Stuck in Nairobi traffic on my way to the airport, I had the chance to think further about Project Diaspora’s post on the recent anti-LGBT laws in Uganda (without enabling my knee-jerk must-write now reaction).
I still worry that people are jumping on “the blame aid” train a little soon. Granted, I was swept away by the marvelous cohesion of Dambisa Moyo’s arguments (you can finish her book in one sitting!) and William Easterly’s strange but often witty and wise commentary on Aid Watch. But, obviously, there are other reasons for slow social and economic progress in many parts of Africa.
Aside from the fact that I would like to see good thinkers like Project Diaspora expand their boundaries by doing more critical analysis (as, granted, I should), I also think their post brings up an interesting point on the globalization of values.
Back in university, not so long ago, I took a course in indigenous politics. As you may know, indigenous rights are a big issue in Canada, where they were woefully ignored for decades.
During this class, my professor brought up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document, he pointed out, was largely drafted by Western powers (one of the principal authors was Canadian law professor John Humphrey). Indigenous groups were not involved in the drafting. Now, they complain that their distinct (and often unconventional to Canadians) cultural heritage and beliefs are being undermined by laws they never consented to.
Granted, the "Have" world - equipped with money, time and a powerful intellectual middle class - has contributed more obviously to all global debates, whether it comes to capitalism or development or the role of polygamy. Given the resources to do this, we manage to overshadow most other voices. Of course, the occasional university student will dig out Ibn Masoud and reconsider his or her view of the Muslim world, but, for the most part, we are informed by the trend-makers. Those who have the funding or the charisma to get published widely and quickly (granted with a fistful of interesting and controversial ideas).
So, relating to PD’s post, this idea of “knowledge is power” becomes very important in the LGBT debate. Project Diaspora suggests that the aid organizations' overwhelming ability to manipulate the LGBT debate in their favor (i.e. throw out the law), means that countries like Uganda do not get to decide or lobby for their own laws. Are aid organizations over stepping their boundaries and influencing the societal politics of their host countries when they should not be?
Perhaps. After all, countries like Canada and the US went through (are going through) the same debate. Guided by the middle-class and those with the time and resources to lobby against and for bills like this one in Uganda, there is a healthy debate that fuels the democratic functions of the state. In Uganda, on the other hand, people are generally uninformed, busy (trying make it, day to day) and not connected to a world of resources that might explain the issue from a different perspective.
One part of me wants to say that aid organizations have a right to get involved when people are too disempowered to see what is really in their best interest. The other side of me protests that this is the same type of neo-colonialism that defines “White Man’s Burden.” It’s a hard debate to reconcile in my head, but an important one.
A country has the right to define its own values and have its own debates without the influence of powerful foreign lobbies (just as we want the corporate sector to stop influencing the environmental debate by throwing loads of money at lobby groups). In this sense, I think it is very important for Ugandans to win (or lose) the LGBT debate on their own terms. Of course, this offers a sense of empowerment and accountability between government and people. When we start painting it as the aid organizations’ movement, all those who have fought for a cause are lost in the turmoil of bigger powers.
In this long and elusive conclusion, what I am trying to say is that self-determination of values is very important in a country’s psychological development. In this sense, I think aid organizations - instead of totally pulling out aid to government's like Uganda - have the responsibility to empower people.
What form does empowerment take? Well, there’s this great example from a Girls’ Forum in North Eastern Province Kenya (posting on this next week). Girls fighting against female genital mutilation (FGM) started a lobby group among themselves. They went into markets and communities discussing the effects of FGM and their own stance against it. Of course, they were funded by foreign aid organizations (in part by USAID and the Aga Khan Foundation).
This type of “influence,” I think, is necessary and acceptable. Financial support and empowerment is what aid organizations are often here to do. In the LGBT debate, I think this is the appropriate form it should take. For those organizations doing direct deposits into the Ugandan Parliament, it might be best to remain out of the debate, but financially support local organization that fight against discrimination.
My concluding point is that with increasing globalization of markets and societies, we might have to determine global values. Are these the values (that seem so right to myself, the "Have" born citizen) applicable elsewhere? What about a hybrid of customs from areas like Tajikistan and Iran mixed with belief systems in Malawi and Northern Uganda? Can we really globalize values when people’s cultures are still so varied and unique?
What do you think? How do we reconcile Western values (so well enshrined) with those that are less widely recognized and seem to have no place in Western society, which “makes the decisions"? Do aid organizations have the right to subscribe their beliefs onto others?