16/07/2014 13:13 BST | Updated 15/09/2014 06:59 BST

Time to Act on LGBT Rights in Africa

In a taped recording he left to be played in the event of his assassination, Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay elected official, left a message for our times. "All young people," he said, "regardless of their sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment to achieve their full potential."

Nowhere is the world further from that goal than in Africa. While gay rights are advancing in the world's richest countries, across much of Africa they are in retreat. Homosexuality is illegal in 36 of the region's 55 countries. Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people are being criminalized through draconian legislation. Gay Nigerians face up to 14 years in prison and their Ugandan counterparts face life. In a particularly ugly twist, Ugandan citizens are also required to report on 'gay suspects'.

This is more than an assault on civil liberties. Politicised homophobia is robbing LGBT people of dignity - and it is denying them the opportunity to realise their potential. If, as the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, has argued, development is measured in expanded freedom, gay Africans are living through development in reverse gear.

The international response to the anti-gay surge has been muted and ineffective. Western governments have been long on condemnation and short on action.

This picture has to change. The attack on sexual freedom is not a parochial issue of concern only to those immediately affected. Tolerating the violation of LGBT rights is an open invitation to bigotry, intolerance and human rights abuse in other areas. Moreover, anti-LGBT is undermining efforts to combat poverty, expand opportunity, and build more inclusive societies.

All of this points to a case for putting LGBT rights at the centre of a wider agenda for development. But what, if anything, can western governments do to deliver real change?

Active engagement comes with some obvious perils. Two years ago the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, responded to Uganda's anti-LGBT legislation by suggesting that, when it came to human rights, British aid should have more strings attached. He was promptly accused of suffering from 'colonial mentality' and seeking to imposing 'western values' on Africa.

There was an irony in the outrage. As the acclaimed Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Achebe, has pointed out, there's nothing 'African' about sexual intolerance. Indeed, the values that inform many of the region's more homophobic leaders draw principally on the 'western' values of right-wing American Evangelical churches. Earlier this year, the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, the region's primary human rights body, unequivocally condemned the wave of anti-LGBT legislation.

Yet aid conditionality is unlikely to prove an effective instrument for change. Donors have a long and undistinguished track record in trying to force policy change through the power of the aid purse. They have consistently over-estimated their own influence and under-estimated the complexity of African politics.

Delusions of aid grandeur are unhelpful. Having failed to deliver even modest economic reform, is aid conditionality really going to force change in the politics driving homophobia, especially when economic growth and the emergence of China as an alternative source of finance is reducing the bargaining power of donors? And where do you draw the line? Is it morally justified to cut aid that could cut child mortality or put kids in school in order to advance LGBT rights?

None of this diminishes the case for a more active and engaged response.

The starting point for effective action is not conditionality but solidarity. Western governments should be actively supporting the resistance. Civil society groups and human rights activists across Africa are challenging anti-LGBT legislation. Yet aid donors have been slow to provide support. That's partly because few see established LGBT rights as a core business priority linked to the wider anti-poverty agenda.

This is starting to change. Some aid agencies are now developing coherent programs to defend LGBT rights, with Norway, Sweden and the US well ahead of the pack. The US State Department Global Equality Fund, which was created by the Obama Administration to support civil society groups working for gay rights, has provided a focal point for action. It has attracted funding from several donors, foundations and companies. Even so, it has disbursed only $9m across 50 countries since 2011.

Other donors are off the pace. The World Bank recently generated headlines for suspending a health loan to Uganda in response to anti-LGBT legislation. Yet it has conspicuously failed either to integrate LGBT rights provisions into its own projects, or to deploy its formidable research assets to capture the social, economic and human costs of discrimination against gay people. The one piece of research it has conducted puts the financial cost of anti-LGBT discrimination in India at almost 2% of GDP.

Bluntly stated, poor countries cannot afford these losses. The World Bank's shareholders should be demanding a more coherent response. Meanwhile, the African Development Bank could surely do far more to inform African policy makers about the economic consequences of discrimination. It should lead a commission of enquiry on the subject.

Rather than indulge in a new bout of ineffectual aid conditionality, western donors should deploy their soft-power resources more effectively. Every aid agency should develop an integrated strategy for combating discrimination linked to sexual orientation. But the defence of LGBT rights should be seen as a wider foreign policy priority to be promoted through embassies, trade missions, business ties, and - critically - sustained political engagement with African governments.

Ultimately, civil rights struggles are fought through domestic politics. In Africa, as in Harvey Milk's America, the struggle for LGBT will be won by people forming broad alliances for changes. Western governments cannot deliver change. But they can do far more to support the people who can.