ActivismPoliticsReligion and Spirituality

International Aid to Uganda in Light of Human Rights Violations

An earlier version of this article was published at In Tanzania.  With Coffee. 

In response to recent virulently anti-gay laws passed in Uganda, a lot of nations are cutting off aid to Uganda, or considering doing so.  I don’t think this is a particularly good response.  More to the point, LGBTI organizations in Uganda say this, and they are far more expert than me on the subject.

I realize nations that provide a large amount of money free of charge to other nations can expect to wield a certain amount of influence over the client nations.  However, the former and sometimes current (as in the case of the U.S.) colonial powers doing this is not without its problematic aspects, and also likely to spark nothing except knee-jerk intransigent responses against foreign powers..  On a pragmatic note for the situation here and now, if Uganda is anything like Tanzania (they are similar in some ways), a withdrawal of foreign aid is going to spell trouble for a lot of government services, as for example education.  Now remember when I say this I don’t actually have the data, I’m extrapolating from the education system in TZ, which is largely dependent on foreign aid. But based on that, my guess would be that a withdrawal of foreign aid would hurt the people who need foreign aid most, while probably not affecting the rich and powerful.  Besides, If we want to influence another nation to have non-human rights violating policies, hurting the investment in the cognoscenti of the future is statistically counter intuitive.  And, of course, sending foreign aid and foreign teachers is a sneaky way to bring progressive talks into the curriculum.  Me, I tended to casually mention whenever the opportunity arose that since computers are good, discriminating against homosexuality is bad, because Alan Turing.  Behavior change happens through education, as the immortal words of Captain Hammer, Corporate Tool, “It’s not enough to bash in heads, we’ve got to bash in minds.”  For the record, on the last final exam I gave, as an answer to the throwaway question “what did you learn from this class?” one of my students responded with a paragraph on the badness of discrimination with Turing as an example.  That made me happy.

In the spirit of pragmatic futility,, while criminalization of homosexuality is a horrifying immediate problem of human rights, I seriously doubt this is in anyway a new problem.  Again, I don’t have the actual data for this, I’m extrapolating from the way that the justice system, official and mob, works in Tanzania.  In Tanzania the police are useless.  They hang out at traffic stops looking for minor infractions they can threaten major penalties for unless they are bribed (well, it’s not like the government can afford to pay their salaries), and if actually summoned for something possibly important (e.g. a dead body.  True story.) they don’t show up unless someone pays for their gas.  Criminals suspected and otherwise, if caught in public, are beaten to death by mobs.  Homosexuals in Tanzania are also subject to being beaten to death by mobs.  Official government sanction or disapproval by itself, while an important gesture, is unlikely to change this, and laws by themselves aren’t going to make the police do their jobs even assuming the police have the money to do police work.   Laws will probably not cause mobs to beat suspected homosexuals to death more than they already do. And again, this assumes that the people and police of Uganda even know what the laws are.  Which from Tanzania’s example is not a good assumption to make.

NB. Uganda seemed a somewhat more prosperous nation than Tanzania with at least enough efficiency that people can usually make change for moderately big amounts of money, so it’s entirely possible that Uganda has a police force and a justice system that actually kind of works.  Their government does have it sufficiently together for large public awareness campaigns about maternal mortality and child marriage, after all. So maybe disregard the preceding paragraph.

Anyway: there are two major general problems I see that could be useful to address in order to combat murderous and incarcerating homophobia.  First, the generalized xenophobia that exists in areas that are remote and traditionally organized into homogeneously religious and ethnic tribal groups.  People just aren’t used to people that are different from them.  There’s a reason why cosmopolitan areas tend to be more progressively liberal and tolerant: people get more used to interacting with people who aren’t like them.  More foreign aid (and foreign teachers) for education and transportation is a good place to start for combating xenophobia.  While I am guessing on the state of education in Uganda, I can tell you certainty and no extrapolation that the transportation infrastructure in Uganda is really really bad.  As in, 13 hours on a dirt road with washed out bridges and a drunk driver kind of bad. But if there is a good educational and transportation infrastructure, there will be a more educated, prosperous, and mobile people who will not spend so much time with only a small group of people and get into incestuous habits of thought.  This is not a criticism of a small group of African peoples, any small enough group without much outside contact will start thinking the same way.  This is actually something that gets illustrated beautifully by Peace Corps trainings:  they rely on splitting their groups of 40 odd trainees into smaller groups, having them discuss whatever the current topic at hand, and present their thoughts on flipchart paper to the large group.  The result of this small group discussion approach is that after about week 3, all groups start presenting the exact same things, because the group is too small and not having enough time to get outside experience, so incestuous thought patterns set in.  These are all, I might point out, people with at least bachelor’s degrees from reasonable educational institutions, and incestuous thought from such small groups is still inevitable.  Granted, I don’t think Americans are as given to independent thought as we think we are (I’m with Tocqueville on this one), but it’s still a good example.

Back to the point, I don’t think we should end foreign aid but use it, not just to invest in a more educated and mobile future, but to introduce differences between people right now.  Peace Corps is already supposed to talk about HIV/AIDs at any given opportunity, there has to be a nice and culturally appropriate and circumspect(necessarily because we can’t do anything that might be seen as insurrectionist, and also our lives are in danger if we are suspected of homosexuality) generally yay for equal rights speech we can give.  Foreigners are, in a way, safer to have awkward conversations about sex with, because they have no clear or lasting place in the community.

The other major problem that I think needs to be addressed, and addressed by us in the U.S.(because it is largely our fault), is missionaries.  Many foreigners seem to have fluffy feelings about missionaries for no good reason.  Oh, in addition to spreading the word of god (no matter how thickly it’s already spread) they build schools and teach!  Well, maybe.  A few.  I think I’ve met two that I respect, because they teach at a severely understaffed primary school out in a remote village and ignore their sect’s party line on abstinence-only sex education, but having a handful doing good things does not justify the majority who hang out in only the nice towns (my favorite line from a missionary ever, “we’re 45 minutes away from town, way out in the jungle!  A jungle was heretofore not known to exist within 45 minutes of Morogoro, which is one of the nicest towns in Tanzania.) and spend time mostly with other foreigners.  A group of missionaries from Minnesota went through Senegal recently and, according to the volunteers there, decided that black people (which I guess they had never seen in Minnesota?) were worrisome so they spent all their time praying for the black people in the company only of other white people.  Recently in Morogoro, a group of people were stopping at 11 different countries to spread God’s love by staying with host families and, according to them, “serving the families.”  How we can’t imagine, since we who have also stayed with host families in Morogoro have noticed we never do chores well enough, and if we clean things, they get cleaned again after we do it.   We don’t cook local food well enough and Tanzanians by and large don’t like American food.  So I certainly hope these people served at least by compensating monetarily these families for the extra food expenditures.  So: those are just the useless missionaries.  There are also the evil missionaries, who demand conversion (or at least lip service) as a price for educational or health services, both of which are basic human rights that should not be contingent on any religious tests.  The missionaries to Uganda, however, have been outdoing themselves by advocating for murder.  So my point is, we have all these people hanging around African nations who have neither necessary credentials to speak with authority that people believe, nor any realistic accountability for what they say, and they are getting people killed.   On our end, there isn’t, unfortunately, a lot we can do except prosecute for hate speech (which can be tricky) and end the perks (the only useful missionaries I have met told me they get free luggage from some airlines for being missionaries, which made me a little angry.  I am here by the express invitation of the TZ government with the support of and training in local culture and language from my own government, and I don’t get perks as good as people who have just decided they are needed and should go somewhere and may or may not know anything about where they are going).  We can also try to persuade foreign governments to require visa restrictions on missionary work.  My work permit and visa (I think) was contingent on never proselytizing for any religion, so I’m not sure what kind of visa missionaries get, but apparently they don’t have a problem or any supervision.   This is an urgent situation that we need to address, because, as Charles Simic puts it, “it is with the murderer’s in one’s own family that one has the moral obligation to deal with first.”  And again, I don’t have the data or the experience to do more about Uganda than make some generalized extrapolations based on a neighboring country and about 2 weeks there, but I do know without guessing that my home should not be sending people abroad who provide support and moral affirmation for those who want to commit human rights violations.

Featured image is the most inexplicable sign I saw in Uganda.  I guess some people there just like proscribing sex things?  

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Elizabeth is a professional belly dancer, a flaky computer scientist, and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Georgia (the state of the U.S., not the country) but is nonetheless somehow not a combination of stereotypes from Gone with the Wind and Deliverance. Her personal blog is Coffeefied. Operafied. Fluffified. Beglittered.

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