African critics of the foreign aid industry have long argued that Africa’s heavy reliance on contributions from abroad results in African leaders being beholden to outside donors at the expense of their own citizens. One growing international controversy illustrates tension between foreign donors’ expectations and African cultural values: Uganda’s controversial anti-gay legislation.
While homosexuality is already illegal under Ugandan law, a proposed bill takes things up a notch. It penalizes homosexuality with a prison sentence or the death penalty, if it involves a minor, a disabled person, or the accused individual has HIV. It also penalizes individuals (e.g., landlords or relatives) who fail to report homosexuality with prison time.
Liberal observers have harped on the role that some U.S. evangelical Christians – especially the group known as “The Family” – have played in Ugandan parliamentarian David Bahati’s decision to introduce the bill. However, they let Ugandans off the hook as though they have no agency in their lives.
As in many other African countries, homosexuality is viewed as “un-African” and an “abomination” in Uganda. Some Ugandans have argued that Western countries are using the threat of cutting off foreign aid in order to “recruit” Africans into becoming homosexuals. Rev. Martin Ssempa – a Ugandan minister who is such a vocal critic of homosexuality that he recently showed gay porn to his congregation to try to equate homosexuality with deviancy – has also taken aim at the Obama administration. “Recently in America, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stood up and said, ‘How can Uganda make a law against homosexuality?’ I want us to tell Obama that in Africa sodomy is an abomination,” said Ssempa
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is under tremendous international pressure to stop the bill that Rev. Ssempa and others support. He has cautioned advocates of the anti-homosexuality bill to “go slow”, arguing that it was a sensitive foreign policy issue (especially as some countries, such as Sweden, have threatened to cut off foreign aid if the bill passes). Nevertheless, Ugandan citizens seek to make their voices heard.
Led by Rev. Ssempa, more than 4,000 people recently gathered in the town of Jinja to protest against homosexuality. Some people even called for the Ugandan government to reduce its reliance on foreign aid (currently at 30 percent of its budget). However, Ugandan police stopped an anti-gay demonstration that was supposed to take place in the capital city of Kampala, claiming that the government is still sorting “issues out”.
While Uganda is getting most of the headlines, gay rights battles are taking place in other African countries. The first known gay couple in Malawi to have a public commitment ceremony wound up getting arrested, and faces a 14-year jail sentence. Kenya’s first gay wedding was recently canceled, after “Operation Gays Out” mob protests.
If the Ugandans, Kenyans, and Malawians don’t want Western countries intervening in their affairs, then they must follow the advice of individuals such as Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo, author of the best-selling book Dead Aid and Ghanaian-born economist George Ayittey: start coming off the foreign aid dole. It is only fair that Western taxpayers – many of whom rightfully support gay rights as a matter of individual liberty – should not be required to underwrite governments whose values they may find repugnant. Instead of pursuing free-market reforms to organically grow their economies, Africa’s heavy reliance on foreign aid reinforces an unequal relationship and allows outsiders to dictate cultural policy to Africa.
Ideally, African governments should come off the foreign aid dole and allow a bigger space for individual liberty involving consenting adults. However, such cultural change can’t be sustainable if it is imposed from the outside. Andrew Mwenda, the Ugandan libertarian journalist and foreign aid critic who has been one of Uganda’s few public voices opposing the proposed anti-gay bill, states, “To secure attitudinal change through force would require unprecedented violence. Our challenge is how to foster openness and tolerance. This can only be achieved through open debate.”
The West can’t want individual liberty and open debate for Africa more than Africans themselves. Gays and their supporters in African countries are going to have to risk their livelihoods (and perhaps their lives) to create this cultural change. They must want it so much that they will put their bodies on the line for it, and take initiative to make it happen. Looking at our own history (e.g., American Revolution, Civil Rights Movement, etc.) reflects this fact. The top-down approach that the West is taking on both the foreign aid and gay rights fronts takes away initiative, self-sufficiency, and the responsibility of societies to alter themselves.