How LGBT Sensitive is the International Development Sector?

Poppy Stanbury

The only way International Development can progress and continue to have an impact is for the sector to adapt to shifting attitudes and changing policies in the countries they work in. As LGBT issues have become more commonplace to address and fight, the sector must take advantage of the current move to support the LGBT community in multiple countries around the world. Keeping the momentum going on tackling such issues is half the challenge, and one our industry must throw their backs into to keep the positive change that has shifted in our favour. This article will highlight the current LGBT successes that have graced our newspapers in recent times, while arguing that LGBT issues are the responsibility of the aid sector.

Recent news has shined a spotlight on the progress some countries are making in becoming more LGBT sensitive. Most recently was Botswana, where the High Court ruled to strike down the law that criminalised gay sex, and gave seven years in prison for what it called "carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature." This monumental, positive ruling was among a number of recent similar decisions by other judges. Taiwan ruled to legalise same-sex marriage, being the first in Asia to do so, Ecuador’s Constitutional Court approved same-sex marriage, Bhutan’s parliament decriminalised homosexuality, and last year India overturned the colonial era law and decriminalised homosexuality as well. These monumental steps forward give hope, especially after the loss of the Kenyan ruling, in which the case for decriminalising homosexual acts (with a punishment of up to fourteen years in prison) was ruled against. 

The development sector has previously been criticised for not mainstreaming LGBT causes into their work enough. The The Inter-Agency Regional Analysts Network claims that “There are likely hundreds of millions of LGBTI people in the world, nearly all of whom experience some degree of social exclusion. The extent of the problem could be classified as a protracted humanitarian crisis.” LGBT and SOGI issues need to have more focus in development, for the safety of millions of LGBT people. 

Having safer communities for LGBT people has benefits threefold. The first, that progress in extinguishing anti-LGBT laws create a safer world for people who identify as something other than cis-gendered and heterosexual, is an obvious, and important reason. Not being persecuted for what gender you are or who you love is a human right, and the international development sector is part of the web of actors who work towards protecting and upholding that human right. The second benefit is that when anti-LGBT laws are scrapped, programmes that work on, for example, supporting LGBT youth can conduct their projects without fear of retaliation by government forces. This can also lead to more LGBT sensitive programmes that can help societal attitude catch up to the new, more accepting, laws. Addressing LGBT issues and education in International development programmes would not be as dangerous, and therefore aid workers worry less, so they can do their job more. The third benefit is that aid workers who, themselves, identify as part of the LGBT community can feel safer working in countries that were once hostile to their gender or sexual orientation. 

During my time working on Sexual & Reproductive Health & Rights in Uganda, where homosexuality is criminalised, I found that addressing LGBT issues was misunderstood, at best, and actively discouraged by our organisation. It was too risky for the organisation and it was unknown how people may react to mention of LGBT in our workshops, so for our own safety it was not mentioned. This route, of course, does nothing to begin a conversation, and may have been productive in the long run. Shying away from these issues should not be the only option. 

It is difficult to address discrimination and violence against SOGI when the law criminalises it and the community disagrees with it. However, many of these laws, for example in Kenya, India and Botswana, were put in place during British colonial rule. The conversation then turns to the development community’s responsibility to work towards overthrowing laws that our predecessors set in place. It is possible to criticise this statement in a few ways; or that not all development workers come from previous colonial states, that interfering in a country’s governance is a form of colonialism in itself. While these are interesting topics to debate, they should not detract from our responsibility to check our positionality and recognise that we, as development professionals, need to do more to empower people whose social identity our country’s denied for so long. Especially in countries that have recently moved into the LGBT-friendly space (of course there are still some lengths to go, but the first steps have been taken), the development sector must work harder to include an LGBT agenda in their programmes. 

It is easy to criticise the claim that international development needs to do more for SOGI issues, especially when there are so many countries that are experiencing conflict, environmental disasters, and famine. That it is more important to make countries safe than to address homophobia. But what constitutes a ‘safe’, ‘post-conflict’ society? Can society really be considered safe if there is systematic, top-down, and bottom-up persecution of a particular social group? International Development and humanitarian aid are based upon upholding the human rights and safety of all people, and LGBT rights are Human rights.  Development tackles other issues, such as poverty, social inequality, and health, and it should focus on LGBT issues also. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), developed by the United Nations in 2015, aim to ‘Leave No One behind. Stonewall, a leading organisation on LGBT inclusion in the development sector, argued that “The ‘leave no one behind’ principle is especially relevant for LGBT people, who have been repeatedly left behind by national and international development initiatives. Discriminatory laws, projects that don’t acknowledge their specific needs and negative social attitudes have all combined to hold LGBT people back. The impacts of this are felt by LGBT communities in all parts of the world – lower income, worse health, less education, among others. As a result, poverty as a whole will never truly be eradicated until this problem is directly addressed.”  

Excluding an LGBT focus from international development initiatives leaves many in poverty and financially challenged, but the issue also spreads out further than economics. Poor health services increasingly affect LGBT communities, as many health programmes, particularly sexual health and AIDS, fail to recognise the problem that LGBT people face when there is no specific LGBT expertise. LGBT people may choose not to risk using health institutions, for fear that their gender identity or sexual orientation is questioned or revealed, or, in some cases, that they may even be refused care. 

Ideally more countries will follow suit in the progressive move towards acceptance (and protection) of the LGBT community. Ideally more (I)NGOs will recognise that LGBT issues are human rights issues, and countries who are violating them are also countries in conflict. This can only occur, however, with a critical self-reflection of how much the sector, and the organisations we work in, focus on SOGI issues, and what more can they do to increase physical, sexual, and psychological safety of LGBT people. 



Poppy Stanbury currently works as a client onboarding specialist and is a youth advocate where she works on youth sensitive SRHR programming and the representation of youth at the UN human rights council. Get in touch with here through Linkedin.




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