Does International Development Really Spur LGBTQ Rights?

Policemen held back hundreds of protesters in Vilnius when Lithuanian LGBTQ rights campaigners held their first Pride rally in 2010. 

Photo by Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the Overseas Development Institute held a conversation on LGBTQ rights and international aid. The most surprising statement came from former Ghanaian Minister of Information Elizabeth Ohene, who opposed LGBTQ rights in international aid by using a specious overgeneralization. She suggested that a better quality of life for everyone translates to more positive sentiments on LGBTQ issues, and thus to a better quality of life for LGBTQ people. “Better education, better health care, and a better standard of life … probably has something to do with the emergence of a majority [positive] opinion for LGBT rights today,” she told the audience at ODI’s London headquarters. “In much the same way, I suggest an improved quality of life in developing countries might very well lead to a better position of LGBT rights.” In other words, first development … then LGBTQ rights.

This is baseless for two reasons. First, correlation is not causation: An increase in quality of life is not the only parallel with LGBTQ progress. Other changes often play a more significant role in LGBTQ advances, regardless of the seemingly obvious. For example, a very vocal, visible, and organized civil society fueled progress for LGBTQ rights in the United States. Having the room to publicly organize and speak, rather than simply enjoying an overall higher quality of life, was crucial to this success. (Even then, the United States still has far to go when comparing the socioeconomic outcomes of LGBT couples to heterosexual couples, and when it comes to securing legal protections for transgender individuals.)

Second, some countries have achieved a better quality of life but have not advanced on LGBTQ issues. Here, two countries from Central Asia and Eastern Europe rebuke Ohene’s overgeneralization.

Kyrgyzstan is a lower-middle-income country with a Gross National Income per capita of $3,070 (a steady increase since 1995). UNDP’s 2013 Human Development Report places Kyrgyzstan at achieving a “medium level of development” in education, lifespan, and standard of living. (The report uses the Human Development Index, a composite statistic that shows a country’s growth in those three categories.) Examining the Human Development Index Trends, the country has also steadily increased since 1990.

In Kyrgyzstan, sentiments toward LGBTQ people and LGBTQ rights are in a dire state. In a joint submission to the U.N. Universal Periodic Review, groups report “violence, discrimination and hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are … menacingly systematic.” There are high levels of “curative rape” against lesbians; police violence, extortion and rape against gay men; and transgender individuals facing rape with no legal recourse. There are virtually no legal protections for LGBTQ people. A Russian-style ban on “gay propaganda” is making its way through Parliament. Activists cite a toxic mixture of pro-Russian legislators, nationalist groups, and Islamic leaders as contributing to the horrifying surge in antipathy, violence, discrimination, and punitive legislation in recent years.

But some may argue that Kyrgyzstan hasn’t “developed enough” to deliver on LGBTQ rights. So let’s turn to Lithuania, a high-income country with GNI per capita of $23,080 (a steady increase since 1994). According to the 2013 Human Development Report, Lithuanians achieved a “very high level of development” in education, lifespan, and standard of living. Again, the Trends section shows a steady increase since 1990.

Despite all these measurements of change, quantitative data show a high level of antipathy toward LGBTQ Lithuanians. A 2009 public opinion poll found that 81.5 percent believed homosexuality to be a perversion, sickness, or depravity, and 57.8 percent opposed Pride celebrations. In 2012, the European Social Survey found that 56.8 percent of the population believed that gays and lesbians should not be free to live life as they wish.       

LGBTQ Lithuanians also report high levels of harassment and discrimination. In 2002, researchers found that 52 percent of the LGB respondents were harassed for being gay, 31 percent specifically experienced harassment in the workplace, and 13 percent were discriminated against in the hiring process. Over a decade later in 2013, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights found that 61 percent of LGBT Lithuanian respondents were discriminated against or harassed, 27 percent specifically experienced discrimination in the workplace, and 19 percent were discriminated against in the hiring process.

In other words, improved education, lifespan, and income do not necessarily translate into LGBTQ acceptance and rights. The current markers of human development might be loosely linked to LGBTQ rights, but without measurements and in light of counterexamples, causation is neither probable nor truth. 

The overgeneralization first development … then LGBTQ rights undercuts an inclusive human-rights agenda by presupposing that LGBTQ rights come later and after the “basics” have been achieved. In parts of the world, this justifies excluding an entire generation of LGBTQ people from meaningful discourse because it is “not their turn.” In a time when data on LGBTQ people are scarce and stereotypes are misappropriated as eternal truths, we must be critical of this overgeneralization and utilize a data-driven, rational discourse. Effective engagement between LGBTQ leaders and international donors demands this.