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.

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