Why the USA Can’t Just Cut Aid to Uganda

The harsh new anti-gay measure signed into law to day by Uganda president Yoweri Museveni has been roundly denounced, and rightfully so. The law is appalling on human rights grounds: it criminalizes “homosexual acts” with severe penalties. The top UN human rights official warns that it could “institutionalise discrimination and could encourage harassment and violence.”

It is also a huge setback for the fight against HIV/AIDS. If you want to tackle HIV/AIDS in a country, you need to target high risk groups. Nationwide, Uganda has an HIV prevalence rate of 7.2%.  That rate is nearly double among men-who-have-sex-with-men. Groups that work with the LGBT community to help stem the spread of HIV may now face criminal prosecution for “aiding” or “abetting” homosexuality.

This is a human rights tragedy and a public health disaster in the making. So what can the international community do about it? As many people have pointed out, Uganda is heavily dependent on foreign aid. The USA is its largest contributor, giving over $400 million per year in assistance. But cutting off that aid to protest this law is not really an option. Most of this funding is for economic development, education and health projects. Shutting off the spigot would hurt those who need it the most. There would be fewer AIDS drugs, fewer mosquito nets, fewer health services and less clean water for vulnerable populations.

Further, the Ugandan military — which receives US support —  plays a generally constructive role in supporting regional peace and stability. Its contributions to a UN-backed African Union force in Somalia is helping to restore order as Somalia undergoes a truly impressive transition. The Ugandan army also deserves credit for helping to end the incipient civil war in neighboring South Sudan.

So the answer is not a clear cut as cutting off aid to Uganda, which would be sort of like cutting of the nose to spite the face.  Still, the face needs some spiting! I would expect the State Department–which since 2009 has made LGBT rights a priority in bi-lateral relations — is trying to find alternate ways to pressure Uganda and express its displeasure.

Photo credit: An activist waves a rainbow flag, an international symbol for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Photo: Flickr/See-ming Lee