On 22 August, I participated in Kathmandu’s Gai Jatra Pride festival along with three other representatives from the Embassy. It was an amazing experience, with a brilliant blend of the traditional Gai Jatra festival that falls on the same day, LGBTI symbols and banners, and a huge number of participants of all ages – in costumes, dressed up in sarees and in casual clothes.
The parade was organised by a local LGBTI rights organisation called Blue Diamond Society (BDS), which the Norwegian Embassy has supported since 2008. An Australian friend heard that Norway had officially supported the parade and that I had gone to it as part of my job, and made a simple joke: “that’s so Scandinavian.” Because I am a perpetual over-thinker of all things, that got me to… well, over-thinking.
According to my personal value system (and, to an extent, that of my country) BDS, Gai Jatra Pride and other measures to improve the human rights and welfare of sexual and gender minorities in Nepal are very good investments. The advocacy of BDS has been a direct cause of Nepal being one of the most progressive countries in the region with regard to LGBTI rights, a milestone of which was the inclusion of a third gender category in the 2011 national census.
The vast majority of the people in the Gai Jatra Pride parade were not Western or Norwegian, neither are the majority of the people doing the campaigning, advocacy and project work. They are Nepali LGBTI activists exercising their own voices and carrying out work based on to their own perspectives and values.
However, the choice to support BDS over another Nepali organisation working for something completely different is, as my Australian friend touched on, informed by a very Scandinavian value system.
I can think of other countries whose majority values I would not be as happy to see reflected in development support.
This is another case where it’s difficult to reconcile an anthropological attitude of cultural relativism to development work – though if the focus is placed on local agency the mental acrobatics become a little bit easier.
The situation in Uganda, where I have also done project work, is a very different one. There, mere association with LGBTI causes could be a huge detriment to the perceived trustworthiness and ethical stance of a development partner in the eyes of many local stakeholders, even if their involvement in the country were far removed from LGBTI advocacy.
Though activists in Uganda have held their first two Pride parades in 2012 and 2013, it would be impossible to take these processions through Kampala in the same way as Gai Jatra Pride wove through Kathmandu, at least without grave danger to the participants.
Even in a remote location, activists join the parades at great personal risk.
A common argument from Ugandans speaking out against LGBTI rights draws on arguments of cultural relativism and indigeneity. “Homosexuality,” the argument I have often heard goes, “is not part of our traditional African culture.” However, others have argued that the wide-spread vehement hatred of LGBTI in the region is at least in part a consequence of the significant presence of Christianity, originally brought to Uganda by the colonizing British and more recently by evangelists like Rick Warren from the US (and other places.)
The issue seems to be relevant to a greater or lesser degree in a lot of – or even all – development work. The UN in Nepal has recently been subject to a lot of criticism from Nepali commentators because of its increasing focus on measures combating ethnic and caste discrimination, which some feel is an unwelcome foreign imposition in the way local society works.
Of course, this work is largely carried out through working together with Dalits and indigenous groups that are themselves Nepali activists. But even if we’re just supporting local change agents, the choice of which agents to support represents a value judgement. On the level of principle, do the facts that we have money to spend and the inclination to do so give us the right to make these judgements?
Should our Western values automatically be given a privileged position?
My opinion is that Norwegian support to LGBTI rights and welfare in Nepal should not cease – rather the opposite. My motivation in writing this is in part an attempt to counter the lack of attention paid to the Pride procession at Gai Jatra in Nepali media (as of now, I have been unable to find any mention of it.)
But that’s what I think.
Should what I think matter in this context? And how do we decide when it does, and deal with the ethical consequences if it doesn’t?