Al Jazeera examines US evangelical aid groups as Uganda's anti-LGBT law is struck down

In a recent Al Jazeera article, author James Kassaga Arinaitwe combines contemporary historical analysis with his personal accounts as a Ugandan in a powerful editorial about Christian influences on Ugandan development. Arinaitwe's commentary ties together huge issues from HIV/AIDS, poverty, and so-called religious homophobia; all problems that are deserving of serious attention before celebrating too much the nullification of Uganda's draconian anti-LGBTQ law today.

In his article, Arinaitwe recalled his chilling experience of witnessing a rise of ignorance on HIV/AIDS and institutionalized poverty coinciding with a rise of so-called evangelical values. Arinaitwe wrote,

When I returned to Uganda last year after a decade away, I was taken aback by the swift spread of the evangelical movement in the country, especially as I had witnessed its diminished authority in the United States and in myself.

During a Christmas visit to my village, I went to Sunday services at the local Pentecostal church, the only permanent building among the grass-thatched huts and corrugated-iron roof shacks. The villagers welcomed the local pastor with a standing ovation. In his smart tailored suit, he symbolised the material wealth my community yearned for.

I was shocked by the pastor's angry sermon. He preached, to a community riddled with HIV/AIDS, that immoral, irresponsible sexual behaviour caused the disease and that prayers were the cure. I walked out in frustration, knowing AIDS-related deaths like that of my father two decades before were caused in large part by institutionalised poverty and inadequate basic health services. As I left, I could still hear the pastor shouting, "Even the Lord can heal your HIV/AIDS; you just have to pray."

Arinaitwe's article described how North American evangelical NGOs in Uganda have been highly effective at spreading their message. In a country where 67 percent of citizens are vulnerable to poverty and 24.5 percent of that group live on less than $1.20 a day, "The evangelical 'prosperity gospel' - which links faith in God to financial success - has a powerful attraction for poor Ugandans. Around 25 to 30 percent of the population has joined evangelical movements, a sizable chunk of the 85 percent of Ugandans who identify as Christian."

Evangelical missionaries, since arriving in the 1980s to build health clinics, schools, and orphanages, have cemented their influence in Ugandan development. Evangelical NGOs encompass over one-fifth of all NGOs in Uganda, and they are larger and receive more funding than secular NGOs. They are the mainstream power of development in Uganda.

While these Evangelical groups have indeed been effective at spreading their message, this has been at the expense of Uganda's development. Arinaitwe describes that, though they are well-intentioned, North American Evangelical NGOs have simplistic tactics that have at best been ineffective and at worst harmful, "such as simplistic messaging and the much discredited one-to-one child or village sponsorship programmes that can foster dependency while undercutting organic local economic growth."

In addition and most frightening for Uganda's LGBTQ citizens, the Evangelical message being spread is not the message of love and acceptance that is increasingly becoming inspired by Evangelicals' faith. Instead, the message being spread in Uganda is that of radical homophobia, causing a shocking increase in anti-LGBTQ violence and opposition towards combatting HIV/AIDS, which is incorrectly directly associated with being LGBTQ for most Ugandans. This phenomenon was similarly explored in the film God Loves Uganda, who worked with GLAAD to educate a wider audience about the export of anti-LGBT sentiment through US-based evangelical missionary programs. 

Last week, The National Catholic Reporter reported how US government AIDS coordinator, Deborah Birx, while praising faith-based groups for their crucial work in combatting AIDS, expressed the need for these groups to renounce the stigma and discrimination that is on the rise against sexual minorities, particularly in Africa. Birx, who made these comments to Catholic and interfaith groups gathered separately before the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia held July 20-25, stated there has been "an alarming rise in legally and religiously sanctioned stigma and discrimination in recent months. ... This return to finger-pointing and lack of acceptance puts us all at risk because if one of us isn't welcome, then all of us feel unwelcome."

"Feeling unwelcome" certainly seems like a watered down way to express the torture and anguish sexual minorities experience in Uganda from their horrific treatment by the Ugandan government and public. Ugandan legislation signed this past February, which was just declared unconstitutional today based on an improper quorum requirement, criminalized being LGBTQ as well as the promotion or acknowledgement of LGBTQ related issues. The law, previously dubbed the "kill the gays" bill for its discussion of including the death penalty, punished so-called offenders with life imprisonment in addition to affirming a violently homophobic culture in Ugandan society. Prior to the new legislation, being LGBTQ was already illegal in Uganda by a law set in place by Westerners in the colonial era, as were the laws criminalizing being LGBTQ that still exist in the majority of African countries.

Because the Ugandan law's recent nullification was based on how the law was passed as opposed to the law itself, being LGBTQ is still illegal in Uganda from its former legislation, but the punishment is now not as severe. However, a similar law to the one just declared unconstitutional may still be tried to be passed in the future. Moreover, the law's nullification likely will not affect the rising rates of violence against LGBTQ people in Uganda.

Uganda is not the only African country to have toughened these grossly unjust laws from the colonial era. Nigeria too has passed stricter legislation, while a similar law was proposed in Ethiopia last March. See the graph to the right for a picture of LGBTQ rights in the rest of Africa (updated last April).

Birx's recent comment is only one – and a comparably gentle one – among the many criticisms directed toward Western Christian groups working in Africa: Analysts have attributed the rise of these horrific anti-LGBTQ laws to the influences of Western evangelical missionaries who preach homophobic messages to many Africans.

The Rev. Phumzile Mabizela, a South African Presbyterian minister who heads INERELA+, an international network of religious leaders living with or personally affected by HIV/AIDS, expressed how these anti-LGBTQ laws and movements are greatly hurting the struggle against AIDS. Mabizela stated,

The new laws and even the discussion of the new laws have promoted a lot of fear. People are scared of going to clinics or hospitals. They don't know whom to trust. With this criminalization taking place, even health workers can report them to the authorities. This makes people more vulnerable to HIV and other conditions because it becomes dangerous for them to go to health centers