Published on Digital Development

The Tremendous Potential of Mobile Applications for Sexual Minorities

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In parallel to significant legal changes affecting sexual minorities throughout the developing world, our clients are increasingly acknowledging the existence of significant marginalized sexual minorities and the need to integrate their needs in the development process and public policy decision-making. However, as development practitioners, our knowledge of the extent and mechanisms of the interconnections between sexuality and poverty is almost exclusively based on anecdotes and intuition. We know that people with “different” sexual orientation and/or gender identity face exclusion from their family, bullying in schools, higher risks of being homeless, discrimination by health services and overall lower health outcomes, rejection by employers, lack of access to finance, lack of voice, and stigma from communities on which they depend to take part in informal economies but we have no way to quantify and understand these issues.

Nowhere has there been a systematic research into the livelihood of these minorities. The reasons why international organizations like the World Bank and the OECD have not yet attempted to tackle these issues are multi-fold as I recently described in another post ( but the most common justification is the invisibility of poor people with stigmatized sexualities.

Even when given the opportunity to self-identify in a survey, sexual minorities may not be willing to do so for privacy reason and to avoid additional discrimination. This is apparent in the slow progression of the numbers of self-identified same-sex couples in the U.S. Census. Internet-based anonymous surveys – like the online LGBT Survey recently launched by the European Union or the 2012 Global Men’s Health and Rights Survey (GMHR) which was launched online in five different languages ( )– are already more prone to reach a wider population.

But Mobile phone applications and their geo-locating features still create the greatest alternative opportunities to reach out to sexual minorities, mobilize them, and potentially gather information and statistics about them.

Various social media applications are currently utilized for sex networking almost everywhere in the world, typically by men who have sex with men (MSM) using both Apple and Android platforms. These apps have simple interfaces that show photos of the closest users at a given time, and allow you to chat with them. The largest one claims to have more than 2 million members including in developing countries and is using its outreach capability for marketing and political purposes but also for other topical surveys, mostly on sexual behavior.  

As the use of mobile phones with Internet capability progresses in the developing world, mobile applications could also be used to raise awareness about safe and dangerous spaces, report discrimination in services, or mobilize the community. I recently attended a panel at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., on the potential to deliver HIV prevention programs in a cost-effective way to young people through their cell phones

Of course, the issue of privacy and security would be of paramount importance in this context. In Europe, Internet service providers and mobile phone companies are given the right to store data about their customers from six months to two years, something which might put users at risk in the 76 countries where homosexuality remains illegal.

It is also important to note that these applications typically do not target women who have sex with women, an often doubly or triply marginalized group in developing countries, which already did not benefit from the level of support which came along with HIV interventions.

The World Bank has successfully encouraged using its data through the “Apps for Climate Change” and  “Apps for Development”  competitions, which awarded cash prizes to three winners. At the AIDS Conference, the Elena Pinchuk ANTIAIDS Foundation announced a competition for developing social media and mobile applications for HIV prevention. We could imagine a similar competition for applications encouraging users to populate information about their experiences and feeding back other information to them such as safe areas, LGBT-friendly employers, anti-bullying resources and networking opportunities. This would be a first step in the difficult effort to find out more information about poor and marginalized population in the developing world and understand the complex linkages between stigmatized sexuality and poverty.


Fabrice Houdart

Former Senior Country Officer, Middle East and North Africa, and President, GLOBE

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