The international donor community must rebuke Uganda for its anti-LGBTQ+ law

Uganda's queer activist Papa De raises her fist outside the Uganda High Commission in Pretoria during a picket against the country's anti-homosexuality bill on April 4. (Phill Magakoe / AFP)
Uganda's queer activist Papa De raises her fist outside the Uganda High Commission in Pretoria during a picket against the country's anti-homosexuality bill on April 4. (Phill Magakoe / AFP)

In February 2014, Jim Yong Kim, then-president of the World Bank, received a call from Rep. Barney Frank, the influential former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, as well as other prominent congressional leaders. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had just approved a slightly weaker version of the brutal anti-homosexuality bill that he signed into law this past Monday.

Frank reportedly told Kim that support from the United States and other donors could be in jeopardy if “the bank goes ahead and gives all this money to Uganda right after signing that terrible law”.

Soon thereafter, Kim published a Post op-ed announcing that the World Bank would undertake a review of how it might enshrine opposition to discrimination more explicitly into its decision-making. The bank had long been criticized for not taking human rights violations seriously as it decided how to apportion funding for projects.

The day after the op-ed ran, the bank indefinitely postponed a $90 million loan to Uganda intended to boost its health sector, citing the anti-gay law as pretext.

The law, which expanded the criminalization of sexual relations between people of the same sex to include the maximum penalty of life imprisonment, was struck down by Uganda’s supreme court in August 2014 on a technicality.

Ten years later, we are back to square one. After the militant Islamist group al-Shabab overran a Ugandan military base in Somalia last week, Museveni, in dire need of a distraction, once again signed a bill in clear violation of international human rights standards, instrumentalizing an already marginalized community for political gain.

The new law not only calls for life imprisonment for anyone convicted of having homosexual sex. It calls for the death penalty in cases of “aggravated homosexuality”, which includes same-sex relations between HIV-positive people, children or other vulnerable individuals. It even criminalizes the “promotion of homosexuality”, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The impact of the law goes beyond the harshest provisions that have dominated headlines. Under the law, there is no viable future for LGBTQ+ people in Uganda, leaving them in an untenable situation: unable to rent a house, work or seek medical services.

Worse, the law might well be copied by other African countries, as attitudes towards homosexuality on the continent have regressed.

This is a self-inflicted economic wound for a country whose economic and social progress depends on grants from international partners. Uganda received $2.52 billion in 2021 for development projects and pandemic recovery programs. This includes $82 million in assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development to offset suffering because of the global food crisis. The new law, by criminalizing HIV transmission, also severely impedes the efforts of the wildly successful United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in Uganda.

Today, the World Bank has accepted that sustainable development is possible only if nondiscrimination, inclusiveness and equality before the law are respected. The bank’s official policies are now much clearer than they were in 2014. It has an anti-discrimination policy on the books, which acknowledges that development projects cannot be practical if an entire segment of the population is barred from accessing public services and economic opportunities. This is clearly what Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ+ law seeks to achieve.

In a letter sent this week, Ugandan civil society leaders asked the World Bank to suspend all disbursements and new projects pending a supreme court decision on the law. “We are unfortunately no longer in a position where quiet diplomacy can be effective, as we now face the dangerous reality of the law’s implementation”, they wrote.

Sadly, they are right. The World Bank must quickly send a strong signal to Uganda. It must clarify that it will not engage with countries that bar marginalized communities from participating in and benefiting from the fruits of development.

Fabrice Houdart is a former World Bank senior country officer and adjunct professor at Georgetown University and executive director of the Association of LGBTQ+ Corporate Directors.

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