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Can international business really help promote LGBT rights worldwide?

2016-05-14
In a great leap forward for gay communities around the continent, LGBT issues have been discussed as part of the official agenda at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa in Kigali for the first time since its inception. The discussion, led by renowned activist Bisi Alimi, focussed on workplace equality in African businesses. “It's huge; LGBT issues have been talked about at the World Economic Forum on Africa but they’ve never been on the official programme,” says Bisi Alimi, who was joined by journalist, Nancy Kacungira, and Alice Nkom, Cameroonian lawyer and founder of the Association for the Defence of Homosexuality. “This is the biggest gathering of businesses, politicians and civil society. So in Kigali we’ll be using a platform where we can actually talk about this issue in a very sensitive way, without fear and intimidation, and hoping that this will be a catalyst into something that will be proactive.” While companies and civil societies have previously organised side events to address LGBT issues, these have been unofficial events. The inclusion of a first official LGBT discussion has been viewed as a clear indication that the international business community is now expected to fight against the criminalisation of LGBT people, not just in Africa, but across all jurisdictions. “Everybody that signs up to WEF as a member, will have to critically think about including LGBT rights within their framework,” says Alimi. “It's creating the platform where they can bring civil society and businesses and politicians together to talk about this issues. Business cannot keep hiding behind profits anymore; they have to come out, they have to speak, and they cannot keep saying that they are profit making entities and not into politics. We cannot keep businesses out of this debate.” bisi 3

LGBTI activist Bisi Alimi rose to prominence after coming out live on Nigerian television in 2004.

Prior to the discussion Alimi was informed by organisers that many delegates had expressed fears about attending the discussion. Though ultimately the event was well attended, the expression of uncertainty and fear highlights the stigma that still pervades LGBT issues and the reticence from some business leaders and politicians to engage with them. “It is a shame that a lot of people, mostly African politicians failed to show up at the event, stating the fact that the continent is not ready for such discussion,” says Alimi. The surge in support for LGBT rights from businesses is a relatively recent phenomenon, with fears of the potential financial implications having left many reticent to associate themselves with the cause. Many multinational corporations hold little trepidation now and are, to some extent, willing to speak out against LGBT persecution; just last month dozens of CEOs in the US - from Apple to Starbucks - scrambled to condemn North Carolina’s transphobic bathroom bill. Such interventions are welcome domestically, but as corporations seek to champion LGBT rights internationally there is a risk that local LGBT communities will experience a backlash against actions that could be perceived as interventionist. Despite this, for Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, the Executive Director of EQUAL GROUND, Sri Lanka’s most prominent LGBT charity, international involvement is a necessity, so long as its conducted in tandem with local activists. In a country where same-sex activity is punishable by up to ten years in prison - a law that is not actually enforced, according to Flamer-Caldera - any pressure applied on governments to decriminalise is welcome. “It is crucial that while we work on the ground in our countries and push from within, that international communities push from outside and try to urge the governments to see how beneficial [decriminalisation] would be,” says Rosanna Flamer-Caldera. “It’s crucial for international organisations and businesses to be invested in diversity in the workplace and to actually change their policy to include and protect LGBT persons. And while the World Economic Forum, for example, might not include all of us it certainly includes a certain amount of people that can make a difference overall.” bisi4 As the head of Sri Lanka’s largest frontline LGBT support service, Flamer-Caldera has seen first-hand the discrimination that Sri Lanka’s LGBT community experiences in the work place - from unlawful firing and harassment, through to difficulty securing promotion. Many are locked out of employment altogether. Part of EQUAL GROUND’s work is now geared towards educating local businesses on LGBT issues and encouraging them to introduce policies protecting queer employees. “We are currently doing a corporate sensitising programme here in Sri Lanka and we managed to get one of the largest home grown companies, with over 13,000 employees, to actually change their human resources policy to reflect LGBT inclusivity,” says Flamer-Caldera. “It's a big step in the right direction; it opens up more jobs for people, as well as opening up niche markets, like gay tourism for example.” Throughout the business community there’s been a growing recognition of homophobia’s economic cost, with research from the World Bank estimating it costs states that criminalise between 0.7% and 1.7% of GDP. For a country such as India, where the research was conducted, this amounts to somewhere between $1.9 billion and $30.8 billion. As LGBT people are exposed to social exclusion, violence, imprisonment, family rejection, job loss and more, issues such as poorer health, shorter lives, unemployment, and less education are exacerbated. As well as a marked impact on the lives and wellbeing of LGBT people, each bears a significant fiscal cost to the state. “It's not just about what you're missing by excluding the LGBT community and persecuting the LGBT community, but it's actually about what it's costing you,” says Jonathan Cooper, chief executive of the Human Dignity Trust, legal charity that supports those who want to challenge anti-gay laws wherever they exist in the world. “There’s the cost on the state as it has to put in place a criminal justice system, it has to enforce its criminal justice system and it has to pay for police time that is spent harassing gay men - it's absurd,” he continues. “There's the general health impact, and the HIV impact in particular, which is this tremendous drain on economies. Ignoring the human cost of HIV, the economic cost of HIV, is crippling for these jurisdictions. And by criminalising the LGBT community, all you're doing is boosting and causing HIV.” In 2012, the cost of HIV disparity in India’s LGBT community was estimated to be worth at least $228 million, while other health disparities - including mental issues such as depression - were expected to cost the economy around $712 million. bisi1 But it’s lost potential, as well as direct cost, that criminalisation penalises. “When you open up your economy to LGBT people, you then create much more inclusion, which therefore creates the right conditions for economic growth, as well as higher levels of enterprise, creativity and innovation,” says Cooper. “And by persecuting the LGBT community, you're taking away the economic potential of a significant group of people. Not only in terms of their own productivity, but their spending power. It's counterintuitive to do that.” For Alice Nkom, who provided the closing remarks at the session on workplace equality, having organisations like the World Economic Forum could go a long way to rectifying inequality and discrimination. “I know what it means to have journalists and decisions makers interested in you work across the world; it changes the perception of your work,” she says. “LGBTI persons undergo a real Apartheid in Africa - that is a state which puts all its strengths of protection against one of his communities. We think that it is the Apartheid and it was with global partnerships that the Apartheid bound to the race was won in South Africa. "Business leaders are powerful; their messages carry even higher than ours. And when they are with us, in front of and even behind us, I think that we become indisputable.” More stories: Nick Jonas explains why he decided to cancel his North Carolina shows Gay cyclist passes a homophobic street preacher – what he did next left the crowd cheering