Constructive Debates on Conditionality

Conditionality DebateThe Council has been encouraging constructive debate around the recent Statement of African social justice activists on conditionality in response to LGBTI-related human rights concerns in Africa and beyond.  Many of us here at the Council for Global Equality, which focuses on advocacy with U.S. foreign policy leaders in the United States, have found the statement useful.  We trust it is equally helpful for many of our colleagues in other donor countries who also lobby their foreign and development ministries.

Within the Council, we are debating whether some forms of conditionality are appropriate in response to human rights concerns.  Indeed, some have even argued that the failure to condition some forms of aid in the face of deteriorating human rights conditions is even more alarming, and a violation of the public trust that citizens have placed in the U.S. government to put our development resources to their best use.

Let us step back and make three assertions, all of which are followed by a series of questions for ongoing discussion.  First, not all aid is the same, and while perhaps some humanitarian aid should never have any conditions attached (although that, too, is open for discussion), other forms of aid seem to lend themselves to some form of conditionality.  Second, not all conditions are the same; the context matters enormously.  And third, consultation and partnership with local organizations seems to be the key, and that is where we clearly see a need for more discussion.  In particular, we need to develop a better understanding of what constitutes meaningful and sufficient consultations around such complex decisions, taking into account the power dynamics that have been so well articulated by African social justice activists.

To begin, many in our coalition have argued that humanitarian assistance is never an appropriate target of conditionality.  It should be noted, however, that an argument has also been advanced that all aid must be open to conditionality, especially when it is propping up a corrupt regime, and when it is clear that the status quo is doing more harm than good while wasting scarce development resources.

Some have also noted that health interventions are not generally appropriate targets for conditionality.  For example, we feel strongly that once the United States offers antiretrovirals to someone through our global HIV/AIDS program, we should be prepared to sustain those life-saving drugs for life.  But the prevention component of our global AIDS program, on the other hand, which focuses in part on outreach to men who have sex with men (MSM), may need to be scaled back, or even discontinued, in some countries if the LGBT rights landscape deteriorates to point where the investment in MSM work no longer makes sense, or is too dangerous, and where the money could be put to more effective use in less hostile environments.  So should MSM funding be conditioned on the ability to do MSM work safely and effectively?  And if so, what is the threshold for cutting funds?  When should those same conditions apply more broadly to streams of funding that do not focus on MSM (or LGBT) communities?

An even more compelling argument in favor of conditionality has been made in the case of U.S. global AIDS funding that goes directly to foreign governments to support their health ministries or government health budgets.  In that case, many advocates have argued that the funding must be offered on the condition that MSM communities are included in the government’s programs.  Some argue that it may also be appropriate to condition the funds on the government’s agreement to address broader discrimination concerns impacting the larger LGBT community.  These voices point out that the failure to attach conditions in these circumstances would be harmful to MSM and broader LGBT communities, while simultaneously undermining scarce global health investments.  Do these arguments resonate in the larger aid discussion?  Can they be applied beyond the HIV/AIDS example?

To many of us, it also seems clear that the argument for conditionality is strengthened when the conditions are built into the agreement from the beginning, as is the case with funding from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).  To qualify for MCC funding, which often supports large investments in infrastructure and other projects identified by the requesting governments themselves, countries must meet a range of good governance indicators, and increasingly MCC has included respect for LGBT rights as one of many such governance indicators.  When those conditions are clear from the beginning, and countries who apply for the funding know about them from the start, then isn’t it appropriate, perhaps even essential, to cut the funding when the qualifying good governance indicators show significant deterioration?  And shouldn’t that deterioration include a targeted assault on LGBT rights, or the targeting of any other minority group?

Another set of questions relates to how the threat of conditionality is conveyed.  Again, many who argue for conditionality assume that it is far better to build conditionality in from the beginning, as in the MCC example.  When it has not been made clear at the onset of the funding relationship, there are again some important sensitivities and questions that must be considered.  These threats are often announced at the end of an unproductive bilateral dialogue and in a loud and noisy way to make a final statement and seek a last-ditch effort at policy change.  That’s generally the point.  But even then, there are effective shouts and ineffective rants.

It seems to us that the use of noisy conditionality around LGBT rights, when the conditions were not initially built into the funding agreement, is only appropriate following consultation with the local LGBT community that will suffer the consequences.  In some cases, the noise could certainly scapegoat a vulnerable minority community in unacceptable ways.  It might also reinforce the notion that LGBT rights are special rights.  But sometimes, if the situation is dire enough and local actors support the move, noisy conditionality might be appropriate.  And less noisy conditionality, which might avoid the diplomatic shouts but not the quiet statement that comes with the closing of a bank account or the shuttering of a funding program, might also send an important and less dangerous signal.  Finally, in some cases the quiet redistribution of funds in response to a changing human rights landscape may simply be sound development policy.

As difficult as these discussions have been, even more difficult questions surround the issue of meaningful consultation.  How do consultations proceed within a large power imbalance, especially if decisions need to be made quickly and the leaders who are being consulted are under assault or even in hiding?  That is where we need a better understanding of what meaningful consultation looks like.  Perhaps we can look to the work of indigenous rights organizations or even the business and human rights movement to learn more about what meaningful consultation means in other human rights contexts?

And finally, as we have often repeated to the U.S. government, many of us do not believe that conditionality is legitimate unless the government is simultaneously investing in the broader movement in ways that will ultimately improve the landscape in the targeted country, even if that means taking a broader regional or thematic approach for some time.  You can’t play with sticks unless you are also giving out carrots.

We offer this reflection to increase dialogue and look forward to a lively and healthy exchange of ideas.

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