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Can aid donors help support LGBT rights in developing countries?

Time (GMT +01) 13:30 18:30


Simon Fanshawe OBE (Author and member of Kaleidoscope Trust Board of Directors)

Introduction and welcome
Kevin Watkins (Executive Director at ODI)


Ms Elizabeth Ohene (Ghanaian journalist, former BBC presenter and former Minister of Information)

Mr Sunil Pant (Head of Blue Diamond Society, a leading gay rights group in Nepal, 2014 Nobel Peace Prize nominee)

Ms Jessica Horn (Women's rights consultant, Akiiki Consulting)

Dr Elizabeth Mills (Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, and Convenor of the Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme)

Ms Bjørg Sandkjær (Senior advisor NORAD Department for Global Health, Education and Research)

Mr Fabrice Houdart (World Bank Senior country officer in Maghreb)

Mr Ajit Joshi (Senior LGBT Advisor for USAID)

Ms Marta Foresti (Director Politics and Governance programme at ODI)

This ODI-Kaleidoscope Trust event, chaired by writer and broadcaster Simon Fanshawe, saw broad agreement against aid conditionality; a demand for increased funding for research; and the need to support LGBT communities to bring about the change that they want by themselves. 

Director of ODI, Kevin Watkins kicked off the discussion, highlighting that the legislation being used to crack down on LGBT rights was, in many cases, re-vamped colonial legislation.  But in supporting gay rights, he said, donors need to bear in mind the limits of aid conditionality.  

Women’s rights activist, Jessica Horn, argued that the recent anti-gay moves must be seen within a wider political context, saying that one influence had been that of the religious right.  She also argued that whipping up homophobia was a bid to distract attention from domestic political problems in countries like Nigeria.  

But journalist and Former Minister of Information in Ghana, Elizabeth Ohene, challenged the attention given to LGBT rights.  Are they – she said – the most important of all human rights? Change in Africa wasn’t through politicians, but through social change. “Please let us do our own evolving at our own rate. Like President Obama has, we will also get there.”

Nobel nominee and Nepal gay rights activist, Sunil Pant felt, however, donors could – and should - support LGBT. His experience, though, was mixed – on the one hand donors wanted to work with the grassroots organisations – but then put in place very bureaucratic processes. 

Elizabeth Mills, Research Fellow from the Institute of Development Studies noted how we need to think tactically to support LGBT rights - traditionally this was through HIV and human rights programmes, should we now think about economic entry points?  

Fabrice Houdart from the World Bank highlighted how the Russian and Indian backlash re-energised LGBT there. But he argued that donors can help – through financial support to grassroots, investing in research and evidence to make the case for inclusion and ensuring development programmes include sexual minorities. 

Bjørg Sandkjær, a senior advisor for NORAD, described the delicate diplomacy around this issue. She recounted how diplomatic missions in Zambia had resolved to not have more than four representatives at a court hearing testing gay rights, because they didn’t want it to seem an Africa vs West issue. 

Ajit Joshi, a Senior LGBT advisor at USAID said his organisation’s approach was to see LGBT rights as not specific, just part of human rights.  He stressed the need for inclusive development which includes ’girls, youths, indigenous people’ - non-discrimination being key.

ODI’s Marta Foresti wrapped up by challenging the audience not to put too much store in aid conditionality and not to see grassroots engagement as a panacea; it was also important to think tactically about which political figures within a country’s systems could bring about change. 


Recent legislation in Africa and elsewhere has raised concerns over Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights. Recent legislation, and an associated hardening of attitudes, may actively undermine the well-being, compromise the security, and limit the opportunities open to LGBT people.

How should aid donors respond to the complex development challenges posed by these developments? And what role, if any, should aid play in promoting and protecting LGBT rights?

These questions will be addressed at an ODI conference. The invited audience will include representatives from diplomatic missions, donor agencies, civil society, multilateral agencies and research institutes.

The aim is to promote a constructive dialogue informed by a variety of perspectives. The event will bring together donors, civil society, researchers and others working on LGBT rights. While the focus will be on Africa,, the aim is to draw on wider experience that may be of relevance. In the first session, panellists from developing countries will share their views on the issues at stake and the policy options facing donors. The second session will focus on international policy makers and the donor community.

The objective of the event is to address in an open fashion an issue that has emerged as a source of friction in aid partnerships. Recent legislation in Africa has seen LGBT people confronted by legislation that effectively criminalises their sexuality.. Several donors have responded by suspending parts of their aid programmes. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to make LGBT rights a high priority in DFID’s approach to development cooperation.

At the heart of the challenge facing the donor community is a tension between the values underpinning their aid programmes and what African governments see as a matter of national sovereignty. Our panellists will reflect on how these tensions can be addressed and what strategies might most effectively address the concerns raised by recent LGBT legislation.

The event will be followed by a reception hosted by ODI.