Uganda, the World Bank, and LGBT rights: Winners and losers

Participants in a march demanding health-care funding to fight maternal mortality, Kampala, Uganda, May 22, 2012

Participants in a march demanding health-care funding to fight maternal mortality, Kampala, Uganda, May 22, 2012

Victory! .. isn’t it? On February 27, the World Bank announced it was “indefinitely” delaying a scheduled $90 million loan to Uganda to improve health care, in response to the passing of the comprehensively repressive “Anti-Homosexuality Bill.” “We have postponed the project for further review to ensure that the development objectives would not be adversely affected by the enactment of this new law,” a Bank spokesman said.

In the circles where I move  — international (that is, North-based) activists working on LGBT rights — rejoicing burgeoned: finally the big funders are getting serious about queer people’s oppression! Politicians joined in. Nancy Pelosi, ex-speaker of the US House, tweeted joyfully:

pelosi wb copy

Jim Yong Kim, President Obama’s appointee to the lead the World Bank (an organization Washington still disproportionately funds and dominates) brought home the message with an op-ed the next day:

Institutionalized discrimination is bad for people and for societies. Widespread discrimination is also bad for economies … Legislation restricting sexual rights, for instance, can hurt a country’s competitiveness by discouraging multinational companies from investing or locating their activities in those nations.

Let’s pause to bask in the exhilarating effect of having a powerful institution intervene for LGBT people, with a leader in global development saying the “s” word — sex, as in “sexual rights.” Yes: it feels good.

Still, this is Africa. And this is the World Bank. For international activists to laud its actions so unreservedly involves a wretched show of amnesia.

We think that debt has to be seen from the standpoint of its origins. Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who had colonized us before … Debt is a cleverly managed re-conquest of Africa, aiming at subjugating its growth and development through foreign rules. Thus, each one of us becomes the financial slave, which is to say a true slave.

Probably few of my international colleagues will recognize those words– another leftist rant, right? But many Africans know them. It’s Thomas Sankara, then president of Burkina Faso, speaking to the African Union in 1987. Sankara had rejected the mandates of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and launched on a development path that promoted economic equality, gender justice, education, and health care as basic rights. Three months after saying that, he was dead: murdered in a coup. France and other creditor nations tacitly endorsed his killing. He’s remembered and mourned across Africa today. His successor brought the country back under World Bank and IMF tutelage; as a result, as a South African analyst remarks, “Today Burkina Faso remains one of the least developed countries in the world.”


For twenty-five years, the World Bank has pushed essentially unvarying policies across the developing world: privatization, cutting the public sector, fostering an export-based economy (so that poor countries become suppliers of raw materials to the industrial North, and don’t grow their own industries and markets). It imposed these restrictions as conditions for loans; that debt, in addition to crippling Southern economies, then became a weapon to enforce more conditions. Poverty spread, not development. The Bank has been friendlier to civil society than its IMF sibling; but their ideologies and impacts have been the same. Praising a World Bank intervention for LGBT rights in Africa while forgetting this history is like praising Putin’s tender concern for Crimean Russians, while forgetting the Ukrainians next door.

You can use the power of international lenders for certain instrumental ends. That doesn’t mean you have to love them. We shouldn’t just hail what they do, we should scrutinize it. And please. You cannot condemn (as indeed you should) the neocolonialism of foreign evangelists exporting homophobia to Africa, and ignore the neocolonialism of foreign financial institutions that enforce neoliberal economics on an abject continent. Why is it wrong to import one devastating ideology, and OK to import another? Sorry. You need to be consistent.

So in the spirit of scrutiny, some questions arise about what the World Bank did.

First of all: why postpone this loan? Mainly, the $90 million was earmarked to combat maternal mortality: aimed at “maternal health, newborn care and family … through improving human resources for health, physical health infrastructure, and management, leadership and accountability for health service delivery.” It entailed funding to expand and train medical staff, to “professionalize and strengthen” management, for obstetric equipment and medicines including contraceptives, and for renovating hospitals. These goals are unlikely to be “adversely affected” by the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The real reason for the selection is that this loan was up for board approval on February 28. The Bank seized on the first loan that came along to postpone. It was a matter of convenience, not strategic targeting.

Progress, but not enough: Uganda maternal mortality rate, 1990-2013

Uganda maternal mortality rate, 1990-2013 (from

Second point: Maternal mortality is serious in Uganda — and a political issue.

The country’s rate of maternal mortality is extremely high. In the Millenium Development Goals — endorsed by nations at a UN summit back in 2000 — countries committed to reduce the level of maternal mortality by 75% by 2015. For Uganda, this would mean cutting a rate that hovered appallingly around 600 per 100,000 live births in the 1990s, to 150. A 2013 report found the rate had fallen to 310 per 100,000 live births — around a 3.2% reduction every year, the UN said, but still well above the goal. Fewer than half of mothers had adequate antenatal care, and only a third had sufficient postnatal care. Less than 60% had a skilled attendant at delivery. Despite the government’s loud promise of a National Minimum Health Care Package (UNMHCP) for all Ugandans, health services still fail to reach many poor and rural women.

Statistics on maternal health care in Uganda (from

Statistics on maternal health care in Uganda (from

By some estimates, between 6,500 and 13,500 women and girls in Uganda die each year due to “pregnancy-related complications.” That means at least sixteen women die every day.

In 2011, a coalition of NGOs petitioned Uganda’s courts to intervene. They argued 

that by not providing essential health services and commodities for pregnant women and their new-borns, Government was violating fundamental human rights guaranteed in the Constitution, including the right to health, the right to life, and the rights of women.

The case has stayed stalled in the legal system. At a September 2013 hearing, the government simply failed to show up, forcing an indefinite postponement. In May 2012, an emotional procession of women and health-care providers marched through Kampala’s streets to support the lawsuit. They got an apology from the judiciary for delays — too few judges, too little time — but the delays continued. They also met with Finance Ministry officials to demand increases in the health sector budget; those didn’t happen. Leonard Okello of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance Uganda told the press, “Dying mothers are not a priority in Uganda.”

Marchers in Kampala, May 22, 2012

Marchers in Kampala, May 22, 2012

Corruption and cronyism are undoubtedly at issue (top government officials waste a small fortune traveling for health care abroad), but the basic question is budgeting. Museveni has successfully battled back the political pressure to reorder his priorities. In 2001, African Union countries signed the Abuja Declaration, committing them to raise health spending to at least 15% of budget. (The development field seems particularly prone to these lofty professions of faith, which multiply like theological credos in the early Church.) Despite all its challenges, including one of the world’s best-known AIDS crises, Uganda has rarely made it much more than halfway to this target. The figures for recent years show a large decrease in the health sector’s budget share — from just over 10% in 2010 to under 8%:

On the right: health care as a percent of overall budget (from "Citizen’s Budget: The Civl Society Alternative Budget Proposals FY 2013/14 - 2017/18), at

On the right: health care as a percent of overall budget (from “Citizen’s Budget: The Civil Society Alternative Budget Proposals FY 2013/14 – 2017/18”, at

Who gets the money instead?

Interesting question. Here are the allocations by sector from Uganda’s budgets for the last two fiscal years.

Uganda budget by sector, FY 2013/14 (from "National Budget Framework Paper," Ministry of Finance, at

Uganda budget by sector (from “The Background to the Budget, Fiscal Year 2013/14,” Ministry of Finance, p. 104, at

(Note the percentage figures on the right, and ignore the numbers in shillings, which are made irrelevant by inflation.) Health’s share goes down again, to less than half the Abuja Declaration goal. Other losers are education, agriculture, water and the environment. Huge shares of the budget are taken up by “Energy and Mineral Development” and “Works and Transport.” These partly reflect the growing exploitation of Uganda’s oil reserves. They also reflect the priorities neoliberal lenders like the World Bank have always urged on developing countries: go produce raw materials for export to the industrialized North! and go build the infrastructure to get them there! One commentator says the country is “focusing on physical capital at the expense of human capital.” That’s an understatement.

But the other big factor is the security sector.

Security doesn’t look so massive: only 8.2% of the latest budget. That’s only the tip of the AK-47, though. Many defense expenditures remain hidden. Uganda’s Independent newspaper noted that the “the budget for Defence in the BFP [Budget Framework Paper] has always been smaller” than the reality:

[I]n real terms that figure excludes monies accrued to Defence from external sources. The figure also does not include classified expenditure that is usually Defence’s biggest component. Because of national security, the army does not reveal certain expenditures.

The 2013/14 budget featured “about ten new taxes… introduced partly to finance the Ministry of Defence.” These included a value-added tax (VAT) on water and on wheat and flour, regressive imposts designed to squeeze money from the poor. Security is Museveni’s “topmost priority,” the Independent says, and it’s the great enemy of health. In 2012, rebel parliamentarians proposed cutting the military’s largesse by 15 billion shillings (about US$6 million) and boosting health spending by 39 billion (US$15.5 million). Museveni quashed the move in fury. He snarled that he “couldn’t sacrifice the defense budget for anything.”

The President prizes his troops: “a large military war-chest increases Museveni’s regional and international leverage, and helps cow opposition to him at home.” But the US loves the Ugandan military as well. America wants to see plenty of money spent on it.

David Hogg, Commander of US Army Africa, inspects Ugandan troops in April 2011. Photo: U.S. Army. .

David Hogg, Commander of US Army Africa, inspects Ugandan troops in April 2011. Photo: U.S. Army. .

I wrote two years ago about the US’s aims for strategic hegemony in Africa, driven by the promise of buried resources and the threat of China. Uganda, as ally and partner, is key to this design. Obama actually sent US troops to Uganda in 2011, to join its army in chasing the warlord Joseph Kony, loathed by well-meaning white people everywhere. This was a small reward for Museveni’s larger services in bringing a desolate stability to Somalia. In 2012, the Pentagon “poured more than $82 million into counterterrorism assistance for six African countries, with more than half of that going to Uganda.” Money and equipment keep flowing to Museveni’s forces. Obama showers Uganda with “lethal military assistance,” writes the pundit Andrew Mwenda, because “America’s geostrategic interests in our region, and Museveni’s pivotal role in them, demand that the American president pampers his Ugandan counterpart.” 

And here is where we can start to understand some ambiguities in the World Bank’s actions.

The $90 million loan for “Uganda Health Systems Strengthening” that the Bank was on the verge of giving drew on two earlier Bank analyses of Uganda’s health crises. There’s a 2009 paper, Uganda: A Public Expenditure Review 2008, With a Focus on Affordability of Pay Reform and Health Sector. A longer 2010 working paper, Fiscal Space for Health in Uganda, elaborated on this. (Peter Okwero, task team leader for the loan, helped compose both.) They’re fascinating documents that reveal much about Uganda and much more about the Bank. It’s an honest institution in many ways, frank with figures and often good at diagnosing what’s wrong. But its prescriptions seem to come from a different place from its diagnoses — one permeated with politics and ideology. Its medicines rarely match the disease.

The findings are unsurprising. Aside from considerable waste (caused by theft of drugs but also poor procurement and storage practices) the main problems in health care stem from lack of funds. Capital spending in hospitals has shrunk; many hospitals are old and decaying. Medical costs are rising: “Growing resistance to the existing treatment for malaria (and more recently for TB), is forcing Uganda to adopt more expensive treatments.” Meanwhile, “Uganda faces a serious shortage of health personnel in the workforce,” with only 8 doctors per 100,000 population. Staff are underpaid (even drug stealing, a major component of waste, is surely related to salaries, though the reports don’t draw the connection). And many sick people need resources just to use the system: 

65 percent of women reported lack of money to pay for treatment as a constraint to seeking treatment. Other problems included travel distance (55 percent), the necessity of taking public transportation (49 percent), concern over unavailability of medications (46 percent) …

“Preliminary health sector modeling work carried out under this study suggests that Uganda clearly needs to increase public health spending for non-salary cost at clinics and hospitals.”

Student nurses in the caesarean section ward of Rukungiri hospital, 2007: ©  Patricia Hopkins, ABC news (Australia)

Student nurses in the caesarean section ward of Rukungiri
hospital, 2007: © Patricia Hopkins, ABC news (Australia)

Except the conclusion is, weirdly, Uganda can’t. Here’s where the medicine stops fitting the diagnosis. “[Only] limited opportunities for additional public funding seem to exist,” the 2009 report says. The reports adduce this from looking at the national budget, and finding there’s just no flexibility there.

Can Uganda increase the share of its Government budget devoted to health? Reprioritizing health spending at the expense of other sectors seems unlikely. It is not clear which other sector budgets can feasibly be cut in order to increase allocations to health. Government policy has emphasized fiscal consolidation, whilst agriculture, energy, roads and USE [universal secondary education] are each identified as priorities in the coming years. … The best option for generating more health outputs in Uganda would seem to be through improved efficiency of Government spending rather than increasing Government spending. [Emphasis added]

So much for those lawsuits based on human rights! Instead … blah, blah. “Uganda’s health policymakers must identify a combination of efficiency savings and re-prioritization to sustain progress towards health targets … Efficiency gains will be needed and can be found …  The most pressing priority is to utilize the existing funding for health more efficiently.” (Italics added.) The reports show that Uganda needs increased health spending. But they end with “Recommendations to reduce the growing pressure to increase health spending.” They remind you mothers are dying, and then offer Museveni advice: how to tell those irritating women who march about dying mothers to get lost.

And it’s very interesting what budget sectors the World Bank looked at. They examine “agriculture, energy, roads” and education and find there’s nothing there to give to health care (even though Uganda’s most recent budgets managed to cut the first and last items). What the Bank doesn’t mention — not once — are defense and security, the military and police. Shifting money out of those sectors isn’t even under consideration. For the Bank, Museveni’s guns are sacrosanct. It’s the butter that needs trimming.

It’s tempting to say the Bank is showing a delicate sensitivity to Museveni’s feelings here. Why antagonize the old dictator by menacing his pet Praetorians?  But the World Bank has never hesitated to tell governments to cut their favorite projects. Instead, we need to recall the Bank’s political situation. The US is its largest shareholder; the American President appoints its head; the Yankee-led Bank put the Washington in the Washington Consensus, balancing off the European-dominated IMF. The Bank’s approach to Ugandan budgeting reflects the US’s priorities. The US gives its share of support to health care in Uganda, through PEPFAR and other programs; but its main interest is Museveni’s military, and it has no desire to see money for soldiers shifted to obstetricians. The Bank, likewise, is not going to threaten the defense sector. If that’s the choice — and they don’t even dare to suggest it — health care has to fend for itself.

The Washington Consensus: Street art from Argentina

The Washington Consensus: Street art from Argentina

The $90 million loan was meant as a way out of this dilemma, giving the Ugandan health system a bit more breathing room. It’s interesting, then, how the Bank moved so quickly to suspend it. According to BuzzFeed, the Democratic leader of the House herself called the Bank:

“Yesterday, Leader Pelosi [a curiously North Korean locution] spoke with President Kim to express the concerns of Members of Congress about the legislation enacted in Uganda,” Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill, told BuzzFeed in an email. “While we appreciate the difficult decisions President Kim has to make and their impact on the lives of many in the developing world, many Members believe that such a blatant act of discrimination should not go unnoticed.”

How odd that Pelosi phoned the Bank about its aid package before dialing her own government’s agencies. Yet it makes a certain sense; for Obama was under pressure to do something about Uganda, and some were pointing to that sacred military aid as a tempting target. Just one day earlier, Stars and Stripes — the US Army’s own newspaper — suggested as much.

[D]owngrading cooperation with Uganda’s military would be a way to send a signal to the leadership in the country, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. … 

“Military assistance is the one area where the U.S. has options,” Pham said. “[T]he Ugandan People’s Defence Force remains one of the few bastions of professionalism in the country, and its leadership is about the only check on Museveni and his ambitions to impose his son as a successor; hence, a shot across the UPDF’s bow might get some attention from those best positioned to get the president’s attention.”

The paper quickly backtracked: “Some experts, however, say that military ties are unlikely to be cut. Given the role the Ugandan military plays in promoting regional stability, dramatic cuts in aid should be avoided.” Lovely stability! You can see how the World Bank’s loan postponement was a happy distraction. It ended any pressure on the US government to trim its military commitments to Kampala. Uganda was already suffering, and Obama no longer needed to pile on. Pelosi’s call served its purpose.

This is stability: Ugandan soldier in Mogadishu, 2007

This is stability: Ugandan soldier in Mogadishu, 2007

The gesture is more a symbolic than a real one. The World Bank is unlikely actually to cut the loan, with four years of planning behind it. Sheila Gashishiri, the Bank’s spokesperson in Kampala, told the AP on February 28 that “the project run by Uganda’s Health Ministry will continue despite the postponement.” That probably means the funds will come through after a suitable interval.

In fact, Museveni’s regime will benefit. The whole brouhaha gives him wonderful room for rhetorical posturing. “The West can keep their ‘aid’ to Uganda over homos,” the ruling party’s press man Ofwono Opondo said, adding both that “Africa must stand up to Western domination” and that “Western ‘aid’ to Africa is lucrative and profitable trade they cannot cut off completely.” The politicos can have their cake of indignation — and ultimately eat their cake of $90 million credits too. Their rage, their language, pits LGBT people against pregnant women — a terrible side-effect of the Bank’s action. Surely that can only help brutal violence against the former spread.

Moreover, even a brief interruption in the health care loan gives Museveni ammunition. He can stand up to NGOs, Parliament, and even the courts if they demand more funding for the health sector to fight maternal mortality. “What money? The World Bank money? Where is it? There is no cash.” Those marching women can just go away. His security budget is even safer now from niggling jealousies.

And yet all this aid-cutting and health-care gutting is, we’re told, a blow for equality, against discrimination. We talk so much about “equality,” in the Western LGBT movement! The word is our fetish; we raise up those rosy equal signs as if they were the Black Madonna of Częstochowa.  But maybe we need to think more deeply about equality’s meaning.

Here is the logo for the State Department’s Global Equality Fund, which supports LGBT organizing around the world.


You have to love that rainbow circle: it’s seductive as the One Ring. So, too, is the call for dialogue. But what if that sphere dialogued with this one – a chart of global inequality, prepared by no less impeccable a capitalist center than a famous Swiss bank:


It’s a bit more … detailed. As are these circles:

Top: Wealth shares by country, 2000 (from Wikipedia; data from; Bottom: Wealth shares by region, 2010

Top: Wealth shares by country, 2000 (from Wikipedia; data from; Bottom: Wealth shares by region, 2010

You’ll notice that Africa, with one-sixth of the world’s population, has one percent of its wealth. Uganda is a tiny, tiny sliver within that. I want the rainbow ring, but there’s something missing. How do these visions of equality connect?

The US-based Human Rights Campaign, which gave those iconic equality symbols to the world, also weighed in on the World Bank’s statement, inveighing at recalcitrant countries that

you will pay a high price for discriminatory practices. Whether viewed through a moral or economic lense [sic], discrimination does not pay. … HRC applauds Secretary Kerry and World Bank President Kim for taking a stand on LGBT equality. But the work is far from done.

HRC’s international work, of course, is mainly supported by the profits of vulture funds, exploiters who traffic in Third World debt and immiseration. Equality can mean so many things.

VULTURE 9So who won, and who lost? The World Bank won. They’ve sent the US a message that they are pliable to its political requirements. They’ve sent Uganda a message that there will be Consequences, but the Consequences won’t affect the programs Museveni most loves — the ones with guns. Then, messages mailed, the World Bank can finally produce the loan, which will take it off the hook (except to collect the interest). Uganda’s government is also a winner. They get to stand up theatrically to the blackmail of perversion; in the end, they probably get the cash. They also get an excellent argument against shifting money from the security establishment, or ending the deaths of pregnant women.

To these you can add the US government, which can rest confident that its military aid to Museveni has again evaded question. And you can add Western gay movements — especially those in the United States, allied not-quite-knowingly but easily with the administration’s interests. They’ve flexed their macho muscles and proven that they have some power, power to make the poor pay for what other people have done. I mean, it’s true that LGBT communities in Uganda are still laboring under oppression, and we haven’t done so much about that; but at least we get to oppress someone too. Isn’t that a consolation?

The losers are all in Uganda. They’re folks whose voices, though sometimes ventriloquized, are too faint or peripheral to be heard: mothers, children, LGBT people. Here’s to the victors! Great job.


Eric Ohena Lembembe: Not again, or never again?


They found Eric Ohena Lembembe’s body four days ago. He had a title and he had attracted praise before, and more has accrued to him now that it does no good. He was executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, and he fought not just for the right to health but for the other rights of people vulnerable to the virus, LGBT folk among them. He was brave, he was visible, he was gentle, he was outspoken. If you have ever seen a tortured body, you know how little this language signifies against the violence of somebody’s flesh being broken.  They discovered him at home; he had been missing for two days. The door was chained, but, staring through the window, his colleagues saw his corpse. His neck was snapped. The murderers had used a clothes iron to burn his limbs and his face. When I think of him I don’t think of his titles or his bravery. I only think of him suffering pain: intense pain, perhaps coming in sharp blows or perhaps in mounting waves, pain large enough to extinguish everything else in the world. The measure of how nobody deserves that is exactly that nobody can understand that. The pain blots out explanation or description. It is necessary to say something, in the end, but first one must think of the pain.

A necessary thing to say, once words restore their hegemony, is: It’s not the first time. I had the same thoughts of pain when David Kato’s body was found in Uganda in 2011. David was a slight, almost breakable-looking man: when he got excited, which was often, his body shook like an aspen with the intensity of expressing himself. The killer had beaten his head in with a hammer. There is a great, long poem about the First World War; toward its end a soldier reflects, in a moment when pain makes time stop, on the shell that has just struck him:

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering
the fragility of us.

The violence is out of all proportion to our human weakness. Yet the killings keep coming.

David Kato

David Kato

One thing that struck me when David died was that, while human rights defenders and anti-Museveni dissidents in Uganda had faced harassment and persecution for years, he was the first in a long while to be murdered for his pains. Country after country, of course, defenders die in retaliation for all kinds of offenses against the powerful. In Russia, you can be shot in an elevator or murdered on the road for the articles you write; in Egypt, you can be tortured to death for talking back to the police. Still, in much of the world, activists working on gender and sexuality are among the most endangered defenders. I used to say: those who talk about the body and its rights face revenge upon their bodies by those who hate them. Perhaps that’s too pat, but there is something in it. The torture Lembembe underwent is what forensic examiners sometimes call “overkill,” defined aseptically as “wounding far beyond that required to cause death.” In many jurisdictions it seems to typify murders of LGBT people. The standard explanation is that hate drives the surplus violence. But a more excruciating economy than that is probably at work. You make your body support a politics; make your body suffer pain, and die of it. Isn’t that what they were trying to say not to, but through Eric Lembembe?

Lembembe died in Africa, of course. But there was nothing uniquely African about his death. Western press coverage falls back almost instantly on “African homophobia” as an explanation, painting the whole continent as one entity with a single culture that is unvaried, implacable, and impervious to history or distance. It’s “a notoriously homophobic continent.” “Gay rights face an uphill struggle throughout much of Africa,” Time intoned (click Time’s link and you’ll find that Africa is largely about dead gays, mass murder, elephant poaching, and Mandela). This is hardly new. A few weeks ago an American paper was warning of “An African Epidemic of Homophobia” (add epidemics to Time’s list). And so on.

Jayaram, a meti who survived a murder attempt on the street in Kathmandu, 2004

Jayaram, a meti who survived a murder attempt on the street in Kathmandu, 2004

But Lembembe didn’t die of something both diffused across all Africa and distinctive to its “culture,” any more than Mark Carson, gunned down in New York City in May, died of a cultural pathology infecting all the rotten traditional communities of North America. For years reporters have been asking me what is “the world’s worst place to be gay.” The expected answers usually are a) all of Africa; b) all of the “Muslim world”; c) Jamaica. The question isn’t just reductionist, it’s racist. It assumes that all gay people’s experiences in a country are alike and can be assembled for insertion somewhere in a sliding scale. It assumes that homophobia is uniform across particular countries or cultures, and that you can rate the places like the Rough Guide. It takes a picture of monolithic and exclusionary cultures that Russian nationalists, African traditionalists, and American fundamentalists could all go jismic over — and combines it with a nineteenth-century race theorist’s facility in ranking all these on a ladder, leading up to white liberals in pith helmets on top. (There’s even a poll out now asking fools what they think are the world’s least gay-friendly countries, with Iran victorious by virtue of bad publicity.) But any place –Stockholm or Amsterdam or San Francisco — can be terrible if you are gay and poor, or gay and a member of another group that people don’t like. And Kingston, Teheran, and Yaounde are perfectly safe for plenty who have power, position, or money. No “culture” has slapped a copyright on the idea of murdering LGBT people. It happens in Kathmandu and in Montreal.  Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death should not blind us to other horrors, less conspicuous and less known although — or perhaps because — they may be closer at hand.

Moral panic: Stanley Cohen's definition (1972)

Moral panic: Stanley Cohen’s definition (1972)

What’s happened in Cameroon for more than seven years is a moral panic: a moment when social and political anxieties — usually fears about rapid change — grow too intense to find release through argument, and turn to a hunt for scapegoats. Moral panics are not “cultural” eruptions from primeval magma. They’re always political. They enlist political actors (journalists, pundits, religious leaders, intellectuals, police, politicians themselves); almost always politicians instigate them, or try to manipulate them. This is especially true of panics around sexuality and gender. “Panic,” Gayle Rubin wrote a long time ago, “is the political moment of sex.” Sex is a charged question everywhere. It’s an easy way for opportunists to define their enemies. In Cameroon, the furor arguably dates to 2005, when a few newspapers launched a campaign to expose a homosexual “conspiracy” in high places, outing allegedly deviant celebrities. There was obscure political scheming behind the defamations. It created a miasma of public uncertainty and fear, though, in which stripping away secrecies became a civic duty. The ensuing years have seen mass arrests, trials, blackmailing, threats, violence, and now murder.

The most “African” thing about the long panic in Cameroon is precisely its political side. Public figures since Robert Mugabe in the early 1990s have figured out how to wield homophobic rhetoric for distraction, division, and support. Cameroon is only one more country (think Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal and more) where whipping up fears of sexual corruption has become a collective sport.

When the first shock of Lembembe’s killing recedes, it’s easy to let the repetitiveness dull you. There’s the recurrence of homophobia: the same political gesticulations and demonizing sounds, the same gibbering scarecrows set up to appal. And there’s the recurrence of death. A lot of us have our private mourning lists unscrolling in our minds: Fanny Ann Eddy, David Kato, Lawrence King, Vanesa Ledesma, Cynthia Nicole, Ebru Soykan, Daniel Zamudio. About now is the time some people get orotund, and say sententiously: “Never again.” Another voice in the mind, though, between exhaustion and despair, wheedles instead: “Not again. Not this again.” As though you know it will be this inevitably, again and again. More death.

Fanny Ann Eddy, Lawrence King, Cynthia Nicole, Daniel Zamudio: RIP

Fanny Ann Eddy, Lawrence King, Cynthia Nicole, Daniel Zamudio: RIP

My question is: What can we do?

That “we” has two sides. LGBT movements worldwide are divided in resources and perspectives. There’s a difference between the groups that say they work “internationally” — mainly meaning they are based in North America or Europe and identify themselves by their synoptic view — and groups that, even if they work extensively across borders, don’t look quite so international because based in the South: Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East. They have different capacities, monies, and power. In preventing violence and murder, they have different responsibilities.

I’m interested in the internationals, because, of course, I’m one of them. I worked for IGLHRC and Human Rights Watch for almost twenty years. I have a fair idea how international groups think. They’re like anybody else: a triumph happens – a sodomy statute struck down, or discrimination banned — and they’re more than happy to assert their share of credit. When a catastrophe takes place – an activist murdered, a bad law passed – they condemn, but don’t guess whether they might have done something different. You know what people say. Victory has a thousand fathers. Defeat is a Russian orphan; the law bars gay groups abroad from adopting it. 

Almost from the beginning of the panic in Cameroon, international organizations descended on the country. (Many had paid limited attention to Cameroon before the gay issue came up.) Human Rights Watch did joint letters with Amnesty, IGLHRC, and other organizations, including Doctors of the World and Physicians for Human RIghts. in 2010 a joint report came out, authored by Alternatives-Cameroun and l’Association pour la défense des droits des homosexuels (ADEFHO), together with HRW and IGLHRC. Earlier this year HRW produced another report, with ADEFHO and Alternatives-Cameroun, and Eric’s organization CAMFAIDS. Amnesty International featured Cameroon in its recent analysis of homophobia in Africa. All Out announced petition campaigns, and praised itself for their impact. IGLHRC has its own roster of letters and press releases on the country. Surely, then, one should be able to say what this accomplished. I stress that I was involved in much of this — I oversaw HRW’s early interventions in the situation, including the research for the 2010 report. So any critique must criticize me.

But has this been a great success? If it were, Eric Ohena Lembembe would not be dead. The murder of a leading movement figure — and the brutal “overkill” with its message of revenge and loathing — means, whatever else we may have accomplished around the edges, we’ve failed at something. Something central.

The questions for me are twofold: how does the discourse change, how does the discussion shift, when you internationalize a situation like this? and what does “security” mean when your whole work is about making human rights stories — and activists and actors — more visible and exposed?

First, international actors worked in Cameroon, of course, at the request and by and large under the guidance of domestic activist groups. The 2010 and 2013 reports in which Human Rights Watch joined were if anything unusually collaborative for an NGO that is used to going it alone. Our partners, ADEFHO and Alternatives-Cameroun, were extremely clear in setting out what they did and did not want us to do. The problem was not with the terms of the relationship (ADEFHO and Alternatives, of course, might disagree), and certainly not with the guidance we got. My question is rather whether international groups’ engagement carries hidden costs — ones that can only be seen by testing whether their agendas, the terms in which they frame things, are really responsive to other realities.

For example, there’s the idea of “equality,” which comes up again and again in the responses to Eric’s murder. “Eric’s activism paved the way for a society based on equality and nondiscrimination,” says Human Rights Watch. “The global movement for love and equality is poorer for the loss of Eric Lembembe,” says All Out. “Equal rights” was an important term in Eric Lembembe’s advocacy, as well. But did it mean the same thing?

Shut up and like it: This is all you need

Shut up and like it: This is all you need

There was a time — as little as ten or fifteen years ago — when the LGBT movement as a whole talked about “equality” in a constellation with other values like privacy, and dignity; when it also talked about specific rights, like expression, association, and assembly, as well as the rights to health or livelihood. That’s over. The big gay gurus now rattle on about “equality” as if it subsumes them all. It’s a master key that explains everything we apparently want, and you don’t have to descend to talking about specific rights at all. In fact, the internationals know what equality means: there’s a road map hidden in the word, with a general understanding that it leads through anti-discrimination laws toward relationship recognition and marriage. Never mind that marriage is exactly the prospect that inflames the intensest opposition in large quarters of the world, and that foreigners throwing around “equality” language in those precincts may be juggling with Molotov cocktails. “Equality” has become the be-all and end-all of LGBT aspirations in North America and Europe.

The US State Department, for instance, has set up a public-private partnership “Global Equality Fund” to govern its giving to LGBT causes. This is christened after the Council for Global Equality, an NGO set up by excellent friends and colleagues of mine to lobby US diplomacy for … well, equality. “Equality” is the only term in which the most powerful government in the world envisions LGBT rights.

Predators don't play in Peoria: Drones for me but not for thee

Predators don’t play in Peoria: Drones for me but not for thee

It would be hard to say that the USG has a vision of global equality, though: at least, one that extends to the percent of the world’s population who, not being LGBT, aren’t eligible for the fund. US foreign policy is not based on reciprocity among global citizens. We have, after all, a world order where the US can send drones to kill Pakistanis unimpeded, while Pakistan certainly can’t do the same to the US. But even if you think (as most people in the US surely do, myself included) it’s a fine thing not to have Pakistani flights laying waste to Peoria, one still might question a global order in which the governments of Pakistan, and Yemen, and for that matter Poland and Romania, are too enfeebled, dependent, and submissive to the United States even to protest when America wants to slaughter their citizens, or spy on their diplomats, or set up torture camps to brutalize victims on their soil.  It may be an orderly and stable world. It may be a grand Pax Americana. But equal it isn’t.

And one needn’t turn to Great Game geopolitics to wonder what “global equality” is about.  Take the question of humanitarian aid from rich countries to poor –which a number of governments and international organizations would like to see tied to whether the poor countries treat their LGBT people equally.  Of course, humanitarian aid is itself a function of an unequal world, a way of palliating its inequalities. Tying that aid to political conditions is a stark reminder of the political inequality between peoples. And enforcing those conditions and cutting the aid will make economic inequality worse. From an African’s perspective, it might look suspiciously as though rich governments are willing to make some people less equal in the name of making others more so.  How did those folks get to be the favored beneficiaries of equality, whereas these aren’t? Obviously some are more equal, or at least more global, than others.  You can understand why most African activists have rejected aid conditionality as a way of achieving rights. But leaders like David Cameron keep babbling about it. And as long as they do, resentment over why the gays get this extra dollop of equality denied to others will multiply: not because of what African activists themselves are doing, but because of how their international friends try to help.

Nor is it just government policies that raise doubts about what “equality” means to the West. Non-governmental organizations create similar confusion. All these groups believe enthusiastically in formal equality before the law. When it comes to economic equality, or even to the social conditions that make legal equality real, they sometimes stare slack-jawed as though they have no idea what one means. Human Rights Watch used to have particular insecurities about approaching economic rights.  In a famous or notorious article, Ken Roth, the executive director, suggested back in 2004 that poverty was not a structural problem at all: “poverty and severe deprivation is [sic] a product less of a lack of public goods than of officially promoted or tolerated policies of social exclusion.” In other words, the difficulty is not with the recipe for the pie, or the men who bake it, or the oven in which it’s made. Nothing about the economic structure in which the pie is produced keeps it small. Other bakers aren’t monopolizing the ingredients. The pie is fine. It’s just that somebody is dividing this mini-pie up wrong, so that one group or another doesn’t get its negligible bite.

It's fine. Fine.

It’s fine. Fine.

The result was that Human Rights Watch committed to dealing with poverty – in rights-ese, the denial of economic and social rights – not as an economic issue, but as a matter of discrimination. Poverty was bad if some people were deliberately made poorer than others. In this model, you could talk about the right to education if certain kids – children of ethnic minorities, for example, or children living with HIV/AIDS—were denied schooling. You couldn’t talk about policies that threatened all, or nearly all, children’s access to education, though: policies like privatizing schools, or the school fees or exorbitant textbook prices that international lending institutions loved to impose on Africa. Because those applied across the board, they weren’t issues of “social exclusion.” The pie was simply made that way, that’s all. In fairness, almost the entire organization tacitly rebelled against this argument. Human Rights Watch’s reports on kids’ education back then, for instance, reveal researchers finding all sorts of ingenious ways to urge that school fees were excessive, or unnecessary, or should be “reconsidered,” or lifted in nearly all cases, without actually writing that school fees were wrong. This kind of casuistry helped salvage the organization’s reputation in many places, including Africa. But the economically uninformed picture of poverty that underlay it hardly went unnoticed. It pointed up the fact that “equality” meant something different to HRW than to almost every activist in Africa. And the problem is that the more your agenda as a local activist got identified with HRW’s, the more your own articulation of equality got subsumed beneath this partial and impoverished one.

I have some experience with LGBT rights activism in Africa. And I find the way its diverse goals are represented, not just in the media but by its international partners, often reductive and distorting. There are a great many LGBT activists who don’t see some broad “equality” agenda as standing for their struggles. They want specific things: the right to privacy, say, represented by repealing sodomy laws; the right to associate, represented by registering an organization; the right to expression, enjoyed when you can give an interview to a radio station without fear of reprisal. The nebulosities of “equality” as Westerners bloviate about it aren’t nearly precise enough. There are activists who see formal, legal “equality” in the Western sense as simply a cover for neocolonial forms of segregation and domination, a substitute (as arguably it’s been in South Africa) for deeper, radical social transformation. There are activists who feel that “equality” in relationships can only be achieved by exempting them from the patriarchal state’s regulation, not getting them a far-off seal of repressive approval. And there are a lot of activists who would say that it’s destructive to talk, for example, about “LGBT equality” in access to health care when nobody has access to adequate health care. “Equality” for them does not mean some particular protection for LGBT people; it doesn’t just mean remedying “social exclusion”; it means changing the rules of the game. It means comprehensively redistributing goods so that all sectors of society can obtain them. It doesn’t imply privileging those groups who can make “discrimination” claims that Western actors will recognize.

Equality, an African view

Equality, an African view

These are only a few of the positions out there. All these disputes take place at a time of extraordinary economic flux and chaos in Africa. What Achille Mbembe wrote (in On the Postcolony) is still true: there is a “crisis of the taxation system, shortages, and population movements,” and it often looks like “simply a struggle among predators.”

Meanwhile, below the state sphere new forms of belonging and social incorporation are gestating, with the formation of “leagues,” “corporations,” “coalitions,” and so on. There is no doubt that most of the religious and healing movements proliferating in Africa today constitute visible, if ambiguous, sites where new normative systems, new common languages, and the constitution of new authorities are being negotiated.

There is a “heteronomous and fragmented conception of the ‘political community.’ The basic question, of the emergence of a subject with rights, remains unresolved.” But exactly because of this ferment and uncertainty, assuming the Western vision of formal legal equality encompasses a solution is both stupid and premature.

However. It’s very hard for this fertility of ideas, which so informs what happens in African movements, to filter into what international organizations do. There’s no mechanism built into their board-governed systems to listen or respond. My fear is that, because the internationals have the discursive power, what African (and other) activists are doing will get further identified with their HRC-sticker agendas. It’s easy to predict two results. The internationals’ interventions will be ignored — unless they grow addicted to relying on Western governments’ economic leverage, which will only discredit LGBT issues still more. And many African LGBT movements will look more isolated from their countries and peoples, rather than more integrated into the collective pursuit of justice. There is still time for the internationals to enter into a dialogue with Southern partners with a view to more open and flexible definitions of a rights agenda. It’s not happening yet. If it doesn’t, I can tell you what the consequences of isolation and stigma will be: More blood. More pain.

Moral entrepreneur: Ghanaian newspaper, 2011

Moral entrepreneur: Ghanaian newspaper, 2011

Second: Visibility leads to violence. It’s a lesson that (to return to what’s happened in Africa) twenty years’ experience should have enforced on everyone. Again and again, the first time somebody came out or was outed or made a public statement about LGBT identity in a particular country, a ferocious backlash followed; lives were destroyed. Zimbabwe! Zambia!  Uganda! Kenya! This didn’t happen (to repeat) just because of some cross-continental cultural pressure for conformity. It happened, by and large, because some players knew how to exploit the spectre of sexual difference, and gin up fears for political ends. They had models for doing this, furnished ready-made from Mugabe on down. The dynamic of panic is reproducible. As with an earthquake, it’s hard to tell exactly when the backlash might break out or the violence begin. But as with an earthquake, you can predict that, precise dates aside, it’s coming.

From the beginning — with Mugabe’s attacks on the Zimbabwe Book Fair and GALZ in the early 1990s — international organizations have largely intervened to publicize these episodes, which started with publicity, still further. That’s the main thing international human rights groups do, after all: their work is predicated on faith that shedding light and telling stories are the foundations of change. A cycle of publicity starts, with exposure leading to more exposure. The victims and the local activists both become more public. I could hardly claim to see this with disapproval. It does, however, place a responsibility on international activists. Having shed the light, they are liable for the consequences. Their obligation is, as far as humanly possible, to ensure the safety of those they work with. It’s particularly salient because most international human rights organizations claim special expertise on issues of security, transcending local knowledges about safety and defense. They talk about it regularly. They raise money for it.

I’ve seen international groups promising to protect the security of LGBT activist partners for twenty years now.  We’ve done a shamefully incompetent job.

Some things improved in recent years — there is more funding for security, there are more experienced organizations involved. Some individuals devote their time to helping with security concerns. But these small marks in the ledger haven’t stopped the deaths. If they had, Eric might be alive. Human Rights Watch used to say that defending the defenders was at the core of its mission. When did this become defending the defenders after they’re dead?

Everybody agrees vaguely that LGBT activists face distinctive dangers in many places. But no one, so far as I know, has even tried to analyze systematically what those dangers are, how they’re different, or what can be done. As for the risks endured by “ordinary” LGBT communities, not just rights defenders: the serious studies of how they could be countered can be counted on one hand.

And there is thinking about this that goes on among local groups!  Just this afternoon I sat with a couple of Egyptians who brainstormed innovative approaches to provide some protection for people who look funny — not “masculine” or “feminine” enough — in downtown Cairo. There’s more imagination there than the big human rights groups have evolved in years. For most of us on the “international” side, the reflex reaction when confronted by an activist in danger is: Get her out of the country. Escape substitutes for protection. The asylum system –unwieldy, prejudiced, deeply flawed — serves as the nearest thing we have to a security plan for the international LGBT movement.

Asylum is so easy

Asylum is so easy

Asylum is necessary. Asylum is a human right. The incessant efforts by governments to restrict it are intolerable. This afternoon I’m also finishing an affidavit for a gay Egyptian seeking asylum in Europe. The contortions the authorities undergo to deny him are amazing; if they could find an expert to testify that the man’s buck teeth proved that he was heterosexual, and thus ineligible, they’d jump at the chance. People who work full-time on asylum and refugee concerns are tottering on the brink of permanent despair. I profoundly respect them.

On the other hand, half the time when I hear LGBT people from North America or Europe talking about LGBT asylum, I want to pound somebody’s head, possibly but not necessarily mine, against a well-built wall. The subject brings out the worst fantasies in Western gays’ imaginations. All too often they feed on the needs of asylum-seekers, for a vampirish, sanguine satisfaction. There is, on the one hand, the dream of being a savior without going anywhere, of staying securely at home while rescuing some helpless subaltern from her own society. There is also the sheer pleasure of seeing one’s own country exalted, as the abode of freedom and the goal of others’ aspirations. The rhetoric can be Dickensian in its mawkishness, and patronizing to the point of racism. “We helped save a 19-year old Iranian!” Or: the poor victim “has NEVER been accused of a crime, except leaving his homeland to come to America. He was shunned by a society that wants to kills gays. He is an orphan and has no one.” Lucky you: “We can give one gay man … the gift of freedom.” That some asylum-seekers are desperate is beyond doubt; that emotional excess can energize an appeal is at least arguable; but reducing them to emblems of abjection only redoubles the humiliation they have already suffered. That this self-indulgence also lets people suppose they are doing something constructive for the security of LGBT movements around the world is hard to bear.

Image from the "Save Pegah" campaign (the asylum-seeker's name was publicized apparently without her permission), 2007

Image from the “Save Pegah” campaign (the asylum-seeker’s name was publicized apparently without her permission), 2007

Particularly self-congratulatory is the rhetoric that asylum for LGBT people — or anybody — “saves lives.” Just for the record, it doesn’t. Asylum can often save biological life: one reason why it’s absolutely necessary. But that’s not the same as saving lives, saving the way people live as connected and implicated beings in their cultures, contexts, communities. It’s exactly this that exile destroys. Asylum can keep your physical existence going at a distance from those who want to kill you, but it can’t give you back that connectedness and system of meaning, that way of living. To the contrary. Almost any asylee will tell you that exile is a social death, and there is no easy way to rebuild a lost vocabulary of values or a syntax of belonging in a new country. Asylum is suffering, not hope. This is why hardly anyone ever seeks it casually or lightly, and why so few claims actually are fraudulent. Who would inflict such an amnesia and amputation on himself with so tenuous a prospect of recovery, unless there were absolutely no alternative?

And it’s this social death that — contemplating the dangers LGBT movements face around the world — we hold out as a security program.

We, and by “we” of course I mean the international segment of the LGBT movement, have to do better. Much better. Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death should make us do more than mourn, and calls us to condemn more than state inaction. We need to examine ourselves, what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone.  International organizations need to return to their Southern partners for analysis and critique, with a much-made and superannuated promise to listen and learn: not just about strategy and method, but about the meaning of rights talk itself, what needs it stands for and how it performs in the open politics of movements as well as in the chambers of law. I’m not too optimistic that this will happen. But the alternative to patiently educating ourselves is either becoming irrelevant, or a lot more pain.