Resources for the unbelievers, on aid conditionality and LGBT rights

Aid received per capita across the global South, 2007: From wphr.org

I’ve been working desultorily (a beautiful word: say it slowly: it seems to capture being lazy but just alive enough to claim you’re still doing something) on an article on aid conditionality and LGBT rights.

This all comes, of course, from the controversy launched last fall by David Cameron’s declaring his government would cut development assistance to governments that committed violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This statement was idiotic in the pure, Greek sense: Cameron was, in essence, talking to himself. It came without any prior consulting with activists in the countries in question, and was an ill-planned effort to get domestic voices in the UK to shut up and stop pressuring the PM.(They did, obediently.) The ensuing backlash, across Africa and elsewhere, proved exceedingly discouraging about the idea. However, Hillary Clinton’s announcement that LGBT rights were a new US global priority gave new life to the project, and US advocates have urged the Obama administration to enlist American foreign aid money in the cause.

Northern governments have ben conditioning development aid on other issues for a while, especially in the last 30 years– usually affixing economic strings (hire our consultants! buy our goods! privatize your hospitals, if you want our aid!), less often political or rights-related ones.  I’ll raise specific questions in my article about whether something around sexuality- and gender-related abuses makes them peculiarly resistant to being stopped by such linkages. There are also legitimate concerns, though, about whether such linkages ever work the way they’re meant to, or are ever justified. I’m skeptical they do, or are. I’d like to get some discussion going as I finish the article, and so I’ll share some resources here for others who are skeptical, or in favor, or undecided, in hopes you’ll argue or respond. Respond! Use the comments section, or write me directly.

1) First off: here’s an interview with Radhika Balakrishnan, of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, that lays out some of the concerns with conditionality clearly.

2) The October 2011 statement by dozens of African activists opposing aid conditionality in the LGBT rights sphere is here. Hakima Abbas’s “Aid, Resistance, and Queer Power” expands on its points; her essay can be found in this booklet from Sexuality Policy Watch (pp. 16-19) along with “Aid conditionality and respect for LGBT people’s rights” by Luis Abolafia Anguita (pp. 9-15).

3) An especially important paper you should examine is this report by AWID (the Association of Women in Development), succinctly called Conditionalities Undermine the Right to Development. It sets out a wide range of facts and arguments on the issue. Because it’s 128 pages long, I’ll try in the following points to summarize some of the background with which it deals.

4) A lot of people (including many of those pushing for aid conditionality) don’t know about the political negotiations in the last 10 years over the issue of how aid works, or doesn’t. By “political” I mean: Northern and Southern governments have actually discussed the subject, sometimes with each other! In 2005, a major ministerial-level meeting produced the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, responding to a wide perception that aid wasn’t being … well, effective. Over 100 countries joined to affirm five pillars of meaningful assistance: Ownership, Harmonisation, Alignment, Results and Mutual Accountability. (OHARMA?)  OK, enough buzzwords. The key commitment under “Ownership” was that conditions on aid, if any, should be jointly owned. Donors should

draw conditions, whenever possible, from a partner’s national development strategy … Other conditions would be included only when a sound justification exists and would be undertaken transparently and in close consultation with other donors and stake holders.

Pragmatically, this recognized that conditions imposed from outside simply weren’t being met. Three years later, another high-level forum in Ghana produced the Accra Agenda for Action (AAA, a way better acronym). This proclaimed, “We will continue to change the nature of conditionality to support ownership” by developing countries. It mandated donors to “work with developing countries to agree on a limited set of mutually agreed conditions based on national development strategies,” and to “document and disseminate good practices on conditionality.”

Both these documents can be found here, and straightforward summaries are here and here. It’s important to see that the emphasis on joint commitments, as opposed to taking aid hostage, severely limits how far donor governments should use aid to enforce rights goals that aren’t fully shared (or aren’t integrated into development strategies). Do we want LGBT rights to be the basis for backtracking on these principles?

Anti-Debt Coalition activists protest an Asian Development Bank (ADB) meeting, Jakarta, 2009 (Reuters)

5) Civil societies and social movements engaged intensely in the lead-up to the Paris and Accra meetings, as well as a further gathering in Busan, Korea, in 2011. And while you might suppose that women’s movements, for example, would want aid more conditioned on rights policies — since they were urging women’s rights and gender equality as core components of development planning — almost exclusively they called for less conditionality. Part of their reasoning involved the possible devastating effect of slashes in aid. They also saw that conditions foreign governments imposed actually prevented civil society in developing countries from being part of the rights discussion: everything turned into an argument between the donor and recipient governments, with domestic voices ignored. A broad coalition of feminist and gender-equality groups in 2011, for instance, called on donors to

[m]ove away from policy conditionalities towards consistent application of concepts of multiple responsibility, accountability and transparency among both donor and developing countries. This could be advanced, for example, by supporting democratic scrutiny of development goals, policies and results. Policy conditionalities can have negative impacts on people, particularly on women and girls. They undermine the principle of ownership and contradict the right to development and self-determination.

Similar criticisms can be found here.

6) The Paris and Accra documents have come under considerable fire for not going far enough. This (briefer) briefing paper from AWID summarizes some of the critiques. And this analysis by the UK-based Overseas Development Institute looks at the debate over aid effectiveness “through the recipient lens,” by talking to officials in governments that get aid. One criticism is that the Paris-based language doesn’t put sufficient stress on “predictability” of aid — states and societies need to know that money isn’t going to go away when the givers shift their whims. Conditionality is a prime generator of unpredictability in aid. The fact that many Northern donor governments don’t have a cross-party consensus on LGBT rights worsens the prospects in this particular sphere. What happens if Obama imposes conditions on development aid based on getting rid of sodomy laws; then Romney defeats him, and suddenly sodomy laws are OK; then Hillary Clinton gets elected in four years, and abruptly the conditions are back on again? Manic roller-coaster swoops and swerves in the terms of assistance don’t just leave governments confused; they mean that anti-poverty, health or infrastructural programs in country after country can’t plan on future funding, or their own existence. That’s a heavy responsibility for LGBT rights to bear.

7) When advocates talk about “conditionality,” often they mean the set of economic — or combined economic and political — strings that donor governments started attaching to aid in the 1980s and 1990s. International lenders, the World Bank and IMF, were even more radical and reviled movers in this. But surely human rights conditions are a different, friendlier thing altogether?

never in history have so many owed so much to so little money from so few

No. What’s happened for 30 years is that donors tie human rights into a bundle with something called “economic freedom,” or maybe “good governance,” conceived as governing the economy with a particular set of virtues that will make particular classes rich. After all, they’re all “freedoms,” right? Rights thus get bound up with the infamous “Washington Consensus”: Privatize everything!  Shrink the state! Down with protection, up with free trade! Deregulate!  This neoliberal “reform” brings wealth to people who are plugged into global flows of capital. It impoverishes pretty much everyone else — women, minorities, unpopular groups even more than others. When human rights get wrapped up with its strictures, they lose their popularity as well. LGBT rights are already seen, in many places, as imports from the insidious Outside. If wedded to imposed neoliberal policies, their street cred likely shrinks to zero.

A fine example is a United States concoction called the “Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)” This strange being, set up by the Bush presidency in 2004, reveals how fake-friendly you can make aid conditionality appear, with the right rhetoric. It’s a foreign aid agency with a ton of US money, and a mandate to give it out only based on supposedly clear standards and criteria. If LGBT rights are going to be integrated into US giving, the MCC is one place it will start — and advocates are already targeting it to establish LGBT benchmarks for giving.

The MCC grades developing countries on 17 indicators; they must exceed a median score on a number of them to be eligible to apply for money. One set of indicators is called “Ruling Justly,” and includes “civil liberties” and “political liberties.”  This is the human-rightsy side. Another is called “Economic Freedom,” and includes “trade policy,” “inflation rate,” and “fiscal policy.”  This is the telling part. The “trade policy” benchmarks, for instance, come directly, explicitly, from the Heritage Foundation: a right-wing Washington think tank whose mission — self-described — “is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”

MCC is all about eliminating trade barriers and denuding countries of defenses against foreign purchase and foreign sales. This means ending protective, import-substitution policies for building strong domestic industries: policies that have been the main means, in the last hundred years, for poor countries to develop. It means prying markets open to invasions of US goods, while eviscerating local producers. (The US government’s cabinet-level Trade Representative, statutorily responsible for doing the prying, sits on the MCC’s board.)  It’s striking, too, that one of the absolute rather than relative indicators the MCC demands is “inflation rate,” where it insists on a strict maximum of 15%. This restricts countries’ power to devalue their currencies and stimulate their economies. It locks the receipients of MCC aid into the same austerity trap that Eurozone nations are writhing against today.

A: Because of all the gay cruise ships that will visit

Even the most humane of the MCC’s indicators — the “Investing in People” silo, evaluating public spending on things like health and education — tends toward the lowest standards (and doesn’t pay even lip service to the concept of economic and social rights). The MCC is mainly a brass-knuckle enforcer of neoliberalism, with some salving concessions to human rights in the form of “Ruling Justly” (a bizarre phrase in itself).   Despite its cheerful visage, it’s a sinister strategy. Some serious caution is called for before letting LGBT rights be part of its package. To tie them to a project likely to inflict penury on subject populations could well be disastrous.

I’m not the only one who says this. For some detailed critiques of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, check out the three articles — by Maurizio Carbone, Emma Mawdsley, and Susanne Soederberg — here. (Because these texts are Rapunzelled in behind academic firewalls, I’ve uploaded them and let down their hair so you can read them. If the authors object, fine, but then they’re bad leftists.) And if you want to find out about your own country’s relations with the MCC, that information (the agency is at least transparent!) is here. My advice: Watch out.

But the difficulty transcends the MCC.  The donors most likely to give a friendly hearing to LGBT-rights conditionality are donors already practicing conditionality based on “economic liberalization or “open markets”: conditions that, steeped in neoliberalism, are abhorrent to most peoples of the global South. 

“Symptoms of Neoliberalism”: Cartoon from Mexico, by El Fisgón

8) My real problem with the arguments for aid conditionality goes deeper. It’s that the advocates stay confined within a tightly limited and lopped version of human rights, very different from the one most people in the world believe in.

Proponents speak as if, on one side, there were human rights lined up neatly: free expression, freedom from torture, freedom from sodomy laws, and so on. Then on the other, there’s development money. The only relation between the two sides is that, if a country respects the rights, it should get its development money. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t get any. Or not as much.

You would never imagine, hearing these folks promote this vision, that development is itself a human right. The UN General Assembly adopted its “Declaration on the Right to Development” in 1986, stating:

The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.

The Declaration and Programme of Action of the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights also dealt with the issue extensively: “Democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing,” it affirmed. And:

States should cooperate with each other in ensuring development and eliminating obstacles to development. The international community should promote an effective international cooperation for the realization of the right to development and the elimination of obstacles to development.

Imagining that human rights are largely unconnected to development, except to legitimate restricting it, fits with a certain Anglo-American perspective in which economic and social rights don’t exist. But if you do believe development is a right, then to endorse conditionality as part of the standard human rights toolkit is, needlessly and destructively, to pit human rights against each other.

The “Quezon City Declaration on AID” — a 2007 manifesto by a coalition of Asian movements and NGOs — states that

The kind of aid we want must be premised primarily on a recognition of the history of colonization of countries across Asia, a history that persists in the continued exploitation by the North of the South, particularly the peoples of Asia and the region’s biodiversity. From this lens, aid becomes a matter of global redistributive justice, a just righting of historical wrongs.

In this light — and from the perspective of development as a human right —  it’s notable that, in 1970, donor countries pledged to devote 0.7% of their GDP to overseas development assistance. Almost none of them do so. In 2010 only five OECD countries met that mark; the US stood mired at less than a third. Surely the first priority of US and European advocates, including LGBT rights advocates, should be to increase their countries’ overall giving to meet their human rights commitments. They shouldn’t use LGBT rights as an excuse for governments to fail their pledges and give less.

It’s only by understanding development as a right that you can see how the Quezon City statement can both call on states to reject conditionalities, and

enjoin both donors and national governments to adopt a rights-based approach to aid giving, which means ensuring that human rights standards and social development principles guide all development cooperation and programming in all sectors and in all phases of the programming process. Right-holders and their supporters such as human right NGOs should be included in decision-making processes relating to aid money and allocation. Attention must especially be given to those whose voices are at risk of being silenced or marginalized vis-à-vis aid: women, children, and adolescents, or non-citizens such as in/formal migrant workers, indigenous peoples, small farmers and fishers, etc.

A “rights-based approach to aid giving” means not using rights to justify cutbacks, but using aid actively and creatively to promote rights, including funding decision-making and participation by the most marginalized communities. The mounting calls for aid conditionality in the LGBT sphere suggest a failure of imagination, an unwillingness to think through creative ways that aid can further rights, not curtail development. We can do better than that.

Ban homophobia in Africa: Ban Ki-Moon

Shoot for the Ki-Moon

At the opening of an African Union (AU) summit this morning, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told assembled leaders to respect LGBT people’s human rights. The AFP says:

“One form of discrimination ignored or even sanctioned by many states for too long has been discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” Ban said.

“It prompted governments to treat people as second class citizens or even criminals,” he added. …

“Confronting these discriminations is a challenge, but we must not give up on the ideas of the universal declaration” of human rights, Ban told the summit.

Ban has shown more nerve over the years than I’d have thought possible at the beginning. Good for him.

(Un?)freedom tower: The HQ project

All this took place amid the inauguration of the African Union’s posh new headquarters in Addis Ababa — and that blingy building suggests why neither Ban’s admonitions, nor David Cameron’s threats, nor all the pious efforts of those who want to squeeze humanitarian aid in the name of human rights, may in the end amount to much.   The elaborate complex, a glossy imitation of the UN building towering over one of Africa’s poorest cities, cost between $120 million and $200 million (US), and was entirely constructed by China. China Daily quotes  “Zeng Huacheng, a special councilor to the AU headquarters project from China’s Ministry of Commerce”:

“The accessible height of the main office building is 99.9 meters, in reference to the founding date of the AU and the rise of the continent,” Zeng said. “The panoramic view of the conference center is like two hands holding each other, signifying the strengthening friendship between China and Africa.”

Asia Times goes into more detail:

In the thin air of Ethiopia’s low-slung, mostly ramshackle capital, a glittering tower complex is erupting from a warren of corrugated tin roof shacks that many locals call home. …

Though the CSCEC [China State Construction Engineering Corporation] describes its efforts there as “aiding” the African Union, make no mistake, it is building the facility wholesale. Stern-faced Chinese foreman command ever-smiling Ethiopian laborers who are working round the clock to finish the project at breakneck speed for its planned January 2012 inauguration. …

In anticipation of a hoped-for visit to Addis Ababa by President Hu Jintao for the new AU’s debut, [a Gabonese Diplomat]  stated: “We cannot thank China and it’s leaders enough for it …”

As China scours the continent for resources virtually unchallenged, this “gift” to the people of Africa will certainly come with strings attached. In a recent meeting with a high-ranking CSCEC official, Erastus Mwencha, a seasoned Kenyan diplomat who holds the deputy chair of the African Union Commission that oversees the project, hailed it in a recent press statement as a “permanent signature on African soil”.

When Asia Times Online visited the present AU headquarters hugging hilly Roosevelt Street, a representative of its Conflict Management Division lamented the depth of Chinese involvement both in Ethiopia and across the entire region. Africa’s sudden anti-democratic partner is engaged in a slew of road rehabilitation and construction endeavors in many parts of the country.

We are unbuilding socialism: The complex under construction

As I’ve pointed out here, Chinese aid for Africa — of which the new HQ is merely the biggest symbol — comes with few political conditions, certainly not rights-related ones. What accompanies it are economic expectations: that the continent will provide endless, cheap raw materials for China’s boom, as well as new markets for Chinese exports. That’s no good news for ordinary Africans, who’ll find their economies shunted every more firmly into a neocolonial niche of underdevelopment. But the elites who control the African Union’s governments will turn a profit.

As if in an emblem of this relationship, there weren’t even many African raw materials inserted into the building: Save them for export to Beijing!  “Even the furnishings were imported from China and paid for by the Chinese government,” a Ugandan blogger says sourly.   China Daily puts the best face on this:

To ensure construction quality, only the best materials were used and furniture was specifically designed and ordered.

“Details such as the height of a table and the color of a carpet were all discussed with representatives from the AU,” Zeng said.

The lack of political conditions doesn’t mean, though, that Africa’s integration into the Chinese co-unprosperity sphere comes without political consequences. That Ugandan blogger’s comments suggest how neocolonial dependency fosters both patriarchal power structures and cultural protectionism:

Where is the pride in us as Africans having this luxurious new home? Where I come from, and I believe many African men come from similar backgrounds, you are not considered a real man unless you have built your own house which you will call your home. Its only then that you can marry your wife and its only then that you are respected by everyone in the village. …

Yes, indeed, it’s a reflection of a new Africa …  An Africa without a culture, without a moral campus, an Africa without any pride, an Africa that can’t build their own home, an Africa that thrives on begging for food, for money and now for a home. An Africa that is shameful and disgraceful. An Africa that is empty and without a future, an Africa that is everyday selling its soul to powers foreign …

So congratulations to Ban Ki-Moon for speaking out. A glance at the balance sheets, however, shows there’s a long way to go.

More on Hillary and Barack

the marriage of true minds: any impediments?

A madwoman sat next to me yesterday, on my flight from Paris to New York. She was in her twenties, and strung tight as piano wire, and professed to be half-German, half-Egyptian. She’d been subjected to a random search back at Charles de Gaulle. This put her in a state of steaming outrage, during which she emitted, to no one in particular, vocal threats: “I hope they bomb that airport. I hope everyone is killed. I feel like I am in Auschwitz.  How dare they serve Coca-Cola on this plane?”  Finally she wrote, in big black letters on a piece of paper, and pinned to the TV screen in front of her:


FUCK YOU

CHARLES DE GAULLE
HITLER’S AIRPORT AND
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
I hope you are blown to bits and
Everybody dies
Coke Kills

I huddled in the aisle seat, thinking in no special order: a) Given all the security, it’s impossible she has a bomb. b) Then why does she keep talking about it? c) Can the stewardesses see that note? d) I need more wine. e) If the stewardesses see this, she will be taken to Guantanamo. f) If we make an emergency landing so she can be taken to Guantanamo, my flight will be six hours late. g) Should I protest if she’s taken to Guantanamo? h) Do I want to go to Guantanamo? i) I need more wine.

Air France handled things surprisingly well, as it happens. Nobody was wrestled to the floor or cuffed. Instead, a senior, marmoreally-coiffed French woman shunted me from my seat and lectured the passenger for almost an hour. I heard snatches of the one-way conversation: “You can of course think zat. But you cannot say it on an airplane. And you cannot expose it zat way for others to zee.” There is nothing like a dressing-down from une française soignée to put even incipient psychosis in its place. The note vanished, the writer calmed down, the plane landed on time, and no one seemed to go Gitmoward. I hope someone was waiting past customs with Valium.

I’d meant to spend the flight thinking about the Obama administration’s new LGBT human rights initiative; and instead I worried about whether seat 27b had a ticket to a Caribbean prison. Yet this made sense somehow. How progressive are the Obamaites in talking about human rights!  They meet with rights NGOs and flatter their fragile egos; they support the touchy issues, the women and the queers; they speechify. But Guantanamo is still there. The military tribunals still promise to happen in a slow parody of justice. Drones still descend from the sky, with a blue whine beyond appeal, to kill people we don’t like. It’s nice to be part of the class that merits concern, not cages; protection, not jet-fueled murder. This administration does demonstrate more real action on human rights than its bloody predecessor.  But the action is just selective enough to leave you wondering why you were singled out, when so many others still suffer the vast yet individuated violence. As Samuel Beckett wrote, musing on the two miscreants crucified on either side of Christ: “Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.”

Reading some of the US responses to Clinton’s speech only reinforces this queasy feeling. Take gay activist-at-large Wayne Besen, who writes:

A historic address of this magnitude was desperately needed to counter the rising tide of backwards and barbaric nations that had recently been persecuting LGBT people to distract from their glaring problems. …

The list of countries that recently declared war on sexual minorities include Russia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Iran, and Zimbabwe. For the contemptible despots who run these underachieving nations, fomenting homophobia makes political sense. .. [S]omething drastic needed to happen to turn back the tide of violence and discrimination that plagued these “loser nations.”

Or, as Besen intones elsewhere,

The LGBT community rarely thrives in backward places that promote ignorance over education and medieval views over modernity. As these intellectual swamps sink, sexual minorities make ideal targets… [P]laces that are leaders in passing anti-gay laws are losers in virtually every other category that defines successful, civilized societies.

I can’t imagine how you could even communicate to Besen that the gays in  “loser nations” like Nigeria or Uganda don’t really like having their countries called “backward and barbaric.”  Besen wouldn’t get it: he’d counter, But the gays are civilized!  It’s the other Cameroonians who live in trees! In other words, he understands why the gays in loser lands deserve to be singled out: they’re better than their compatriots, more successful, more unbarbaric, more like us.

Why would that be so? Well, possibly the foreign gays have a cultural leg up, and have gotten book-learned and Westernized by reading … oh, for instance, Wayne Besen, who’s available on the Internet even in darkest Russia. Or possibly it goes deeper, it’s in the chromosomes, and even in Cameroon the gays are genetically predisposed to be like “us,” park-cruising rather than tree-dwelling, forwards rather than backwards.

Except that isn’t so. As far as a) the chromosomes go, there are plenty of theories about the genetic roots of gayness, but none of them argue it’s linked to a gene for intelligence or Western-ness. And if you tried to contend that, there’d be Wayne Besen to disprove it: clearly not the brainiest fish in the primal soup, and a permanent dilution in the gay gene pool. Moreover, as far as b) culture is involved, I can testify that the lesbians and gays in foreign countries really don’t read Besen ever, at all. Maybe this is evidence for a) after all — maybe their intelligence genetically disinclines them to study him; but then you have to deal with Besen disproving the theory again, because after all he’s gay and he reads himself. Or you’d think so.

By a fearful symmetry, though, the forward Besen and the “backward” lands he criticizes match each other. His rant exactly echoes how the offending parties he condemns rage against the initiative. There, too, people know why Clinton singles out the queers: they’re infiltrating agents of the West, objects of its special and invasive interest. The rhetoric is entirely predictable, because it’s been used so much before. “Africa new frontier for West’s gay rights crusade,” one African news source headlines. In Nigeria, now finalising a draconian bill to ban public expression around homosexuality, legislators rushed to assert their independence:

“Why would America want to dictate to a sovereign country which law to make and which one not to make? How can the depraved ways of a minority become the standard for law making in Nigeria?”

And so on.

Then there’s the question of just how the Obama administration will support LGBT rights elsewhere in the world. Clinton’s speech and the president’s memorandum are rather vague on the techniques. This leaves considerable white space to be filled in by the imagination. On the right, various voices already kvetch because Obama isn’t willing to send the army out to protect the gays. On the neoconservative Commentary site, Abe Greenwald complains:

At the end of this year, the United States will cease to be a military presence in Iraq. Here’s whose influence will grow in Iraq once the U.S. leaves: Al-Qaeda, whose new leader once shot a male teenage rape victim in the head for the “crime” of homosexuality. … Who else stays on in Iraq after the pro-LGBT president has pulled out American forces? Iran, world leader in the public hanging of gay teens.

And, in 2012, when Obama withdraws surge troops from Afghanistan against the advice of our military commanders, what exactly does he think Afghan homosexuals will face in the resurgent Taliban (the same Taliban Hillary Clinton is trying desperately to strike deals with)? The answer is known: they will face something called “death by falling walls.” …

Although George W. Bush is vilified by many in the gay community for talking about the sanctity of marriage, the freedom agenda he instituted did more for global human rights—gay or otherwise—than any speech or memo that might warm your heart.

Never mind that Bush’s own Texas has, statistically, almost certainly killed more teenage gay offenders in recent years than Iran. The point is: the best way to protect human rights is to invade and conquer countries. We’ve already got our hands on Texas. What about the others? By not listing an axis of homophobic evil — bauxite-rich Jamaica! oil-endowed Iran! — Obama failed to make the case for future action. He didn’t even use the homophobes to prolong the invasions we’ve already got going on.

If diplomacy for the neocons is merely a preamble to bombing, for many US and European gays it’s a synonym for money. And in this equation they’re aided by the brouhaha over David Cameron’s incredibly ill-handled statements on LGBT rights and foreign aid last month. This fiasco — threats that Cameron bandied about without even the pretense of a strategy, then tried to abandon after half of Africa reacted in fury — has imprinted itself on the imaginings of activists and reporters alike. If you have an agenda, why not enforce it with cash? Even the US and UK headlines on Clinton’s speech suggested an aid linkage. “U.S. to Use Foreign Aid to Promote Gay Rights Abroad,” the New York Times said.Gay rights must be criterion for US aid allocations, instructs Obama,” the Guardian reported. And of course the chronically inaccurate sporadically truthful blogger Paul Canning spun that spin: “Obama admin to ‘leverage’ foreign aid for LGBT Rights.”

As always, pursuing exactly what Canning says gives an insight into a whole mindset, of which he is the sum, the symbol, and the White Whale. He embraces multitudes, the way a blank piece of paper contains all the dumb things that could be written on it. Canning is very attached to the idea of “leverage,” so much so that when @iglhrc tweeted, “Significantly, neither the memo nor Clinton’s speech said LGBT rights would become a condition for foreign assistance,” his beak bit back:

“It says ‘leverage foreign assistance to protect human rights and advance nondiscrimination’. Sounds like conditionality to me!”

But it’s true; neither Clinton nor Obama said a syllable about conditionality. The word “leverage,” which Cameron rolls lusciously on his tongue, comes not from the Clinton speech or the Obama memo, but from the fact sheet the White House press office put out to summarize things for reporters. It has no official weight.   The president’s directive instead ordered:

 Agencies involved with foreign aid, assistance, and development shall enhance their ongoing efforts to ensure regular Federal Government engagement with governments, citizens, civil society, and the private sector in order to build respect for the human rights of LGBT persons.

“Ongoing efforts” doesn’t sound like a completely new policy — rather, like existing conversations more aggressively pursued. The US has a very spotty record on linking aid to any human rights issue; ask any Egyptian about America’s long support for the military, or any Palestinian about … well, anything. It would be a peculiar and skewed occurrence if the administration launched a first-ever policy of general aid conditionality in the specific and limited sphere of LGBT rights. And most likely, it won’t happen. The idea of “leverage,” and of supporting LGBT rights at the domestic level, will most likely involve private and particular conversations. Any public aspect is adequately embodied by Clinton’s proposal to launch a fund for LGBT rights advocacy.

Canning, however, wants broad aid conditionality; it gives him a sense of agency; it makes him feel that his emails to the UK Foreign and Colonial Office bear immediate fruit in action, in treasuries trembling and programs withering on the vine. Much as the neocons see diplomacy as war pursued by ineffective means, Canning sees it as money given or withheld under a convenient cover. In either case, the Obama statement becomes a field of dreams, a place where imaginings about Northern power get printed or palimpsested on the global South. It’s fun, it’s fertile, but it’s not quite real.

Trying to look realistically at what Clinton and Obama actually said, I still see occasion for optimism.  The contrast with Cameron’s recent blather is telling. Cameron came up with a quick-fix bit of rhetoric, not to benefit LGBT activists anywhere else in the world, but to silence the Peter Tatchells and Kaleidoscope Trusts, noisy Brits who wanted to see their country dominating the Commonwealth in the cause of justice and freedom. It meant nothing except short-term political gain, and when he got burned loudly enough by the stubborn ex-colonized, he flailed ineptly, trying to dog-paddle backwards and away.  There is, by contrast, little domestic political gain Obama and Clinton can extract from their move; the LGBT vote is largely on the administration’s side already. On Clinton’s part, and I suspect on Obama’s also, there’s a sincere commitment. Her speech was intelligent; it reflected an engagement not just with the issue itself but with the reflexive opposition it inspires. They’re trying to develop a strategy, not just a posture. The reaction from the usual suspects — such as Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania — whlle vocal, has actually been subdued by comparison with the Cameron affair, and this also, I think, displays a feeling that there is something substantive here that can’t simply be shouted out of existence.

The devil partly lies in the absence of detail, and in the scope this opens for disaster. Obama’s memo offers the agencies few patterns or directions for action. They’re supposed to come up with their own plans, and no one knows what that will add up to.  A dozen or so Southern LGBT activists were flown to Geneva to sit and applaud Clinton’s speech; the main measure of success will be whether they, and their innumerable colleagues elsewhere, continue to be consulted on what the US government should do in their countries. What if aid conditionality really does rear its head — what if an ill-conceived proposal for tying all funds to repeal of a sodomy law moves publicly out of the embassy in some unfortunate nation? What if a particular post decides on loud, press-release-based advocacy that backfires and stigmatizes local LGBT groups as servants of a foreign power?

In June 2011, the US Embassy in Islamabad took a pointer from Obama’s proclamation celebrating US Pride that May, where he’d perorated that “we rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” The embassy hosted what it called “Islamabad’s first ever gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) Pride Celebration,” to show

continued U.S. Embassy support for human rights, including LGBT rights, in Pakistan at a time when those rights are increasingly under attack from extremist elements throughout Pakistani society.  Over 75 people attended including Mission Officers, U.S. military representatives, foreign diplomats, and leaders of Pakistani LGBT advocacy groups. … Addressing the Pakistani LGBT activists, the Chargé, while acknowledging that the struggle for GLBT rights in Pakistan is still beginning, said “I want to be clear: the U.S. Embassy is here to support you and stand by your side every step of the way.”

That’s from the embassy’s press release. “Every step?” Well, except for steps outside the embassy walls.  It didn’t occur to them that announcing the country’s “first-ever” Pride from behind the turrets of a fortified compound, guarded against a public enraged by American assassinations and bombs, sent a not-very-indigenous message. A South Asian blogger remarked:

Within a few days, the streets of major urban cities of Pakistan … were hailed with the students and political workers of Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious political party, chanting slogans at their highest pitches against homosexuals and America. For them it was a golden opportunity to kill both ‘the evils with a single stone’. Banners were displayed in major cities, especially in the federal capital, within a few days demanding persecution of gays and accusing Americans of propagating and imposing this ‘westernized’ idea. The lash back didn’t remain limited to the Jamaat-e-Islami only but sooner most of the political parties joined this bandwagon to form a coalition against the government for their menial political interests. …

Unthankfully, all the sensational and flowery claptrap peddled around this event turned out to be a disaster for the budding underground Pakistani LGBT movement as the US Embassy conveniently over[looked] the repercussions this event would have brought in an already critical country which is fighting against terrorism and radicalization while sacrificing its peace, its liberty, its sovereignty and countless lives of its law enforcement agencies and civilians alike.

protesting US Pride in Pakistan

The idiocy of all this seems obvious; but it wasn’t obvious to the diplomats involved. With an only-broadly sketched plan, there’s ample leeway for an embassy or two to try this catastrophic kind of thing again.

But the devil lies also in the way that Clinton’s initiative necessarily entangles LGBT movements around the world — mostly progressive, mostly loud in their opposition to unjust and oppressive domination, many resolutely radical — with the US, its rights record, its power, and its imperialism.  And the truth is, this may be terrible, but we are at a point where such imbrication could no longer be avoided. We’re stuck with being fully a part of the world we live in, and with trying to maintain our ideals and values despite, not through and with, our friends.

When I started lobbying the UN about fifteen years ago, queers had no power. Nobody offered them the slightest regard; nobody noticed their politics or positions; with the possible and partial exception of the Dutch, there wasn’t a single country willing to make even a rhetorical genuflection to the rights of LGBT people as a serious issue anywhere in its foreign policy.  This absence of clout was wonderful, inspiring. The lightness of being it brought was not only bearable, it was beautiful, an afflatus of innocence that bore one ecstatically aloft in places the merely practical could never reach. Trying to advocate in this atmosphere of glorious irrelevance, one was never corrupted by the blandishments of power; no one wanted your support, so there was not the least temptation to sell it. In powerlessness lies moral purity; the former is the latter’s fount and succor. One can easily be absolute for truth and right when nobody pays attention.

Now, of course, there are states that pay attention to us. And for better or for worse, we have to deal with their histories and practices, their virtues and their sins, because these affect us. If we don’t watch out, they will all become our own. When South Africa sponsors us at the UN Human Rights Council, we have to recognize that it is seen as an imperial power on much of the continent it underpins. When the US speaks out on our behalf, our future words thrum with the undertone of its assertions, like a basso ostinato. The echoes of its peculiar idealism and its failures, its invasions and its abuses, from Martin Luther King to Rumsfeld, from Guatemala to Abu Ghraib, are disharmonies that will resound in what we say and do. We have to decide when to speak with them and when to speak against them, and reserve and exercise the right to the latter as well as the former.

We can’t, as movements, reject all those who want to aid us. Maturity means negotiating, not denying, these obstacles. Politics means accepting the burden of having — however little — power. But we also have to be willing to stand up to our friends and risk their enmity in the name of what we see as truth, instead of clapping hands mechanically and taking handouts with uncritical gratitude. Indeed, nobody needs to be grateful for Hillary and Barack’s support. Never thank others for recognizing human rights, unless their case is such that they show real courage or risk some tangible  cost in the act. Otherwise, they’re doing nothing more than their duty, to you and to the world. And a duty demands no recompense. Acknowledge it, but feel no obligation. You owe nothing in return.

Instead, each movement in each country needs to figure out whether it will accept America’s new assistance, and if so, how to do so on its own terms. Hillary and Barack’s one-two performance carries opportunities. More largely, though, and in the ethical sphere, it offers a renewed challenge: to maintain values in the face of power.