Respect or Intolerance

One of the great paradoxes of the humanitarian, aid and development world is finding the right balance between efforts aimed at reducing inequity and injustice while showing respect for ‘cultural differences’ predominant in that country. On one hand we want to right wrongs, level playing fields, reduce inequity, empower the marginalized, and above all make the world better. While on the other hand we have a deep conviction that we must always appreciate all things ‘local’, we must listen to beneficiaries, we must go to great lengths to understand ‘our beneficiaries’ on their terms and not judge them and not make pronouncements about their values and choices.

Maybe it’s time to reset the balance point. 

This week, it was learned that Nigeria had passed a new law that makes it illegal simply to be gay. As the Telegraph reported, the Nigerian government is already making arrests. Uganda, with help from some Western religious groups as this report from Al Jazeera noted, has long been fairly high-profile in its criminalization of homosexuality. And the guardian report the gay man in Cameroon who was jailed for sending a text message to another man saying “I’m very much in love with you”, and who was later declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, has died. Humanosphere recently re-posted a map from UNAIDS (pictured above) that showed fewer countries have laws protecting gays than do those having laws outlawing homosexuality.

Moving from lifestyle to belief, Britain’s Channel 4 News recently reported on the deadly risk of being (or admitting to being) an unbeliever in many countries.  Some 13 countries, most of them with predominantly or large Muslim populations, punish atheism with the death penalty.

At what point does ‘respecting sovereignty and cultural diversity’ become harmful?

Not that long ago, many if not most organizations (including the Peace Corps) working to fight poverty and disease in the developing world focused on their particular intervention and often ignored the fact that women and girls are routinely discriminated against.

Eventually, this became intolerable and is thankfully routinely railed against today. In large part, this is because women’s rights and gender equity has become so widely recognized as an accepted (if not yet achieved) ideal worldwide. It’s also based on some fairly strong evidence that shows we cannot make much of an impact against poverty, burden of diseases and other forms of inequity if half the world’s people – women and girls – remain subordinated.

Going much further back in time, many otherwise humanitarian folks tolerated racist laws, or even slavery, as a natural, if unfortunate, consequence of economic or biological reality. Reading over the historical arguments in favor of tolerating these abuses can sound bizarre, or even ludicrous, to us today. But how will the humanitarian community of today look to future observers when it comes to homosexuality and secularism?

Humanitarian organizations, arguably, have the responsibility to shift the discussion to a higher level than brute geopolitics. Many of these countries targeting people for their differences from the majority are also big recipients of aid and assistance. Is the humanitarian community expressing its outrage and demanding an end to this deadly intolerance? Or are we looking the other way?


Hat tip to Tom Paulson for this story.

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