting a cut of foreign aid truly is.

It is suggested that the money cut from the foreign aid bill will be given instead to humanitarian aid organisations that promote human rights and democracy in the country, though in this way the potential power of each dollar invested is reduced – through bureaucracy, corruption, local and national resistance, misallocation and in delays caused by all of the aforementioned. Ugandans with nothing to do with the bill suffer for the bigotry of others.

One also wonders what a group that ‘promotes democracy’ under a regime such as Museveni’s can feasibly do, considering the president’s position.  Museveni was recently backed by over 60% of his party as the candidate in the next elections, where he is tipped to win another executive victory in the 2016 elections. Tapping into the anti-gay hysteria and rhetoric flung about by Ugandan popular press such as the Rolling Stone and Red Pepper (seriously, could they choose more bizarre names?) and buoyed by huge support within his own ruling party, the President had a domestic carte blanche to do whatever he jolly well pleased. At any rate, his rule is hardly a model of democratic fairness and harmonious living (the bill in question aside for a moment) – in the last elections, over 40% of the eligible electorate stayed away from the polls, with some citing fears for their own safety. If the cut to foreign aid was intended to destabilise the President domestically, it is possible that it could, in fact, do the opposite.

As an interesting aside, Uganda, believe it or not, has been found to be (potentially) one of the most permissive countries for homosexuality in the East Africa region. According to a survey in 2010, 11% of Ugandans viewed homosexuality as morally acceptable, ahead of neighbouring Tanzania (1%), Rwanda (1%) and Kenya (4%). Despite being far from an overwhelming majority, one has to remember that those that do not view homosexuality as morally acceptable do not necessarily view it as reprehensible, either (consider a recent Vada piece of attitudes to gay teachers). True, it hardly paints the most optimistic picture of LGBT rights in East Africa, but it’s a start. The bill might all but kill the shoots of tolerance poking above the surface in this part of the world through a combination of ‘education’, misguided public opinion and anti-gay furore as whipped up by the popular press.

It’s true that the anti-gay bill is horrendous news for the already-vilified LGBT communities in Uganda and the surrounding region and the international community is fully justified in being shocked, appalled and sickened at such a turn of events, but to punish the people of Uganda by potentially reducing the amount of money that can be spent on their welfare is not the way to go. Neither is entrenching the position of the already-dominant president through feeding him ready-made moralising, orientalising (in the sense of Edward Said’s classic book), anti-Western tirades that could be used to shore up support.

I have nothing but contempt for the bill. I have nothing but contempt for the politicians who passed it. I have nothing but sympathy for those that will suffer – directly and indirectly – as a result of it.