Foreign aid

Last updated: March 2010


Should foreign aid to developing countries always be unconditional? Simon Birch looks at the issues surrounding disturbing proposed legislation in Uganda.

It’s not a great time to be gay in Uganda. Late last year the Ugandan MP David Bahati introduced a viciously anti-gay bill into the Ugandan parliament.

The bill would in effect legalise discrimination by calling for life imprisonment for anyone convicted of having gay sex, or execution for those who have gay sex with minors and disabled people. Plus anyone who works in gay rights organisations or doesn’t report homosexual activity to the police would fall under the sweep of the law and could also be jailed.

Alarmingly this proposed piece of breathtakingly repressive legislation, which has been linked to the work of far right US evangelical churches, now stands a good chance of becoming law as Bahati is a member of Uganda’s ruling party.




Not surprisingly the proposals have not gone unnoticed with loud protests coming from governments and gay rights groups across the world. Here in the UK Gordon Brown raised the issue with Uganda’s President Museveni at a recent Commonwealth conference and the Ugandan born Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has joined those condemning the bill.

One country though has gone further than any other in its response to the proposals.

The Swedish Development Assistance minister Gunilla Carlsson has said that if the bill were to become law then Sweden would consider withdrawing the $50 million of aid which it gives to Uganda every year.

But is Sweden right to threaten a struggling African country in this way? What would be the likely impact and isn’t this just a case of liberal Northern countries applying their own morality on a developing African country?

“We’re very concerned about the potential criminalisation of gays as it’s a human rights issue,” says Jane Moyo from Action Aid. “This proposal is part of a wider agenda of the weakness of many African constitutions which insufficiently address discrimination based on gender, tribe, race, colour and sexual orientation.”

On the question whether Sweden is right to threaten to cut its aid though, Moyo is clear: “Aid shouldn’t be cut. Instead donors should seek to influence the government by engaging in dialogue and debate.”




Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell agrees with Action Aid: “Cutting aid is a bad idea, as it will hurt the poorest Ugandans the hardest,” says Tatchell: “Sanctions that target the rich governing elite might be more effective and ethical. They are the ones who have political power and who are orchestrating the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, something which mirrors similar attacks on other minorities and on opposition voices.”

But what about the people who would be directly impacted were the bill to become law? Do gay Ugandans think that Sweden is right to say that they would cut aid?

“In my opinion yes, if the bill became law then the Swedish Government would be right to cut aid to Uganda,” says Frank Mugisha, the Chairperson of Sexual Minorities Uganda, one of Uganda’s leading gay rights groups.

Mugisha bases this view on the fact donor countries have conditions attached to any aid, which state that the recipient country must fight for poverty reduction and respect human rights.

“The legislation which calls for the death penalty for homosexual offenders would make it almost illegal for countries to give Uganda aid according to the guidelines that protect all people’s rights including those of sexual minorities,” says Mugisha, speaking from the Ugandan capital Kampala.

Jasmine Burnley from Oxfam agrees with Mugisha that donor guidelines should be respected: “The need to uphold human rights must be a critical factor that Northern governments take into account when they give aid to developing country governments.”

However, Burnley disagrees with Mugisha on the issue of cutting aid to Uganda: “Because aid directly benefits millions of people, its suspension is something that should only ever be done as a last resort,” says Burnley. “By suspending aid you are penalising the poorest of the poor, consequently withdrawing aid isn’t the best solution when human rights abuses are taking place.”

But by condemning Uganda, aren’t countries such as Sweden and the UK just imposing their own standards of morality on another country? “Western countries should help developing countries enforce human rights for all,” says Mugisha unequivocally.

ActionAid’s Jane Moyo agrees: “There’s an important underlying human rights issue here. Just because an African politician might be using a repressive piece of legislation for his own political ends doesn’t mean that it’s right.”

First published in Ethical Consumer 123, March/April 2010