Slavery’s ghost: Prison imperialism, Jamaica, and the UK

Young boys in a Jamaican prison cell, 2007. Photo © Gary S. Chapman, from

Young boys in a Jamaican prison cell, 2007. Photo © Gary S. Chapman, from

This essay is dedicated, in humble gratitude, to the memory of Dr. Robert Carr.

David Cameron is in Jamaica as I write. Undoubtedly the British prime minister was expecting difficult questions on his visit: from Jamaicans, about reparations for slavery, which their government demanded he discuss; from gay men back at home, about homophobic violence on the island, which they wanted him to combat. (Jamaican LGBT advocates themselves don’t necessarily want the leader of the former slave power doing a lot of shouting on their behalf; but that’s a preference of which Peter Tatchell and his comrades take no heed.) Plus there are the questions about sex with dead pigs. Yet Cameron, far more deft than his pink-cheeked Bertie Wooster mien suggests, had a distraction ready.

Once in Kingston, Cameron announced that the UK is taking £25 million (about US$ 38 million) from its foreign aid to Jamaica to finance a vital development need: a new prison. This puts Jamaica in a small, select class of nations: the UK can force prisoners to go there. It’s worth considering what this promise means. A commerce in prisoners is spreading round the world, sometimes following the almost-erased tracks of the old slave trade. Cameron’s offer reveals the hidden economics of the traffic in human bondage.

Prisoner transfer agreements — by which two countries stipulate that citizens of one who are convicted of a crime in the other can be sent back home to serve their sentence — have been around for a long time. Usually, though, they’re voluntary agreements; they require the prisoner’s consent. And many Jamaicans, Nigerians, or Albanians serving prison terms in the UK won’t consent to return to carceral systems that are overcrowded, underrresourced, and by reputation brutal. So Cameron’s administration has been trying to bully or cajol countries into agreeing to compulsory repatriation – to take their imprisoned citizens back whether they want to go or not. One difficulty has been the usual devil-in-the-details, human rights. Experts have condemned conditions in Jamaica’s prisons for failing international benchmarks: UK prisoners facing forced repatriation there could challenge it in British courts, pointing to the threat of inhuman treatment and abuse. The UK’s solution is to build Jamaica a prison that will seem up to snuff.

No sudden moves. I'm surrounded by black men with knives. Cameron tiptoes gingerly through honor guard on arriving in Jamaica.

No sudden moves. I’m surrounded by black men with knives. Cameron tiptoes gingerly through honor guard on arriving in Jamaica.

The government of Jamaica calls the deal a “non-binding Memorandum of Understanding” (it still needs parliament’s ratification) and makes it sound extremely nice: the goal is “to improve the conditions under which prisoners are held in Jamaica, consistent with best practice and international human rights standards, through the construction of a maximum-security prison in Jamaica.”  It’s true that “international human rights standards” and “maximum-security prison” are phrases not always thought seamlessly compatible, but let that pass for now. The UK government’s statement drops the happy talk and non-binding bit, and stresses that it wants a 1500-bed facility, which will house 300-plus prisoners now serving long-term sentences in Britain, with more to come in future. “The prison is expected to be built by 2020 and from then returns will get underway,” says Downing Street. “The Prisoner Transfer Agreement is expected to save British taxpayers around £10 million a year.” Cameron added that

It is absolutely right that foreign criminals who break our laws are properly punished but this shouldn’t be at the expense of the hardworking British taxpayer. That’s why this agreement is so important. It will mean Jamaican criminals are sent back home to serve their sentences, saving the British taxpayer millions of pounds but still ensuring justice is done.

That the agreement will, in his words, “help Jamaica, by helping to provide a new prison – strengthening their criminal justice system,” seems a bit of an afterthought.

Prisoner in Kingston Jail, Jamaica, 2009. By RasMarley from

Prisoner in Kingston Jail, Jamaica, 2009: photo by RasMarley from

The announcement did not go down well in Jamaica. The leader of the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) wondered in parliament why this was coming out of development funds, saying that “building schools contributes much more to the growth agenda than building prisons.” The youth wing of the ruling People’s National Party (PNP) also condemned the agreement, pointing out that the UK is only funding 40% of the cost, the rest to be covered by Kingston; and that once the prison is built, the burden of keeping and rehabilitating the prisoners — which they estimate at J$ 365 million (about US$ 3.1 million) per year –would also fall on Jamaica’s treasury. (In fact, the Jamaican government claims, but the UK doesn’t mention, that Britain would give “a further £5.5 million towards the reintegration and resettlement of prisoners.” Anyway, if true, that would presumably be a one-shot offer.) The real discomfort about the deal in Jamaica, though, seems far deeper: drawing on the anger that rose in the reparations dispute over a past of slavery and oppression, a persistent demand for justice that shadowed Cameron’s tour. Symbolically, what does it mean for the British government to buy from Jamaica the right to export its prisoners? Are servitude and its machinery still commodities for sale? Comments on Jamaican newspaper articles ran like this:

So the communist are suppose to be the evil people. The Chinese build highway, Cuba build colleges and high school, the (former) slave masters return to build prison.

And I saw the same spirit in threads on the Facebook pages of Jamaican friends:

We dont need a prison from England. We can get a prison from elsewhere. England owe us more than a prison.

Its a damn shame and height of disrespect to our people….after dem slave we already, all dem can com offer us is prison … fuck dem bloodcloth off!!!!!!

(“Bloodcloth” is a Jamaican obscenity that I wouldn’t translate even if I thought I could.)

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

There is truth in this; prisoners are commodities. We live — so the rich remind us — on a globe that has been globalized, where everything travels and is trafficked. People travel; they become prisoners; then they travel back, under state supervision. This process is now so common that the UN has proposed a “Model Agreement on the Transfer of Foreign Prisoners“; the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) offers a manual on the subject; there is a European treaty on prisoner transfers, and the EU has promulgated regulations for member states. One theme pervades these documents, that “rehabilitating” prisoners is a key motive behind transfers. The EU framework decision even phrases this as a “should” — a requirement of transfers:

Enforcement of the sentence in the executing State [that is, the country receiving the transfer] should enhance the possibility of social rehabilitation of the sentenced person. In the context of satisfying itself that the enforcement of the sentence by the executing State will serve the purpose of facilitating the social rehabilitation of the sentenced person, the competent authority of the issuing State [the one that passed the sentence] should take into account such elements as, for example, the person’s attachment to the executing State, whether he or she considers it the place of family, linguistic, cultural, social or economic and other links to the executing State.

That provision only applies to transfers among EU member countries, but it indicates a more general justification. Thus the Jamaican government promises that “The new facility will be designed and constructed with a focus on rehabilitation, which should reduce the high rates of recidivism that now occur.” Similarly, the UK prisons minister has said forced transfers “mean that these prisoners will be closer to family and friends.This helps to support prisoners’ social rehabilitation and reintegration into society.” It’s generally true that proximity to family can ease a prisoner’s re-entry after release. But of course, many Jamaican prisoners in Britain have closer family ties in Clapham than in Kingston, and are more culturally at ease in Brixton than Montego Bay. This is also “globalization”; yet the British government shows no disposition to ascertain where anybody’s “family, linguistic, cultural” and-so-on affiliations lie. The truth is, social benefits to the prisoners are the last thing on most governments’ minds in transfer policies. What matters is simple: politics and money.

And in the UK, politics means immigration. Mass mania over migration drives the whole UK political process.  A poll last month showed 56% of Britons named immigration as a major concern. For years, the percent of Britons calling it the most worrying concern has been three to four times the average in other countries.

From an Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute report, Perception and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, 2014

From an Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute report, Perception and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, 2014

Fears of criminality always seed anti-immigrant feeling. (Think Donald Trump and those Mexican rapists.) Though capitalism mandates mobility more and more sweepingly, mobility as spectacle and spectre rouses deep terrors about stability and safety. British newspapers thunder about “foreign prisoners” constantly. You might think them less of a menace, because they’re in prison; instead, they’re vital to immigration paranoia. They’re countable; they make dread specific.And the ones already imprisoned prove all foreigners are a threat. “The number of foreign prisoners is growing and attempts to remove them are often futile”! “Foreign inmates outnumber British nationals in a UK prison for the first time”! “Every time Britain manages to deport a foreign prisoner another one takes their place in jail”! They’re making “the UK a permanent safe haven for the world’s killers, rapists, drug-dealers and other assorted scum”! In fact, while the number of foreign prisoners doubled in twenty years, so did the number of prisoners in the UK overall. You can debate whether a crime wave, harsh sentencing, or more repressive policing caused this. But the proportion of foreign prisoners has barely risen at all.


Graph from

Facts don’t matter, of course. Within six months of taking office in 2010, Cameron’s coalition government tried to placate the panic, by vowing to deport the foreign prisoners: to “tear up agreements that mean convicts cannot be returned home without their consent.” It didn’t work. In fact, in Cameron’s first term the number of deportations actually fell.

foreign criminals chart

From the Daily Mirror, 2014

Cameron needed agreements, despite the talk of tearing them up; and few countries were willing to sign them. Moreover, even criminals who had finished their sentences (presumably easier to deport, because you didn’t need a foreign prison system to agree to take them) were fighting removal in the courts, successfully.The government was reduced to creating a team of pop-psych mavens, tasked with visiting prisoners to talk them into self-deporting. “The unit uses psychological techniques known as ‘nudge theory’ to help people make better choices for themselves.”

Expert: Would you like to leave the country?
Prisoner: No.
Expert: What if I give you money?
Prisoner: How much money?
Expert: It’s a hypothetical question.
Prisoner: No.

There is a foreign woman on my back. Please get her off: Raab and wife

There is a foreign woman on my back. Please get her off: Raab and wife

In 2014, Dominic Raab — a young, telegenic, misogynistic, Europe-hating, ultra-right Tory back-bencher (the son of a Czech Jewish refugee, the husband of a Brazilian bride) — led a rebellion against Cameron. He proposed to grease the ejection seats for “foreign criminals,” stripping power from the courts and giving the Home Secretary final say. He boasted that “only one case every five years” would qualify to stay in Britain. The government’s response “was a mess,” one conservative pundit wrote, “first giving him a wink of encouragement only to declare his idea unworkable at the last moment.” Raab invoked the ultimate terror and temptress of the Tory right: UKIP, the extremist UK Independence Party, which every Conservative dreaded could drain their votes if they didn’t stay hard-line enough. To block his measure, Raab warned, “would be a bow-wrapped gift for UKIP.” 85 MPs joined him in revolt; Cameron only beat back the proposal with Labour’s help.

UKIP, obsessive on the subject of immigrants and crime, press-ganged everyone rightward. They demanded immediate deportation for “foreign criminals,” and damn the law. Prison Watch UK graphed their monomania:

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

UKIP came in third in the 2015 election, winning one seat — but almost 13% of the vote. If the Tories could lure away enough UKIP voters, they could dream of a permanent majority. In his new government, Cameron named the onetime rebel Raab an undersecretary in the Justice Ministry, with the title of “minister for human rights.”

Where does the money part come in? In the story of how Cameron pursued expulsions — and here you need to burrow back a bit. One of the first model prisoner-transfer agreements the UK reached came in 2007 under Tony Blair, who set the pattern for the Conservatives in so many ways. It happened in Libya, and it happened because Muammar Qaddafi wanted one particular prisoner back: Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, serving a life sentence in Scotland for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Blair, meanwhile, wanted an oil contract for BP. In the “deal in the desert,” Tony flew to Tripoli and offered up al-Megrahi, concealing the gift under a comprehensive prisoner transfer accord — without consulting the Pan Am families, or his pet Scottish government. Qaddafi then gave the petroleum giant exclusive rights to drill in three vast blocs the size of Belgium and Kuwait together: trading territory worth billions for the inmate. Al-Megrahi was transported to Libya to live out his term; he had become the most expensive human being ever bought and sold, dearer than Diogenes or ElizabethTaylor. Petropounds lubricated the exchange. They also inaugurated Blair’s post-Downing Street career as dealmaker to dictators, a globe-trotting cross between Armand Hammer and Austin Powers.

BP batty bwoys: Blair and Qaddafi share secrets, 2007

Austin Powers (L) and Goldmember share their secrets, 2007

Subsequent prisoner transfer agreements have been similarly mercenary. But the cash has flowed the other way. Downing Street says that, in addition to Jamaica, “Compulsory transfer agreements are also in place with Albania, Nigeria, Somaliland, Rwanda, and Libya.” Except for Libya (where a once-respectable GDP has plummeted since the Royal Air Force’s little 2011 incursion) these are all poor countries. (Nigeria has oil but the per-capita GDP is barely one-fourth of what Libya’s was in 2007.) Cameron persuaded a paltry four impoverished nations to take their prisoners back, by paying them.

With some countries (particularly those where tiny prisoner contingents are involved) the effect can be achieved by dangling small amounts of apparently unrelated aid or benefits before the recipient government. With Nigeria, according to the Nigerian press, it involved a £3 million “annual fund to rehabilitate prisons.” This money wasn’t mentioned in the UK government’s announcement of the Nigerian deal (though the Daily Mail had indignantly warned of it long before); in fact, at least two years of payoffs, to facilitate Abuja’s acceptance of voluntary transfers, appear to have preceded the compulsory-transfer signing. The funding thus seems devoid of the monitoring mechanisms usual to bilateral aid programs. Given Nigeria’s high place on the global corruption index, it would be anybody’s guess where the cash wound up.

Map of Somali piracy, 2005-2010, showing major trade routes, Somalia (Somaliland is roughly the northwest panhandle of the country), and Seychelles

Triangular trade: Map of Somali piracy, 2005-2010, showing major trade routes, Somalia (Somaliland is roughly the northwest panhandle of the country), and (lower left) Seychelles

Somaliland stands out on that list, because it isn’t a nation. It’s a breakaway region claiming independence from fragmented Somalia. The formerly British part of a country stitched together from British and Italian colonies, Somaliland runs a competent PR machine in London, apparently with enough cash to rent some would-be politicians. (UKIP is a great supporter of Somaliland’s contested statehood, as is Peter Tatchell.) But clearly it could use more. Its place on the roster has a complex backstory that unveils the colonial essence of the prisoner-transfer enterprise.

The deal traces back to Britain’s concern over piracy off Somalia’s coasts. That piracy, made immortal by a Tom Hanks movie, affected plenty of developed economies moving goods through the Suez Canal — by early this decade annual losses exceeded US$ 6 billion. But it took place in international waters, and none of the surrounding states were eager to prosecute captured pirates. Britain helped prevail on the Seychelles — a tiny island nation that was a UK colony from 1810 till 1976 — to take on the job.

Seychelles mainly contributed its name and territory; in “a scheme funded by the Foreign Office and the United Nations,” to the tune of £9 million from Cameron’s government, Britain then controlled the trials and the jails. The UK sent its own prosecutors. One struck the proper colonial note in a BBC interview, describing Somali captives as a “cheerful and reasonably intelligent lot.” The UK also built a maximum security prison — a “paradise” behind “15-ft high razor wire” that housed 100 Somalis by 2013 — and contributed its own warden. There were too many Somali convicts coming out of the courts for the facility to hold, however. So Britain also brokered a compulsory transfer agreement between Seychelles and Somaliland for the latter to absorb the overflow.

Will Thurbin, former governor of an Isle of Wight prison, poses at Montagne Posse Prison in Seychelles with his dog Lucy, while Somali prisoners behind razor wire look on. Photo by Kate Holt for the Daily Mail

Will Thurbin, former governor of an Isle of Wight prison, poses at Montagne Posse Prison in Seychelles with his dog Lucy, while Somali prisoners behind razor wire look on. Photo by Kate Holt for the Daily Mail

Somaliland thus opened a “pirate prison,” with £1 million from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (and presumably more from Britain); by 2012 it held 313 Somalis. Prisoners were shunted from shore to shore like backgammon counters. (A Brit working for UNODC in Seychelles joked to the BBC “that most Somalis are happy to be sent [to Somaliland] to escape the prison diet of rice and tuna.” In Somaliland, prisoners told the Guardian that “The food here is not good. We get rice, tomatoes and only a little bit of meat. In Seychelles the food was better.”)

Familiar colonial problems dogged the whole process. The British prosecutors knew no Somali nor Arabic; they couldn’t understand what the people they sent to prison were saying. “We didn’t have lawyers and we didn’t know the language,” a Somali inmate told the Guardian about his Seychelles trial, claiming he was merely fishing when gunboats arrested him. He got 10 years. A British barrister complained of “a marked inequality of resources between the prosecution and defence which was capable of producing injustice.” Moreover, flouting their basic rights, prisoners sent to Somaliland were stripped of any ability to appeal their convictions in Seychelles. But the point was, some pirates wound up behind bars, and piracy declined, and oil flowed through the Gulf of Aden. Seychelles was, of course, an old slave colony, familiar with involuntary transits. And Somaliland was desperate for official acknowledgement, and willing to sell itself as a prison camp to get it. (The head of Somaliland’s Anti-Piracy Taskforce “said the funding, and Somaliland’s increasing usefulness in the fight against piracy, would help the enclave’s bid for international recognition of its independence.”) Exploiting these two weak and dependent territories, Britain built a regional economy of prisoner transfers around its own needs. It was like a miniscule Indian Ocean version of the Atlantic triangular trade.

Inmates at the Hargeisa

Inmates at the Hargeisa “pirate’s prison” in Somaliland, 2012. Photo by Tony Karumba for AFP/Getty Images

WIth all this going on elsewhere in the world, Jamaica knew there was money in the prisoner-transfer business, and drove a hard bargain. The deal Cameron announced had been in the works since at least 2007; but it’s easy to infer that, as Kingston saw other countries profiting, its own price went up. Britain paid to import chained humans to its territories for several centuries. There’s a certain justice that, as the whirligig of capital brings round its revenges, it must now pay to export them. Of course, for the humans in question, “justice” may not be the right word.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

One thing must be clear. Bilateral aid to improve developing countries’ prison systems should be a good, needed thing. People who claim aid must focus on “nice” projects like schools or hospitals ignore the fact that prisoners have needs and rights — rights that governments disdain and deny. Suggestions (by the PNP’s youth league, for instance) that foreign donors should leave prisons alone adumbrate a dangerous nationalist antagonism to human rights altogether.

But whom will Britain’s Jamaica project help? To begin with, you have to note that the UK’s attitudes toward foreign prisons are hopelessly discordant. When it’s a question of a British citizen incarcerated abroad, those places are primitive hells — “terrifyingly alien,” a barrister wrote of Jamaican jails; “the cells are the size of a  typical one-car garage.” When it’s a question of shipping a non-citizen back to his homeland’s prisons, those receptacles are fine, fine. Torture? What torture? As Dominic Raab said, it’s horribly wrong when “We have innocent British citizens being carted off … to face flawed justice systems or gruesome jails abroad. But we can’t send foreign gangsters back home.” In other words, surprise! — Britons worry about prisons abroad when it suits their interests.

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, a women's prison near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by the Gleaner

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, a women’s prison near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by the Gleaner

There are deep human rights problems in Jamaica’s prisons. The country has an incarceration rate about the same as England and Wales (a third of Russia’s, a quarter of the United States’); but the system is teeming and ill-maintained.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared in 2012 that “Detention and prison conditions in Jamaica are generally very poor primarily due to overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and lack of sufficient medical care.” A 2010 investigation by the UN special rapporteur on torture determined the country’s two main prisons “are not suitable for modern correctional purposes, including rehabilitation and re-socialization.”

But here’s the problem. Every country wants a prison system because every country thinks it’s the answer: to crime, to excess population, to immorality or poverty. But nobody wants to pay for it it. It’s true in the US, in the UK, and in Jamaica. There is no constituency in Jamaica for spending tax money to improve prisons, or aid money for that matter. (The current government has dabbled with bringing in private, for-profit prison corporations, but couldn’t find a taker.) Part of popular mythology around prisons in Jamaica is that they’re too luxurious, not harsh or primitive enough, lenient leisure clubs that drain men of manhood and leave them batty bwoys. Real abuses like rape that make imprisonment unendurable instead become the spoor of pampering. Clovis, the notoriously homophobic cartoonist for the Jamaica Observer, rams home the point:

(L) A child sees his father's killer embracing another man in a prison cell, while an official says

(L) A child sees his father’s killer embracing another man in a prison cell, while an official says “Put convicts to work!” (M) Vybz Kartel, the dancehall artist convicted of murder– famous for his “effeminate” ointment-bleached skin — is dragged to prison. (R) A perpetrator of domestic violence gets his desserts.

(It’s sobering to compare this with the UN expert’s report: “Homosexuals detained at St. Catherine and Tower Street correctional centres were held in the ‘vulnerable persons unit’ as a protective measure. However, their separation led to a loss of privileges of a punitive character, such as work and recreation, including the use of the library and playing field. In the security section in the Tower Street centre, detainees were locked up in dark, solitary cells without a toilet or water, and had nobody to call for help.”)

It’s improbable that the UK money will do anything to change overall prison conditions in Jamaica, much less the beliefs and policies that produce them. It’s not meant to. At best, Cameron’s bargain will create a two-tier prison system: lucky UK exports will enjoy the cutting-edge prison’s comparative comforts, along with privileged dons and barons who can pay for it, while everyone else swelters in the old inferno. And this is fine with Britain. Given the UK’s desperation to slough off unwanted inmates, there’s little chance they’ll seriously inspect even the new facility’s standards. It’s fine with Jamaica too. Already the government is talking about this not as a rights issue, but a real estate one: the possible superannuation of one old penitentiary means that “Downtown Kingston will have the opportunity for a large redevelopment on the 30 acres of waterfront land now occupied by the prison,” the National Security Ministry told the press. “A similar opportunity for redevelopment would be provided in Spanish Town.”

Spanish Town Adult Correctional Facility, Kingston. Photo by Jermaine Barnaby for the Gleaner

St. Catherine Adult Correctional Facility, in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Photo by Jermaine Barnaby for the Gleaner

This is a story about commodities. It’s a very contemporary one. When people lose their freedom and their rights, they become objects; but under triumphant capitalism, an object can only be a commodity, must bear a price. These days, the unfree are destined to be bought and sold.

The UK is building a market in prisoners; it exports the problem of prison to other states, and pays them to take it. The idea of the price of individual prisoners permeates the discourse. “The average annual cost of a prison place in the UK is £25,900,” Downing Street declares. The Daily Mail envisions a more upscale product, like free-range chickens, and pegs them at “around £40,000 a year.” The aggregate numbers are what counts in interstate relations — the “£25 million a year to keep 850 foreign prisoners behind bars,” the “£35 million every year” spent “locking up Poles” who strayed our way — but the single prisoner remains the nominal unit of exchange, like the lone dollar or pound whose abstract value in its minute oscillations can set unimaginably vast capital flows in motion.

Fear of an actual planet

Fear of an actual planet

Yet this is the nativist language of an economy in recession. The UK’s reasoning is clear: if we have to spend that much on prisoners, which we don’t want to, let’s spend it on our own, not foreigners. “Deporting foreign criminals would free up prison places,” says a UKIP politician, letting us abuse and humiliate more of our own kind. There’s no reason the logic should stop there, though. Already the UK is figuring out ways to scrap the formality of a trial; Cameron’s government has come up with “Operation Nexus,” to simplify deporting foreigners charged with crimes but not convicted. And isn’t there a deeply buried message: Look. We would deport our own citizens if we could. Can a mere ID deter ostracism and eviction? With a West desperate to export crime and get rid of immigrants, why is birthright belonging more than a friable, disposable defense? Donald Trump already wants to scrap it. If the UK could find a penal colony, a Botany Bay, to take its suspect and unwanted nationals, how long would it cling to them over legal sentimentalities? As non-citizens become criminals, an insidious mirroring begins; the possibility — the fissure — of turning criminals into non-citizens opened, after September 11. The United States now can kill its own nationals without trial. It can pry in their doings as if they all were foreign spies. Correspondingly, zones of statelessness are starting to spring up, like weeds in the cracks of a formerly seamless planet. Guantanamo was the first, but not the last. Somaliland “enjoys relative peace and stability,” writes Reuters, parroting its Cameronland informants, “and analysts hope it might be a good site for more incarcerations in the future.” There you go — “peace and stability” now simply mark out promising lands for prisons, the way a geologist looks at a glittering slope of schist and sees oil. But the analysts don’t come to Somaliland for the quiet. Its draw is that it’s not a state; human rights treaties and duties don’t apply. Because such places are, in a global sense, lawless, states can set up laboratories there to make their own law. It’s not so much the fact that such small, silent interstices are appearing, in a world that used to talk of legality and freedom. It’s the fear that in those interspersed crevices and ruptures, our terrifying future is being born.

Slaves working in the field in Jamaica: Early 19th-century print

Slaves working in the field in Jamaica: Early 19th-century print

No one likes to talk about the links between slavery and prisons, but they are real. Both Michelle Alexander and Loïc Wacquant show how the modern prison in America grew in response to the formal abolition of involuntary servitude; the reality and constant threat of incarceration forged new psychological as well as legal shackles around an ostensibly liberated population. The prison shared — and shares — many features with the model case of human slavery in the 20th century, the Nazi concentration camp. Here’s something I read recently that chilled me.

In the American South after the Civil War black convict labourers, leased out for dangerous, back-breaking work and subject to summary punishment and execution, sometimes had a mortality rate as high as 50 per cent in certain states. … Mortality among the tiny minority of white prisoners was around 2 per cent.

A 50% mortality rate for the imprisoned is roughly the rate for Hitler’s work camps (as opposed to the pure death camps, like Sobibór or Treblinka). The Gulag’s death toll, for example, was only half that. The enslavement of the human being; his reduction to a rightsless cipher; her extermination once her economic use was exhausted — these are extreme cases, absolutely not typical of all incarceration. But they’re possibilities inextricably latent in the modern prison: because buried under the prison is the slave camp.

Chain-gang prisoners working on a railroad, Asheville, NC, undated photo (late 19th or early 20th century)

Chain-gang prisoners working on a railroad, Asheville, NC, undated photo (late 19th or early 20th century)

What we’re seeing now is twofold. Imprisonment is no longer a reserve away from the economy where the unproductive can be shunted; it’s completely economized. And the prison economy is going international. This traffic in chained bodies is growing. It resuscitates the authority structures of colonial slavery with new legal forms, purposes, and names. It’s frightening to see even a few of the old slave-trade routes revived like grass-grown oxen tracks, running from Britain to Jamaica or the Bight of Benin, from the Indian Ocean islands to the East African coast — though sometimes the shackled people are borne in directions opposite to the map’s faded arrows.

Alleged Somali pirates in a prison in Berbera, Somaliland. Photo by Kabir Dhanji for NPR

Alleged Somali pirates in a prison in Berbera, Somaliland, in 2011. Photo by Kabir Dhanji for NPR

Hilary Beckles, the chair of Caricom’s Reparations Committee (and vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies) published an open letter before Cameron’s arrival in Jamaica. It cited how the prime minister’s own clan had profited from Britain’s slave economy; in the 19th century, Cameron’s distant relations owned 202 slaves in Jamaica. Beckles wrote:

You owe it to us as you return here to communicate a commitment to reparatory justice that will enable your nation to play its part in cleaning up this monumental mess of Empire. We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint programme of rehabilitation and renewal.

Cameron rejected all such calls. Jamaica, he told its parliament, should “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.”

But how? It’s Cameron whose state policies summon the ghosts of the traffic in human lives. The only future that lies that way is inhuman.

Stereoscope slide marked

Stereoscope slide marked “Sugar Cane field hands, Montego bay, Jamaica, 1900,” from Although Jamaican slavery was abolished almost seven decades earlier, the conditions of plantation work were largely unchanged.

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Syria, Cameron’s crackup, and the virtual world of humanitarian war

A man carries a wounded child away from an anti-Assad demonstration after regime forces opened fire, Syria, 2011

A man carries a wounded child away from an anti-Assad demonstration after regime forces opened fire, Syria, 2011

The night air is full of hypotheticals these weeks, and reality feels like a far-off country.

David Cameron lost tonight. It was sweat-inducing drama, the kind that makes you focus so closely on the grimaces and rumors that you forget about the war. By 13 votes, his motion to give a loose preliminary OK to Syrian intervention went down. (He’d tried to scale it back as a vague non-binding slightly amnesiac go-ahead to his government, like a Dad saying “Sure, someday” to a preteen daughter who wants to marry Justin Bieber.) Most of the UK papers seem to focus on Cameron’s humiliation, and Labour leader Ed Miliband’s triumph, as though a lot of other people’s lives aren’t at stake in this one way or the other. Everybody agrees there is another, spectral loser: Tony Blair.

All over but the shouting: Cameron in the House of Commons, August 29

All over but the shouting: Cameron in the House of Commons, August 29

Not just Blair’s righteous policy of bringing freedom to the benighted, of shaking the world like a kid’s kaleidoscope and reshuffling the pieces. But Blair himself. Two days ago he stepped directly into the debates, with a piece in the Times that stirred up memories of mendacious arrogance in the worst way.

People wince at the thought of intervention. But contemplate the future consequence of inaction and shudder: Syria mired in carnage between the brutality of Assad and various affiliates of al-Qaeda, a breeding ground of extremism infinitely more dangerous than Afghanistan in the 1990s; Egypt in chaos, with the West, however unfairly, looking as if it is giving succour to those who would turn it into a Sunni version of Iran. Iran still — despite its new president — a theocratic dictatorship, with a nuclear bomb. Our allies dismayed. Our enemies emboldened. Ourselves in confusion. This is a nightmare scenario but it is not far-fetched.

And then he goes maundering about Egypt, seemingly his pet obsession these days, claiming that not bombing Syria would help the Muslim Brotherhood and hurt the military government in Cairo, which is striving to bring stability to the country despite “actions or overreactions” like killing a thousand people in a fit of pique. (Blair, immune to facts as ever, seems unaware that Egypt’s diehard secularists and the junta they helped to power generally look with favor on Assad; the generals overthrew Morsi in part because he opposed the dictator.) But Blair’s intrusion triggered all the wrong recollections in the public. Maybe if he’d shut up, Christian soldiers would be marching off to war.

Here’s a question, though. Why did Blair need to imagine this horrific post-non-intervention future to prop his argument? Isn’t the slaughter that’s already happened enough? More than 100,000 have died in the conflict, according to Syrian activists and the UN. Why can’t Blair rest his case on this vast carnage, instead of dreamy geopolitical speculations and “nightmare scenarios” about how things could get even worse? Isn’t the nightmare now?

Tony Blair as Prime Minister (L) and after (R): Forgive them, Father, for they know not who can replace me

Tony Blair as Prime Minister (L) and after (R): Forgive them, Father, for they know not who can replace me

The reason, I suspect, is that Blair knows, and we know, and he knows that we know, that the “humanitarian” intervention he imagines will not do much to help. The dead are past aiding — even Blair, with his propensity to impersonate Jesus, probably gets that — but what is the chance that the mechanized violence of Western powers can forestall more violence in Syria? Will more killing save more lives — killing in the self-protecting way the West does it? Iraq haunts Blair, haunts every word he says, not as a sin (he’s Godlike enough to absolve himself) but as a miscalculation. Humanitarian intervention there only accelerated murder. Better not to look at the past, and better not to promise the deaths will end. Instead, focus on the infinite horrors you can pack into an imaginary what-if. The hypothetical can always be worse than anything real.

It’s very striking how little the discussion in Britain dealt with what’s actually happening in Syria beyond the chemical attacks. It’s as if the proposed intervention had nothing at all to do with the civil war. “It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict,” Cameron told Parliament, oddly enough since only one side was slated for bombing.

It is not about regime change or even working more closely with the Opposition. It is about the large-scale use of chemical weapons and our response to a war crime – nothing else.

What an odd war he wanted, one with a motive but not a goalIt’s a bit hard, moreover, to square this with Nick Clegg’s assertion that “The sole aim is the relief of humanitarian suffering.”  (What the hell is “humanitarian suffering”? The adjective seems to have taken refuge with the wrong noun: surely he meant “humanitarian aim” or “humanitarian relief.” But out of such Freudian slips does truth step, naked.) How would Clegg relieve suffering? Would all the suffering stop if the chemical weapons were disabled? No; there have been plenty of other deaths. Something bigger, some kind of “taking sides” or even “regime change” would be required.

In fact, Clegg and Cameron offer the lowest-common-denominator version of “humanitarianism,” in which it means no more than a mix of punishment and personal catharsis. We have to “respond to a war crime.” This won’t stop further war crimes, but we’ll have done our part. It’s barely a step down from that to “We want to bomb something, and Syria is there. In this light, “humanitarian suffering” really does refer, perhaps, to the suffering of the humanitarian himself, who feels impotent and guilty, who wants to do good and can’t imagine how, who has migraines from knowing that none of his actions will accomplish the ends he posits, and who would like a large explosion to relieve him. Bombing Damascus is a bit stronger than Alka-Seltzer, but it’ll do.

Demonstrator's sign outside the Houses of Parliament, August 29: AFP

Demonstrator’s sign outside the Houses of Parliament, August 29: AFP

The argument for humanitarian intervention inhabits a strange half-reality, not quite resembling anything else in the languages of democratic politics. It’s almost never a discussion about “What will happen if we do this?” It’s a fever dream about “What will happen if we don’t?”

Back two years ago when the Libyan bombings were bruited, the editors of n+1 asked: “Has there ever been a truly successful, truly humanitarian humanitarian intervention?”

 Not of the Vietnamese in Cambodia, who deposed the Khmer Rouge for their own reasons (the Khmer kept crossing the border, and also murdered their entire Vietnamese population), and then replaced them with Hun Sen, who has been ruling Cambodia with an iron fist for more than thirty years. Not the Indian intervention in Bangladesh, under whose cover the Indian government arrested all student protesters in India. And not NATO in Kosovo, which, while it stopped Milosevic and ensured the safety of Kosovo, could not make it a viable state … and also led to the ethnic cleansing of the Serb population. Too bad for the Serbs, to be sure; but the creation of a safe space for the expulsion of a civilian population cannot be what anyone had in mind when they launched the planes. That there has never been a successful humanitarian intervention does not mean that there cannot be one in the future. But the evidence is piling up.

All these misfortunes still have ample defenders in retrospect, though, and the justification always takes the same form: What if we hadn’t done it? Things would be worse. It is no coincidence that some of the best-known advocates of humanitarian war, like the power-worshpping Niall Ferguson, are historians fascinated by alternative histories. Ferguson has written whole books that rewrite the past; he defends the what-if approach to understanding because it refutes Marxism and other attempts to trace laws that make history make sense. Life is random. Something completely unpredictable could always happen, or have happened.

What are the implications of chaos for historians? … The counterfactual scenarios [that historians] need to construct are not mere fantasy: they are simulations based on calculations about the relative probability of plausible outcomes in a chaotic world. … Perhaps the best answer to the question, “Why ask counterfactual questions?” is simply: What if we don’t? Virtual history is a necessary antidote to determinism.

Slumming among the angry Arabs, Niall Ferguson rescues a brown person and shares killer-app lessons from the Western worldview

He surely hopes to sound oracular like Lawrence of Arabia, the imperial hero intoning “Nothing is written.” Instead, he ends up a bit like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, rambling on about chaos theory: Fuckups are inevitable, the dinosaurs will always get loose, leave while you’re still alive. His scenarios are more like movie pitches than histories. But the method’s utility in excusing policymakers’ catastrophes (like those of his idol Kissinger) is obvious. Who knows how much worse things would have been, without our fucked-up attempt at fixing them? If the US hadn’t invaded Cambodia and unleashed the Khmer Rouge, something else would have gone wrong. 

Everything settles into indeterminacy this way. There is no proving a hypothetical. You can always invent a rate of forced flight from a Kosovo where the NATO invasion never happened that’s satisfyingly much greater than the one we know. You can always find a way to say that Iraqi mortality for 2003-2013 would have been as great or greater if Saddam had stayed in power — because he would have nuked his own people, or diverted the Euphrates, or weaponized the Middle East Coronavirus. This spares you the unpleasantness of looking at what actually took place, analyzing the melancholy figures, seeing what caused the painfully factual deaths or displacement. So much more agreeable to understand the unreal than reality!

Stuck in a jungle somewhere between lectures, Niall Ferguson (Jeff Goldblum) discusses chaos theory with crusty adventurer Henry Kissinger (Sam Neill) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (the ever-radiant and enlightened Laura Dern)

But an argument that’s merely flimsy when used to analyze history turns deadly when used to decide what to do here and now. The incessant drumbeat of “What will happen if we don’t?” drowns out the two more important questions: “What will happen if we do?” and “What is happening now?” Only the latter, because they deal with facts and with the consequences of a specific course of action, have even the possibility of instructive answers. The advocates of “humanitarian intervention” seem to turn every debate into a panic. It’s not just that the incited desperation overpowers the ability to judge. It’s that moving debate into a never-never land reached by the road-not-taken degrades all political discourse. The dreamwork starts to construct our daytime lives.

I can’t bring myself to stand in blanket opposition to any humanitarian intervention at all, in Syria or elsewhere. What I feel sure of, is that the arguments used to hawk the war in Britain are destructive and dangerous. They swivel our attention away from the reality of death in Damascus and Homs. Instead they insult the dead by imagining “nightmare scenarios,” ones somehow worse (at least for us, if not them) than what is occurring now, ones that suggest the ongoing disaster is not yet disastrous enough for minds acclimated to atrocity. They do this to conceal the poverty of their plan, which isn’t a plan at all and would help almost no one. They convince us that a dystopian future is the only alternative, because they are incompetent or unwilling to do anything about the present.

The Commons was right to vote these proposals and their shabby logic down. I would like to think there is a little interval of time for the rest of us to learn about life and death in Syria, and debate in concrete terms what can be done to support the Revolution. But the US is already heaving itself to action, greaved and ready, for the aimless killing — “nothing else,” “the sole aim” — the UK refused. I don’t need a theory to know chaos when I see it. I don’t need an alternative history to know there have to be alternatives.

Dead bodies, allegedly of rebel fighters, around the town of Qusair after its recapture by regime forces: images from Syrian state TV, June 2013

Dead bodies, allegedly of rebel fighters, around the town of Qusair after its recapture by regime forces: images from Syrian state TV, June 2013

Resources for the unbelievers, on aid conditionality and LGBT rights

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

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.

More thoughts on aid conditionality: And an apology to Paul Canning, III

My masculinity, sprouting

Blogger Paul Canning calls me a “b*tch,” undoubtedly meaning “butch,” and all too sadly that is true. Thirty years of wearing this macho mustache, half Marlboro Man and half John Bolton, have made my inner fem dwindle to a shrunken Munchkin, curtseying to Dorothy over the witch’s corpse while pathetically throwing myself at the he-men in the Lollipop Guild.

My femininity, what’s left of it

Still, I’m not nearly as much of a he-man as Paul is. In fact, Paul’s affirmations of his own manhood have gone over the top lately – judging from his comments here,  on my own little blog.   I take a holiday vacation from things, and what do I find when I return?  Paul positively daring me to test-drive my testes, and prove I’m not “chicken”:

Am hard noting your ignoring Gay Kenya’s statement and use of *150*, say it agin,*150* activists as a battering ram. Let’s see you fisk the Kenyan statement. Or are you chicken? I think we can guess.

I’ll try to explain what Paul means in a little bit, but just note how noting things makes him hard.  Also, observe the elegant phallic metaphor – the “battering ram”! Apparently it takes 150 activists to make one phallus. Then there’s this gem, a few days later:

But I wonder why you have not responded to my chicken call to respond to the Kenyan activist David Kuria on aid conditionality? I search in vain for such a response. Is it here? No! Is it there? No! Where could it be? Could it be, perchance, be that, for once, an African activist has shut you the fuck up? Has the wisdom fount dried up? It CANNOT BE!?!

And again:

Not publishing my comment on my previous mention eh Scott? Why would that be I wonder. Legal reasons? Defamation? Something else?

One of the things you notice about the guys in the Peter Tatchell crowd, who have been cheerfully harassing me for years, is not just that they’re all guys, but they’re terribly, terribly macho.   Of course, as you would expect from such a diverse crew of highly white people, their testosterone infestations take different forms. For Tatchell himself, a Dickens character if there ever was one, the display of male authority means a transit from his usual Uriah Heep sanctimony – notifying you over and over again ‘ow ‘umble he is, truly ‘umble, very ‘umble– to a loud, Mr. Chadband style of oratory undoubtedly influenced by his Evangelical origins, a booming and all-silencing sermonizing that tells you he is about to tell the Terewth.  (The Terewth, alas, never gets told.)  For Doug Ireland, the literate one of the crew, it takes the shape of a terrible onslaught of intimidating adjectives whenever  his competence is  called into question, on the apparent assumption that mere feminine types like his opponents, however deep their throats, cannot possibly wrap their mouths around the assemblage of misused polysyllables at his disposal.   For Michael Petrelis, Tatchell intimate and convicted stalker, it takes the form of yelling, which he can do as well on e-mail as in person.   (I once compared Petrelis’ communication style to Divine starring in La Voix Humaine, and he took umbrage, thinking this a reference to his weight. However, I meant vocal, not physical, volume.) But ¿Quien es mas macho?  Surely Canning outdoes the whole gang. I haven’t been faced by anyone calling me “chicken” since the fourth grade. Arguing with Paul brings one back in memory to those halcyon days of boys comparing organ length in the school bathroom, innocently ignorant of what puberty had in store for those peculiar appendages, or what exactly, besides urination, they were meant to do. Paul is similarly unaware what the notions he hawks will lead to, or what causes they further in the real world. But he knows they’re bigger than mine, and that’s all that counts.

Ascending scale of manhood: Peter Tatchell, Michael Petrelis, Paul Canning

So you’re wondering, what the hell is this all about?  Well, if you’ll remember, back in October David Cameron, boy prime minister of Britain, created a furor by declaring the UK would tie overseas aid to LGBT rights.  This made aid conditionality a subject of vigorous debate. 86 African social justice activists  and 53 organizations (hence the figure 150 in Paul’s battering ram, above) signed an open letter opposing aid conditionality.  It struck me that Paul’s slanted all-embracing blog, which claims to give you all the international queer news you need to know, overlooked the letter completely.  And I realized speculated that Paul’s own opinions were again might  possibly be affecting his definition of news. Paul indeed ignored the letter — but he doesn’t ignore me.   While I spent my December prone under Neil Patrick Harris in a drugged, drunken stupor, Paul busily honed his demand that I deal with what he obviously regarded as a conclusive refutation: statements on aid confidentiality by Gay Kenya and my friend the Kenyan activist and politician David Kuria.

Believe me, I would shave my mustache before I let anyone call me “chicken” three times! More to the point: I have no problem with arguments that run counter to my own, especially when they come from activists  who are on the front lines.  My issue with Paul himself has never been that he thinks aid conditionality is a Good Idea, which is perfectly legitimate.  It’s that, running a news source with a fairly wide readership in the US and UK, he treats the opposing opinions of a whole phallus phalanx of African activists as unworthily irrelevant to his own agenda.

So let me address a few key points in David Kuria’s column.

First: Kuria points out that there’s no unanimity among Africans on the subject of conditioning aid.   He’s right, obviously. A recent Canadian news article interviewed Malawian LGBT leaders who favor such ties (as well as a Jamaican who’s generally against them). I do disagree with the way David frames the divisions:

On the one hand, an elite group of African activists feel insulted by the presumed neo-colonial undertones of Western powers using aid to set priorities for the African movement without as much as consulting the activists. These activists are vocal, well connected or have lived in Western countries. Their animus may as much be about the desire to show they are in are in charge as it may also be about a genuine fear of backlash.

On the other hand are the ordinary gay or lesbian on the street – for some reason gay/lesbian on the street does not translate well from “man on the street.” For him or her, a threat of aid withdrawal was received with great jubilation – finally the ray of hope they had for so long waited!  These are unsophisticated, have either been victims of homophobic violence or live with an ever present threat of attack, and the only thing keeping them alive are the ever thinning walls of their closets.

Looking at the signatories to the African activists’ statement, I’m not persuaded that they’re more “elite” or cosmopolitan than those who didn’t sign.   Nor do I think that the fear of backlash can be reduced completely to a strategy of control.   The fact is that, since the early 1990s, almost every first glint of public visibility for LGBT people, or for sexual orientation and gender identity issues, in any country between the Limpopo and the Atlas Mountains has produced an intense and menacing public backlash. In Zimbabwe, a gay and lesbian group rents a stall at a book fair; the President condemns them, and years of political incitements to homophobic violence ensue. In Zambia, one gay man, tired of the closet, walks into the country’s largest newspaper and offers an interview; after the article appears, all of public life from university professors to the President is consumed by a wildfire of condemnation, and for the next three months hardly a Zambian can talk of anything else.   In Nigeria, a few men stage an LGBT-rights protest at an international AIDS conference; two months later, the President’s office cites the affront in justifying a draconian bill to silence virtually any mention of homosexuality. One could go on and on, but the point is that a generation of African politicians, starting in the crisis years of structural adjustment,have learned very clearly how to link popular anxieties around sexuality to other, more immediate or salient fears — xenophobia among them — and drum up support in the process. You can argue about whether, or how, such a backlash could be avoided — and Kuria proceeds to do that. But the record of its recurrences makes considering it not only inevitable but, I should think, necessary in debating decriminalization strategies and the uses of aid.

Second, David observes:

Instead of assuming that we can have a “pan-africanist” approach, we should instead query what challenges and opportunities it presents to us as a country. Gay Kenya’s statement on aid, noted that each country has had a different aid narrative, and could thus not talk of an “African” but a contextualized Kenyan response. In Kenya’s case aid conditionality had proved effective in compelling reforms to an unwilling government. …

I see a group of villagers who once visited my dad, a Central banker asking him if [authoritarian former President Daniel Arap] Moi’s government would collapse at the back of donor conditions compelling political reform. As I recall it, they were very disappointed, and even thought of my dad as a Moi sympathiser when he told them government collects billions in taxes, and the only people who would be affected would be the poor.

The aim of withdrawing aid was to make the masses so angry that they would force Moi out of power he told them. It took time, but change did finally come, and the poor sung for Moi “yote yawezekana bila Moi” [Everything is possible without Moi] at Uhuru Park as a parting shot.

With the bulk of what David says here, I altogether agree. Any approach that elides national borders and differences in political history and culture is going to cause disaster. The more African activists speak up to assert the divergent narratives that demand disparate strategies, the better — the less likely some foreign government will take the whole continent as the convenient product of a cookie-cutter, and start to incinerate it accordingly. A history of aid conditionality producing democratic change may well make a population more disposed to suffer it in the name of something they can regard as progress. The one distinction I would point out is that back in the 90’s, when (some) Western governments were pushing for democratization in Africa, privations attending aid cuts could be justified as promoting a general good, something everybody — or nearly everybody –wanted. Joy Mdivo, in a recent blog post, remembers:

it is difficult to miss the happiness, the euphoria, the joy at common folk finally bringing down the Tyrant and winning Freedom.  We had our own “jubilation” in 2003 when Kibaki came into power and we saw the back of Moi.  People were literally drunk with happiness and giddy with anticipation of a better Kenya without Moi.

The queers may dance in the streets if Kenya’s sodomy law goes, but I doubt the general population will gather round the disco ball.   Instead, if the aid conditions — or cuts — have aimed at broad development initiatives, people are likely to feel the public welfare has been risked or sacrificed to get a particular group its rights. Or, as the churches are likely to say, its perverted privileges.

Now, this kind of antinomization of rights protections — their rights, not ours — is made possible by the minoritization of sexuality: the prevailing idea that homosexual desire is the property of a small minority, not the potential of a larger number, and that only that bounded group will be affected by its liberation or persecution. Such thinking clearly is one import from the West that the present structure of “assistance” to ensure rights promotes and confirms. It dominates the help promised by foreign governments (Clinton’s and Cameron’s bruited initiatives exclusively talk the language of LGBT, not that of sexual rights for all), as well as the intrusions of NGOs (from Human Rights Watch on down, all the major human rights players have “LGBT Rights Programs,” and “sexual rights” is only mentioned in a whisper).

Gay Kenya has recently developed a “business case” to consolidate economically as well as politically based arguments for scrapping the old sodomy law. This document, Breaking the Wall of Criminalization — which I think deserves wide study — seems partly meant to counteract the minoritizing discourse.  The essence is that getting rid of the repressive law will benefit broad strata of the population; the specific case revolves around how outreach and openness help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.   My guess is that arguments like this are the best if not only route to abrogating the laws across much of Africa. If so, everyone has a stake in extending them beyond economics and health to contend that decriminalization is a benefit to democracy itself. And that case would require engaging with a lot of existing critical thought about nation-building, the African state, patriarchy, and the politics of development. Some of this is already moving forward in the work of thinkers like Sylvia Tamale; the Kenyan document can contribute. The “business case” is noncommittal on the question of aid conditionality, though — precisely, I suspect, because the idea that (what are still seen as) “special rights” can have a general benefit hasn’t begun to catch on.

The politics of donor funding and sanctioning to induce the desired political response, especially in the area of human rights, is often characterised by a complex matrix of competing interests. … [S]hould aid be conditional to removal of structural barriers that we know lead to inefficient use of resources and negatively impact efforts to reduce HIV infections? This is not an easy question to resolve, partly because African leadership can engage in dangerous brinkmanship over HIV funding …

The “brinksmanship” is enabled — despite the years everybody spent ritually affirming the mainly heterosexual epidemiology of African AIDS — by the persisting belief that the pandemic primarily affects the marginalized, and that these inhabit the margin because they are immoral.  Governments don’t think they’re playing va banque with public health in general when they put their AIDS budgets in the poker pot. In their piggybank heart of hearts, they still consider this a concern of homosexuals, drug addicts, and prostitutes, and of course women, who aren’t really part of the general public either. In this light, the “business case” makes  an obvious point, but one still worth making. The less any aid cut affects the general population, the more closely it is targeted toward the issues engaged by conditionality, the more the same people you are trying to help will be hurt. It’s the marginal who will pay:

In the case of HIV … [w]ere aid to be withdrawn, it is the vulnerable, especially those on treatment, who would suffer the most and that would not only be punitive but also unethical.

Third, David observes that the aid conditionality question should have been argued yesterday, or last week. And in this he may be right. He writes:

I have bad news both for the elite African activists and the gay/lesbian on the street. To the Elite, quit whining, the genie has already left the bottle. When the U.K. statement on conditioning aid to gay rights, became public we should have known scapegoating and blame-shifting was to follow. … You can take this to the bank, any misunderstanding between an African state and any Western power on anything under the sun will from now on be blamed on gays.

It’s true, Cameron’s inept initiative, and Clinton’s more thought-through one, burst into daylight without any particular consultation with the people who would be, for worse or better, most affected. And what David and Hillary said and did will inflect all the backlashes to come.

Treatment Action Campaign T-shirt, South Africa

Still, it’s not hard to hear in this some of the despair of a continent that is used to having not just its resources colonized but its voices ventriloquized, its needs spoken for and its aspirations represented and decided by others outside. For the queers confronting their impeccable and indifferent benefactors, this is as ineluctable a fact as for any other Africans.   Yet I can’t believe it’s either universal or permanent.   In the realm of HIV, treatment activists, many of them in countries across Africa, have shaped and redirected the global discourse about who’s responsible for the pandemic and what to do about it. They’ve accomplished this with an uncompromisingly confrontational assault on the received verities of globalization, one grounded equally in history and politics.   Now that debate has begun in the UK and the US about what exactly these new, ill-formed initiatives mean, there’s no reason LGBT activists in Africa — either country by country, or finding commonalities across regions or the continent — can’t try to do the same.

I have no dog in this fight, no vested interest in either side of the question, though I have a fairly visceral distrust of whether aid conditionality will accomplish what it sets out to to do.  What I can do is pose  questions about how the manipulation of aid –or, for that matter, other kinds of foreign support for LGBT people’s rights — would work. Some questions are:

a)     How can you prevent backlash; how, in particular, to avoid the appearance of elevating queers as somehow superior to other citizens, subjects, and “victims”?

b)    What’s the history that will shape how Western influence will be regarded, and answered? Rahul Rao lays out persuasive reasons why British interventions in the Commonwealth are especially problematic:

 [T]o call on Britain to play an advocacy role in the struggle against these laws invites a contemporary rerun of the civilising mission: the spectre of the erstwhile imperial power and its white dominions berating the black and brown Commonwealth for its backwardness is not one that is likely to engender the sort of change that its proponents wish for. Moreover, the demand for an apology for the sodomy law, as opposed to, oh I don’t know, late Victorian holocausts, dependency, slavery or all of the other phenomena typically grouped under the sign of ‘colonialism’ (except when Niall Ferguson is telling the story), seems tantamount to charging a rapist with minor misdemeanours.

In addition to history, there’s also the ally’s present stance, including its funding on other issues. The new US embrace of LGBT rights has not altered one whit its Puritanism where other kinds of sex are concerned.    It still enforces, for instance, a gag order banning money for any NGO abroad that won’t sign an oath to support criminal penalties for prostitution.  It’s easy to imagine this situation:  the US threatens to cut aid to a government that endorses criminalizing homosexual conduct — while defunding an advocacy group in the same country that endorses decriminalizing prostitution.  How can activists negotiate these thickets of contradiction? How can they oppose a supportive government’s other, offensive policies?

c)   Who will be affected by any conditions on or cuts in aid? Will women (who tend to be the targets of many aid programs, if not necessarily the recipients of actual aid) suffer in order to secure gay men’s rights?

d) Development is notoroiously a depoliticizing business; it turns rights claimants into supplicants. Drawing LGBT communities deeper into development discourse risks turning advocacy for political change into lobbying for resource allocation, and replacing rights campaigns with service provision.  Indian feminist scholar Nivedita Menon describes how

The Indian population recognizes itself quite easily as the target of development policies of the state … The depoliticization (and feminization) of development discourse into ‘devel- opment altruism’ is noted by a study from Kerala …. Their interviews with women presidents of panchayats (village councils) show that these women identify as ‘development agents’ rather than as ‘politicians’. This is consistent with the discourse of the Left Front government’s Peoples’ Planning Campaign (1995–6), in which … ‘the panchayat was consistently projected as a space of ‘‘development’’ beyond divisive politics’. This allows the panchayat ‘to be projected as a non-political space, the space of development altruism.’

Assuming this space “beyond divisive politics” is recognized as fake, and its effects as deleterious, how can the pitfalls of “developmentizing” LGBT issues be circumvented?

e)    Finally, where do the core problems, and the main target for change, lie? Are they in law and policy, or in hearts and minds?  An obstreperous and oppressive law regularly enforced, or the promise of new and repressive provisions, would be one kind of threat. A pervasive atmosphere of prejudice, tending to eruptions of moral panic and collective rage, is another. It’s not that they don’t intertwine often and reinforce one another. It’s not, moreover, as though changing a law can’t be one road to changing people’s attitudes. But there are plenty of situations where a loudly foreign-enabled campaign against a particular law can make prejudice worse, and perhaps provide the spark that sets a full-scale popular panic going. My own pragmatic guess is that any threats involving aid would work best — indeed, may only work  — where a specific law or a specific case is the clear target, or where, as in Uganda or Nigeria, a new law proposal requires urgent opposing action.  If the goal is, instead, to alter attitudes and prejudices, even if as a precondition for law reform, aid conditionality (and many other kinds of overt foreign pressure) risks reinforcing hate and making reform impossible.

Soekarno said, in his famous speech at the Bandung conference in 1955, one of the early high points of tiers-mondialisme: “What harm is in diversity, when there is unity in desire?” The trajectory of the Third World since, as of the other two, has tended to reinforce not only the impossibility of the latter, but the importance of thinking of the former, so far as feasible, not as potential harm but as actual strength. But a conversation about desire — and especially, now, about what is wanted and what unwanted about Western support — can still help LGBT activists in Africa and elsewhere to shape what their allies do, and decide what can and can’t be done.

Me, in future

I feel I have failed Paul. He expected fireworks and battering rams, and he has got something less loud and conspicuous. So again, as so often before, I am constrained to offer him an apology. I can do nothing to redeem my masculinity but to grow my mustache. As of today, I break my razor as Prospero did his staff; and I shall not reapply it until my manhood stands proud on my upper lip like 150 activists, or a grove of Sequoias. Meanwhile, among African activists, the conversation should carry on.  I hope folks like Paul will start to report it.

p.s. CORRECTION. We are sticklers for accuracy here at A Paper Bird. I just uploaded December’s photographs to my hard, hard drive from my tiny, feminine camera. On examining them closely, I don’t think that was Neil Patrick Harris at all.

Mugabe and the minorities: Backlash update

"Flushing": by Zimbabwean artist Owen Maseko

On Thursday Zimbabwe’s government newspaper, the Herald, published a call for the nation to pray that “those who campaign for the evil such as gay rights be condemned in the name of God.”

Zimbabwe needs our prayers more than ever before, given the unprecedented violence and the myopic call for support of gay and lesbian rights.

The column waxed predictably fulsome in its praise of God’s choice for Zimbabwe’s leadership.

If one is to make a mutual consideration of the level of integrity, loyalty, honesty and transparency vested in our current President, Robert Mugabe, it is appropriate that his leadership qualities are related to his Christian upbringing … Even his current international stance on denouncing homosexuality is a clear indication that he is a God-fearing leader whose character and personality is modelled on biblical principles.

Since Mugabe, however endowed with virtues, is unlikely to add immortality to their number, the piece also evinced a prudent concern for the future. It urged praying for a “God-fearing leader to suceed” [sic] him, and for a “continued stance anti- homosexuality”: “We should not have a leader in Parliament or any structures of Government who supports such an immoral act, which even our ancestors did support.” (I rather imagine there is a word missing there.)

The column was signed by “Never Gasho,” and here Google, the stalker’s friend, volunteers its aid. It seems that Gasho, a sometime jazz musician, is also a prosperous farmer in the Karoi area. He appears in a quite unrelated Herald article from a couple of months before, busily spilling dirt on farmers in the area who are undoing the intent of the government’s land redistribution program by leasing expropriated land back to its former white owners. The Herald says: 

Gasho always has information on his finger tips and is one guy who identifies with the truth. … Gasho will not keep quiet when he knows the truth. He searches for it too.

From this I would infer that Gasho is an ambitious ZANU-PF apparatchik, and a local informer.  His snitching in Karoi gave the excuse for a Presidential intervention and an investigation; the Herald seems now to be testing out his disputative talents on a national scale.

In this case the target is Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition Prime Minister who some weeks back told the BBC that he would support including sexual orientation protections in the new Constitution to be drafted over the coming months. The ruling party has attacked him steadily on the issue ever since, with particular intensity since David Cameron’s ill-timed noise about linking development aid to LGBT rights issues. Last Monday, the Herald accused Tsvangirai of a “bid to smuggle homosexuality into the new constitution under the guise of protecting minority rights.”

Sources who attended a Select Committee meeting last week accused MDC-T’s Copac co-chairperson Mr Douglas Mwonzora and spokesperson Ms Jessie Majome of seeking to have gay rights included under the guise of minority rights. [MDC-T, Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai, is the Prime Minster’s party; Copac is the Constitution Select Committee.] The sources said there was heated debate over the issue.

“When they raised the issue, we asked them to define who should be covered by minority rights and they started mumbling and they said the Ndebeles and the Venda,” said a source.

“We then told them that these were people whose interests were covered under individual rights. Some MDC-T members in Copac had already tipped us that the agenda was to incorporate gay rights, so when it was raised we rejected it right away.”

"They beat us": by Zimbabwean artist Owen Maseko

But this gives the game away. Mugabe’s real interest is in eliminating minority rights language altogether from the Constitution, and leaving only “individual rights” protections. He’s simply using gays as a classic wedge issue to discredit the whole discourse. And of course, he has reasons to want the Ndebele disempowered. Matabeleland is a longtime center of opposition to the regime. In the early 1980s, faced with mounting unrest there, Mugabe sent in his army’s North-Korean trained Fifth Brigade to massacre an estimated 7,000 Ndebele civilians. The Gukurahundi, as the killings are known in Shona, remains the great and devastating blight on Zimbabwe’s post-independence history. Mugabe has never acknowledged it.

Tsvangirai’s allies were shocked, shocked at this cynicism on the ruling party’s part.  Douglas Mwonzora said “he brought up the question of minority rights” at the committee meeting, “but the issue of gay rights was never discussed.”

“I and Jessie Majome (select committee spokesperson) raised the issue of minority rights – and minority groups in this country mean cultural minorities, ethnic minorities and religious minorities, and we even have political minorities,” Mwonzora said. “That’s all we meant. We are surprised that the ZANU-PF propaganda machinery wants to belittle the rights of the minority by trying to say these are gay rights.”

But the opportunities for demagoguery that Cameron opened up are still gaping, and the loony free-for-all goes rolling on. In this atmosphere, it’s easy for Mugabe to bash the whole concept of minority rights as a colonial perversion. This morning the Herald published a new column; written by two Bindura University professors, it claims that

the push for gay rights is yet another renewed camouflaging tendency of the foreign aid regime used by the Western powers to create governance structures that are conducive for the exploitation and external control of weak African states.  In the name of human rights Britain and its allies want to restore and consolidate what was once achieved through the strong political administration of colonialism.

Setting the gay stuff aside, the article actually offers a scathingly tendentious analysis, but an analysis indeed, of Western development assistance strategies. But how does one make such a critique relevant to Zimbabwe’s public today? The headline says it all: “Keep your gay England, we keep our Godly Zimbabwe.”

Note: The images above are by Owen Maseko, a Zimbabwean artist. In early 2010 he opened an exhibition called “Sibathontisele” (“Let’s Drip On Them”) at Bulawayo’s National Gallery, with works focused on representations of the Gukurahundi. The next day he was arrested and charged with undermining President Mugabe’s authority under the Public Order and Security Act. He could face 20 years in prison. He is free on bail but the case is still pending. 

Bend over


Mr. Dithers staring across the Red Sea

An unpleasantly vivid cartoon from the Kenya Star, about the Cameron aid conditionality fiasco, indicates how the discourse is going.

The face of Africa, when tilted on its side like this, looks remarkably like Mr. Dithers from the old Dagwood and Blondie comics. It’s perhaps appropriate that the scream is coming from the area of Egypt.

Aid backlash update: Sex, national manhood, and “policy leverage”

this is un-African: hot lesbian action

Jenerali Ulimwengu, writing in the East African, lays his finger — sort of satirically, I think — on some of the key issues at stake in debating LGBT rights and aid conditionality. It’s about sex and money, to be sure, but also national manhood:

African men are a macho lot, and for many the very idea of a man-on-man sexual partnership is anathema. Woman-on-woman also. A man was created specifically to have liaison with a woman, and a woman was created as a tool, exclusively to serve the man, in both productive and reproductive pursuits. It is inconceivable that two such tools would dream of having a liaison other than with the man. Rather like the tractor dating the combine harvester on the farm. …

But let us push this macho thing to its logical conclusion. No self-respecting African man would let another man pay for his and his wife’s and his children’s upkeep.

Indeed, a man who allows that to happen would be considered as having been married by the provider man, call them economic homos.

Rejecting the one, reject the other too.

He’s talking here about accepting foreign aid. Julius Nyerere, one of African nationalism’s fathers, declared that “Independence cannot be real if a nation depends upon gifts and loans from another for Its development.”

Mwalimu Nyerere

Despite arguments that development aid should be seen as an entitlement, not a dole, as reparations for colonialism (see Jamaican lawyer Anthony Gifford making that case here), it still carries the political stigma of submission, of bowing and bending over before a foreign force.  That’s a symbolic fear, but tie the aid explicitly to enforced reforms in sex and gender, and you have an explosive mix of anxieties and insecurities. Are recipient governments “economic homos”? Down with the homos who made them that way! This is the mess David Cameron has helped create.

Now the backlash hits Tanzania. Nyerere’s country and creation. Tanzania has already ridden the giddy rollercoaster of the UK’s contradictory experiments with aid modalities for some time. In the early 2000s, it “was at the forefront of the global move toward enhancing the efficiency of external assistance. A central element of this was the move toward general budget support” (GBS). What this bureaucratese — from an official British evaluation of aid priorities — means is that donor governments started upping their direct aid to the Tanzanian government, stipulating only that it use the funds to achieve the goals decided in its poverty reduction strategy. This gave the Tanzanian government considerable flexibility in allocating the money: one supportive donor statement maintained that GBS builds democracy,  “strengthens the parliamentary role for decision-making,” and increases “national ownership of the development process.” Tanzania was a test case for this process. By the end of the decade, about 20% of the Tanzanian government’s budget came from GBS aid. The UK was the largest provider.

However, some donors, especially the British Tories, were unhappy with the results. The UK’s evaluation went on to say — getting extremely vague and wooly in its language, and offering not a single statistic:

Whilst general budget support has been  successful in providing increased discretionary funds to high priority areas, improvements  in  democratic accountability, through programmes designed to complement general budget support, have not been achieved and general budget support has had limited impact as an instrument of policy leverage.

The main issue obviously was that governments were nostalgic for that “policy leverage”: the ability to micromanage and dictate to Tanzanian authorities, something more targeted funding could provide.

Hence in early 2011 the UK decided to “reduce its use of General Budget Support (GBS), as the 2010 independent Country Programme Evaluation suggested that GBS was not the most effective way to deliver results in the current circumstances, and recommended a relative reduction.” Instead, more money would go to specific state programs and to civil society, as well as to suspiciously Thatcherite-sounding “support for sustainable private sector wealth creation — the driver of growth –- in order to achieve better results and VfM” [Value for Money].

The planned wealth creation interventions will be designed to catalyse private sector investment, thereby achieving a multiplier effect on our funding, whilst sharing risks with the private sector and promoting the longer-term sustainability of our interventions.

Poor Tanzanians could hardly be expected to rejoice at a program to make rich Tanzanians richer. And the government itself started resenting a civil society that, Cameron told them, would be getting money previously slated for the state budget.

So a ferment of anger commenced to build; the UK’s stated plans had an expressly divisive effect. And now, when Cameron — speaking largely for the ears of British voters — links aid to LGBT rights, everything’s set for an explosion. LGBT people will be blamed for the overall shifts in overseas aid; civil society in general will be reviled as a greedy ally of perverted people; the queers and the colonizers are squeezing the state’s coffers together! Let the scapegoating begin!

It’s begun. Here‘s Tanzania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Membe, last week:

“Tanzania is ready to end diplomatic ties with Britain [!] if it imposes conditions on the assistance it provides to pressurize for adoption of laws that recognize homosexuality. … We cannot be directed by the United Kingdom to do things that are against our set laws, culture and regulations…. What Cameron is doing might lead to the collapse of the Commonwealth.”

Here‘s the President of the Zanzibar region:

“Accepting that condition is next to impossible and we will never ever take that option. They can stop their aid if they wish.”

Here‘s Roman Catholic Cardinal Pengo, the Archbishop of Dar es Salaam:

“This country is rich in natural resources such that there is no point to be bulldozed and culturally distorted for the sake of aid. If the available resources would be well managed and utilized, we can sufficiently meet the country’s financial needs.”

All these brave manifestos, of course, point to who’ll be blamed for any aid cut, including the reallocations announced earlier in the year. The British High Commissioner moved promptly to declare that this was all a kerfluffle about nothing, that Cameron didn’t mean to be overheard when he said what he said:

‘I think the Prime Minister’s words have been taken out of context. The UK will not enforce such conditionality in Tanzania nor will it suspend development aid to the country.”

But that’s too little, too late. Cameron’s shot has been heard round the world, and it’s LGBT people caught in the crossfire who will suffer. Already reports, still unconfirmed, of violence targeting LGBT communities have started to leak out of Tanzania. Across the continent, more will likely come.

Cameron’s “imperial mentality”: A Caribbean perspective

Gifford (second from R) with J-FLAG activists in a 2010 Kingston protest

Watch this video, from Jamaican TV, of an interview with British – Jamaican human rights lawyer Lord Anthony Gifford. As a strong supporter of scrapping Jamaica’s sodomy law, he lays out the arguments against the UK’s noisy and confused promises to tie development aid to LGBT rights.

He’s right that open threats to Jamaica from abroad almost always create a “converse reaction.” But one thing I find troubling is his blanket claim that Jamaica, as a democracy, is in a different class from dictatorships, and can work this out for itself.  “To use this stick against a democracy like Jamaica –we are capable of having this debate within Jamaica … and I think it’s counterproductive.” How exactly does this differ from arguments that Israel supporters (including one of Human RIghts Watch’s founders) use to contend that human rights activists should leave the country alone?

Thirty years ago, Gifford was lead counsel for the plaintiff in the landmark case of Dudgeon v United Kingdom, where the European Court of Human Rights compelled Britain to eliminate Northern Ireland’s sodomy law. And the video below shows  Gifford and my activist friends Maurice Tomlinson and Yvonne McCalla Sobers discussing their new challenge to the Jamaican law before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights:

Santorum spotted in Ghana: Panic follows

Off with their headlines: from Ghana's press

“I love a moral issue,” Elaine May would say, back in the great days of Nichols and May. “It’s so much more interesting than a real issue.”

That pretty much describes the dynamics of a moral panic. It provides endless things to talk about, none of them real. Ghana continues down this path, amid a panic about homosexuality now fed by David Cameron’s ham-handed promises to tie overseas aid to LGBT rights. People are describing things that don’t exist, ignoring things that do, and venting paranoid ideas in pompous, concerned, and official tones. Those suffering from the frenzied arguments and the UK’s ill-timed intervention, of course, are the actual LGBT people of Ghana — real enough, but constrained to listen as their lives are described in terms that range from Biblical wrath to pseudomedical quackery.

Yesterday, for instance,  Rev. Godson King Akpalu, President of the Ghana Mental Health Association (GMHA) told reporters that “homosexual and lesbian perpetrators” are mentally ill.

Rev. Akpalu said the Ghana Mental Health Association will classify the perpetrators and supporters of these “dirty acts” as suffering severe mental problems and should be referred to a mental health facility for early treatment before suicide sets in.

He said given the opportunity, even mental patients would choose an opposite sex partner, emphasising  that, “We as a nation cannot sell our birthright for a handful of meals and drag our posterity into curses and shame. …  [H]ow can we in the name of foreign aid from a Godless people flout the laws of God which we all abide by from our very existence?”

Santorum stains

Judging from the reverend’s words, Rick Santorum has been sighted in Accra, adding to the atmosphere of terror:

The GMHA President said it was common knowledge that some of the men and boys who had fallen prey to such unnatural acts wore “pampers” to hold up the unnatural flow of fluid that gushes out from their anus, and asked whether this made the practice a natural one.

Meanwhile, in Parliamentary debate on Thursday, MPs

condemned homosexuality in no uncertain terms, with a call on the Executive to amend the Criminal Code, Act 29 (1960) to provide for stiffer punishment for those who engage in the practice. They gave the assurance that a bill presented to the House in that regard would be passed swiftly.

Opposition MP Eugenia Kusi said:

“Madam Speaker, I would want us to amend the criminal code to make that act a criminal offence. I know that if that kind of bill comes before us we will not waste time in passing it”. She advised children to stay away from people who claim to be homosexuals and report those who try to woo them into the act to their parents and guardians.

Ghana, of course, already criminalizes homosexual conduct, with Section 104 (1) (b) of the Code defining  “unnatural carnal knowledge” of “any person of sixteen years or over with his consent” as a misdemeanor. (Misdemeanors are liable to variable terms of imprisonment, usually less than three years.)

J. J. Appiah, leading the debate, told fellow lawmakers that

“Human right undoubtedly is supreme and fundamental  to our existence and I am glad to say that it is also our supreme interest as legislators but when these rights appear abnormal and barbaric then measures should be put in place to curtail them. … It has been established that lesbianism is a cause of many sexually transmitted diseases. In the face of this it appears most logical, most necessary, for us as a House to enact laws that would uphold the principles of morality and integrity”.

Oye Lithur

Nana Oye Lithur, a prominent and courageous Ghanaian feminist and human rights lawyer, spoke out against the spreading panic, as she has repeatedly in recent months. According to Ghanaweb

She feared with the increasing emotional sentiments against homos, people might take advantage of the situation by physically assaulting or even killing people suspected to be homos. She said as religious leaders preach tolerance to political leaders in the country they are obliged to use the pulpit to preach tolerance for homos and not hate speech. She said pastors must live according to the biblical quotation of “love thy neighbour as thyself” in their dealing with homos.

She added:

“Not even the President of Ghana can deny anybody human rights irrespective of the person’s sexual orientation, ethnic group, gender and what have you. These are guaranteed in our constitution and everybody in Ghana has an obligation to respect that constitution. ”

Backlash in Ghana: New anti-gay legislation discussed

a Ghana headline from 2003: but we need more laws!

Ghana, in recent months, has been the scene of a mounting moral panic about the “threat” of homosexuality. The press warns about  “increasing growth In numbers” of homosexuals:

Some people make the claim that homosexuality (sexual relations between people of the same sex) became known in Ghana when tourists, international workers and even missionaries flooded the country in the 70s. Those within the group who were homosexuals invited innocent boys to their houses, flushed them with gifts and money and promised to send them to the rich countries. … Many Ghanaians went abroad and returned as homosexuals. Many also went to prison and indulged in gay habits which became habitual, and followed them even after their release from prison.

Girls also pick it from boarding secondary schools. Senior girls have their “supi” and only God knows what they do with them. There are now gay prostitutes in Ghana.

Some people claim that homosexuality is not a disease and it cannot be cured. They claim, further, that even though somebody can entice you to have anal intercourse that cannot make you a homosexual. One is born that way. However, another school of thought insists that one can be addicted through being enticed to practice it.

The Christian Council of Ghana condemns the “detestable and abominable act” :    

Declaring the position of the Council on homosexuality in Ghana, Reverend Dr Fred Deegbe, General Secretary of the Council, said the issue of homosexuality had become so serious that Ghana had witnessed gay marriages . … He said the Council had observed with dismay the claim of homosexuals that nowhere in scripture was homosexuality and the same-sex committed and loving relationships condemned and called for the need for Christians to frown such behaviours.

He explained that some Ghanaian youths have adopted and emulated certain lifestyles including homosexuality being practiced by the western world and there was the need to condemn this abomination from happening on Ghanaian soil. “We Ghanaians and for that matter Africans cherish our rich and strong values on issues such as homosexuality and we must not allow anyone or group of people to impose what is acceptable in their culture on us in the name of human rights”.

The baiting quickly moved into the political arena. When an opposition-party expert on health said the right to privacy protected private sexual acts, and asked “Why should what two people do in their privacy without confronting anybody, be subject to the law?” — a presidential spokesman accused his entire party of “supporting and promoting the activities of homosexuality in Ghana.”   And the Minister for Ghana’s Western Region promptly “tasked the Bureau of National Investigations and all security agencies to smoke out persons suspected to be engaging in same sex.”

He also enlisted the services of landlords and tenants to provide reliable information which will lead to the arrest of homosexuals.  His directive follows months of campaigns against the practice of homosexuality in the country.

Fortunately, that order appeared to be mostly hot air and bluster.

But the British government’s recent public claim that it will link overseas aid to human rights performance, especially singling out LGBT rights as an issue, has served to make the “threat” homosexuality poses explicit. Now the homophobes know what they’re fighting, and they are fighting mad. Yesterday Ghana’s President proclaimed he would forgo foreign aid if necessary: “I will never initiate or support any attempt to legalise homosexuality in Ghana.”

Today comes news that the country’s parliament may consider new legislation to keep homosexuality from “flourishing.”

In Ghana, legislators are set to begin discussions on strengthening legal sanctions against practicing homosexuals.

This came after British Prime Minister Dave Cameron threatened to withdraw aid from countries that ban homosexuality. But Ghanaian President John Atta-Mills sharply says his government will never legalize homosexuality.

President Atta-Mills was quoted as saying “no one can deny Prime Minister Cameron his right to make policies, take initiatives or make statements that reflect his societal norms and ideals.  But he does not have the right to direct other sovereign nations as to what they should do especially where their societal norms and ideals are different from those which exist in the Prime Minister’s society.”

Catherine Afeku, an opposition MP, offered a somewhat ambiguous note of caution. She has previously “called for a comprehensive policy from government on the way forward when it comes to the issue of homosexuality.” She echoed previous reminders of protections for private life:

Member of Parliament Catherine Afeku says there seems to be overwhelming support from legislators backing a review of the penal code to address homosexuality. “Ninety-nine percent of the members in the chamber support the statement that as a people, our cultural norms, our societal upbringing, does not accept homosexuality,” said Afeku. “But, once we have brought out the emotional condemnation, we have to put our thinking caps on and look at the law… What people do in their rooms cannot be legislated upon because we don’t have anything on the books right now that will punish that act.”

It’s not clear, then, what any new legislation might do, since Ghana still retains its colonial-era sodomy law punishing “unnatural carnal knowledge.” It could follow the lines of Nigeria‘s or Uganda‘s long-bruited bills: prohibiting organizing around sexuality, advocating for human rights, or any form of public visibility.  Or it might strengthen the existing law’s intrusion into private life.

Or the rhetoric might die down in due time, as the advantages of political posturing recede. What’s certain is that Cameron’s own posturing continues to feed a backlash across Africa. It’s hard not to think: God save us from our friends. And in that spirit, a coalition of sexual rights and human rights groups in Ghana issued a statement today:

Press Release on the British Prime Minister’s ‘Homosexuality Threat’ To Ghana

Accra, 03 November, 2011: The Coalition against Homophobia in Ghana (CAHG), the Gay and Lesbian Association of Ghana (GALAG) and other LGBT Networks in Ghana are surprised and in total shock at the increased interest by the UK government to withdraw aid to some African countries who are homophobic. Though the Coalition have no problem with calling on government to abide by the British code of conduct for financial support, we believe LGBT people do not live in isolation in Africa.  We have families and friends who need these aids to survive on daily basis.

Cutting aid to some selected Africa countries due to homophobic laws therefore will not help the LGBT people in these countries, but will rather stigmatize these groups and individuals. LGBT people will be used as scape goats for government inability to support its citizens and some sectors of the economy.

The challenge now is that,

1.     Homosexuality is now being seen as western import due to the continuous threats from the UK government. It is now difficult to convince the ordinary person on the street that homosexuality was not imported into Africa; although we know and have always had African indigenous people who are born homosexuals.

2.     LGBT groups and organizations are finding it very   difficult and risky to organize their programs due to such threats and continuous discussion on radio and television stations in Ghana.

3.     Support from government agencies for LGBT programs with regards to health will be affected since the government will not want to be seen as promoting or supporting LGBT activities in the country.

We believe the UK government can use diplomacy to get some of these important issues across to the countries noted for promoting hate against homosexuals or the LGBT community in Africa. We encourage the UK government to find other alternative way to address the issue other than this option, which is going to increase   the level of stigma, violence and discrimination against LGBT people in Africa.

Though all these noise continue to go against LGBT groups and individuals in Africa, development partners never supports LGBT initiatives on the ground. Embassies and consulates including the EU offices continue to turn deaf ears to LGBT issues insisting that their priorities do not include LGBT people in Africa. 

We are by this release appealing to development partners to channel some support to LGBT groups and organization in countries like Ghana to support local or internal advocacy as well as network building with state institutions.

This we believe will go a long way to help the LGBT people in Ghana and Africa at large.


For more information, please contact the coalition on


1.     Coalition against Homophobia in Ghana

2.     Centre for Popular Education and Human Rights, Ghana

3.     Gay and Lesbian Association of Ghana (GALAG)

4.     Face AIDS Ghana

5.     National Association of Persons Living with HIV/AIDS (NAP+)

6.     Development Communication Initiatives – Ghana

7.     Young People Advocate for a Change

8.     Youth and Human Rights -, Ghana