This morning, a New York Times Editorial joins calls by many in the human rights community for the US to withdraw international development funds from the government of Uganda if it passes legislation that would, among other things, impose the death sentence for homosexual behavior and make family, community members, clergy and others "accessories of crime" if they do not "report" homosexual behavior.
The United States
and others, writes the Times, "need to make clear to the Ugandan government that such
barbarism is intolerable and will make it an international pariah."
Stigma, discrimination, and violence against lesbian, gay and transgender persons is part of a much broader set of social marginalization in Uganda.
As the Times notes:
Corruption and repression — including violence against women and children and abuse of prisoners — are rife in Uganda. According to
The Times’s Jeffrey Gettleman, officially sanctioned homophobia is
particularly acute. Gay Ugandans are tormented with beatings,
blackmail, death threats and what has been described as “correctional
While in many settings discrimination is often heavily veiled by socially acceptable language and dissembling, in Uganda hatred for homosexual persons is blatant even among government officials.
“Homosexuals can forget about
human rights,” James Nsaba Buturo, who holds the cynically titled
position of minister of ethics and integrity, said recently.
[R]ight now, concludes the Times:
the American government, and others, should make clear to
Uganda that if this legislation becomes law, it will lose millions of
dollars in foreign aid and be shunned globally.
I have to agree.
Some in the global AIDS community have argued that withdrawing funding from Uganda will endanger those people suffering from AIDS-related illnesses who have gained access to anti-retroviral therapies as a result of US funding, and that withdrawing such aid will put their lives at risk by reducing funding for essential medicines.
But the reality is much more complex–and the leverage the United States holds much greater than usually portrayed.
For one thing, the US provides direct bilateral assistance to the government of Yoweri Museveni in many areas, including HIV and AIDS programs, food programs, and military assistance, among other streams of funding. Moreover, the US provides a great deal of its assistance both through international technical agencies and through non-governmental organizations on the ground in the country, through grants and agreements that originate from the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
The U.S. could in fact channel more aid–for ARVs and for other health programs–more directly through international agencies and NGOs than through direct bilateral assistance to the Musevenis, untold amounts of which have in any case been used by both President Museveni and by his wife Janet Museveni to fund the growth of the very fundamentalist movements in Uganda now responsible for the legislation in question. Janet Museveni, for example, has used U.S. funding for prevention of HIV infections among women and girls to launch "virginity campaigns," and hold "virgin parades" in the streets of Uganda. Much of what we send to Uganda as bilateral assistance is long overdue for review in any case.
Moreover, the sheer amount of aid from the US going directly to the Musevenis has helped support not only rabid anti-homosexual activity, but other forms of discrimination, denial of essential health services for women, intimidation of political opponents, questionable election practices, and more generally a government that is, as the Times points out, prone to massive corruption and repression. Those who spoke out against the government, like my colleague Beatrice Were, were intimidated, harrassed, and threatened with death.
Money talks. It was loud enough during the Bush Administration for Museveni to rewrite the history of his own once-successful HIV and AIDS campaign from its comprehensive approach to HIV prevention in the nineties to one that portrayed Uganda as a poster child for abstinence-only programs, a shift made solely to promote the agenda of evangelical christian groups in the US and in Uganda, resulting in an increase in HIV infections in a country once lauded around the world for its success in stemming the spread of HIV. For this, Uganda was rewarded with hundreds of millions of dollars of funding from Bush under PEPFAR.
If this Obama Administration is serious about change, then witholding money for the Musevenis unless this bill is shelved, and re-directing funding such that essential health services are delivered through more accountable international agencies is one place to start.