Uganda’s policies regarding LGBTQ people—and the implications for the future of foreign aid to the country—have become a controversial transnational political issue. The passing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which criminalizes not only gays and lesbians but also anyone who doesn’t report them, prompted Obama and Kerry to announce a review of U.S. assistance programs to Uganda. Similarly, President Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank postponed a $90 million loan to Uganda and said the Bank needed to review the law for adverse effects on its development objectives. Uganda seemed unmoved and retorted by saying it would not be blackmailed by Western powers.
The drama of love, sex, and the complicated nature of international aid and involvement is playing out not only on the cross-continental political stage but also in two recent film and theatre productions. In fact, God Loves Uganda (2013) and Witness Uganda (2014), arguably reveal much more about the potential hazards of aid—and withdrawing it—than current statements made by the U.S. administration and the World Bank. And whereas much of the recent discussion has centered on state-based foreign aid, God Loves Uganda and Witness Uganda raise up critical issues about the flow of money from individuals, religious networks, and NGOs.
God Loves Uganda (soon to be released on DVD) exposes how American money is being funneled to certain Ugandan churches, which vociferously preach the so-called evils of homosexuality. It is directed by Roger Ross Williams, was nominated for an Academy Award and has been screening across America since late last year. His incredibly brave film shows how certain U.S. evangelicals move both their money and dogma from the U.S. to Uganda: He shows footage of Scott Lively lecturing Ugandan Parliamentarians on how to counter the so-called “Homosexual Agenda.” (Lively, well known for suggesting gays were responsible for the Holocaust, is currently running for governor of Massachusetts while also facing a lawsuit for crimes against humanity due to his involvement in the persecution of LGBTQ people in Africa.) Williams documents naïve, white, 20-year-old American men instructing wizened, black, 80-year-old Ugandan grandmothers how to live their lives in accordance with the Lord’s word. He follows the flow of money from the International House of Prayer in Missouri to churches in Kampala, where Ugandan pastors mimic the words of U.S. evangelicals condemning homosexuality in God’s name. Tragically these Uganda pastors are also building on U.S. evangelical discourse to incite their congregations to perpetrate and justify violence. A Ugandan pastor stands on a stage in a field before a congregation and as part of the sermon condemning the sexual perversion of homosexuals shouts through a loudhailer, “Those who are ready to kill those who are homosexual, hands up!” Everyone’s hand shoots up to volunteer.
Williams argues through the film that Americans, particularly those involved in religious organizations and charitable giving abroad, need to think about the unintended consequences of their words and their aid. Reverend Kapya Kaoma, the film’s protagonist and a senior researcher at PRA, explains: “Usually when people are putting their money in the collection plate at church, they don’t know where this money is going. They see this poor face of an African child—the same money which a person would have given in good faith to help is used to destroy people’s lives in various parts of Africa”. Williams rightly draws an analogy with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the white man journeys to Africa filled with the imagined darkness and evils of black Africa only to find the real darkness and evils are within himself. Or in Williams’s case, as he puts it: “I, a black man, made that journey to Africa and found—America”.
Witness Uganda adopts a somewhat different angle, portraying the existential angst of a young gay African-American who haphazardly takes himself, and eventually his charity, to Uganda. A colorful musical created by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews—partners in life and work—the play tells Griffin’s semi-autobiographical story of going to Uganda in his 20s only to find nothing as he expected. There are few surprises, and the musical ends with everyone living happily-ever-after. Gould and Matthews now fund the education of orphans on a more permanent basis. Whereas Williams critiques the flow of money and influence from America to Uganda, Gould and Matthews suggest, more mildly, that “giving is complicated”.
I attended question-and-answer sessions for both productions; as a South African lawyer working on sexuality, law, and governance in Africa, I was interested in the audiences’ responses. In both sessions, attendees reflected critically on issues of American involvement in Africa. After God Loves Uganda, for example, a middle-aged white American woman asked how she could help. Rev. Kaoma, one of the panelists, deftly answered the question, suggesting that the woman turn her attentions home and to do whatever she could to hold U.S.-based religious leaders and organizations accountable for their actions abroad. His response suggested that in many cases, it is more effective for Americans to work at a local level rather than abroad.
At the Q&A for Witness Uganda, a Ugandan man asked Gould and Matthews if they had thought about the “unintended consequences” of their giving. While most questions affirmed that the show reflected a common experience of traveling to Africa to work and volunteer, this question seemed to suggest that Griffin’s haphazard attempts to help may harm. The show had suggested that nothing but good comes from giving, so why else ask about unintended consequences? Gould and Matthews, unfortunately, could not provide the Ugandan with an answer.
Having lived and worked in South and Southern Africa my whole life, I know that aid can, at the very least, be disruptive. Although Witness Uganda is entertaining, it never really moves past “giving is complicated.” In contrast, God Loves Uganda thoughtfully takes audiences on a global political journey, highlighting the real risks associated with international giving and aid work. It sends a message that giving and getting involved in African politics and society—whether through individual or institutional channels—needs to be done carefully, and sometimes, maybe not done at all.
Certainly, not giving is also complicated. If national governments, churches, religious organizations, NGOs, or individuals choose to withdraw aid, they must do so strategically and responsibly. When the U.S. and the World Bank say they are reviewing their assistance programs because of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, they need to be sure they can justify withdrawing specific types of aid and that they are not merely perpetuating patterns of Western neo-colonialism and oppression. Perhaps it does make sense, for example, to withdraw money that might otherwise be used to deny gays and lesbians access to health care services or funneled to organizations that vocally support the Anti-Homosexuality Act. The Dutch government has adopted this approach, withdrawing its aid to the Ugandan justice sector rather than be considered complicit with Uganda’s jailing of gays and lesbians. Over the next weeks and months, we will see whether Obama and Kim follow this example. The U.S. and the World Bank have an opportunity to send a clear, value-driven message that those who are complicit with the Ugandan government in its needless persecution of LGBTQ people will not benefit from American aid.
Kerry Williams is currently a candidate for a Masters in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where she is both an Edward S. Mason Fellow and a Harvard South African Fellow. The views expressed in this article are hers alone and not necessarily endorsed by Political Research Associates. The full text of her article can be read on the Citizen website.