Should we impose western values through aid?


In light of David Cameron’s recent threat to curb aid to countries intolerant of homosexuality, Evan O’Quigley and Sean O’Grady argue the merits of using aid as a tool for change.

YES – Evan O’Quigley

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently upset Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni after threatening to withhold UK foreign aid from countries whose governments do not maintain certain standards of civil rights, including countries that criminalise homosexuality. It is appalling that while in many countries gay people and couples can live without the threat of violence and criminalisation, this is currently an impossibility in other parts of the world. Uganda in particular is known for its cruel and unjust treatment of gay people.

Since 2009, Ugandan politicians have been seeking to institute the death penalty for what they call “aggravated homosexuality” – a ridiculous term that they have invented for ‘being homosexual more than once’. The proposed bill has apparently been shelved for the time being, but the very idea that it was proposed in the first place shows that there is a general attitude of cruelty towards homosexuality in many countries.

Generally, people like to think that the world is becoming more tolerant of people of varying sexualities, races and religions, but in reality this is a false perception. Over eighty countries still criminalise homosexuality today; about half of these countries are members of the Commonwealth of Nations, many of which receive some degree of financial aid from the UK.

Democratic countries have a responsibility to spread basic human rights and stop instances of injustice across the world. In many countries, not only is homosexuality prohibited, but so are the essential values that we take for granted, such as freedom of religion and women’s rights. It is far easier for all purposes if this imposition of ‘western values’ is achieved through diplomatic means, rather than having to later engage militarily. There have been negotiations in the past to institute democracy and freedom through diplomacy, rather than by down the barrel of a gun.

It completely defeats the purpose of foreign aid if the recipient countries do not adhere to basic human dignities. Many governments have regretted making this same mistake in the past. For instance, the United States under President Ronald Regan funded the Taliban to overthrow the USSR who had been in control at the time, in order to take down the ‘Soviet Empire’. While this arguably helped the United States to win the Cold War, it later led to human rights violations in the country, such as the expulsion of thousands of girls from schools, the of killing unarmed civilians, and the targeting of ethnic groups such as the Hazaras.

Of course, there are many reasons why foreign aid is absolutely necessary, and withholding it could be dangerous, but even the fact that such basic human rights laws are commonly referred to as ‘western values’ shows that there is a problem which needs to be addressed in the world. These rights should not be dismissed in countries receiving foreign aid.

Somalia, which saw a 208 per cent increase in aid this year, has an extremely poor human rights record including restriction of freedom, women’s rights and many others. It is listed by the United Nations as a country which uses child soldiers. It would make one wonder; is it worth giving foreign aid to countries to improve economically, considering the serious problems with regard to human rights?

Civil rights are not born overnight, or automatically. In Ireland, the United Kingdom and other western countries they have been gained through campaigning and diplomatic actions, but this simply cannot be done peacefully in countries without stable democratic governments. The restrictions of freedom of speech inhibit such protest. In 2005, two Ugandan MPs from the Forum for Democratic Change party were arrested when the movement was believed to pose a threat to the re-election of President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in office since 1986. This is but one amongst countless other examples.

The world is changing rapidly. The uprisings in the Middle East that took place just this year show that the world cannot continue to impede basic civil rights and sustain peace.  It is time for true equality throughout the world for all people, both in the east and the west.

Rebuttal – Sean O’Grady

While I do agree that several laws in countries such as Uganda and Somalia need to be changed, withholding aid is not a good alternative. To ask whether it is worth giving aid to Somalia because of their human rights laws is ridiculous. The entire population of these countries are not to blame for the current state they are in and they do not all deserve to be punished.

If democratic governments have a responsibility to stop injustice in the world, then they should take their own advice and stop withholding aid from countries who do not succumb to their wishes. How on earth can this be called just? Making these countries democratic is certainly not going to solve all of their problems. The writer seems to think that a democracy is some form of utopia. Ireland is a democracy, are we free of problems and injustices? Clearly not. Refusing to help people in need is not going to make them more tolerant, it will simply make them bitter and resentful.

NO – Sean O’Grady

Imagine you were to ask an old friend, someone you hadn’t seen in a long time, for some money. Like many people in today’s disastrous economy, you had fallen on hard times. Instead of doing what most would consider to be the right thing, and help out someone in need, they refused to give you a penny. Not because they thought you didn’t deserve it, or that you didn’t need it, quite the contrary – your values are the problem. Such is the current situation with several developing countries continuing to suffer in poverty because certain developed nations, such as the United Kingdom, don’t agree with the countries’ morals.

A notable case is that of Uganda, who have recently been denied aid due to their government’s policy on homosexuality, which is currently punishable by prison sentence. While these laws are clearly appalling and archaic, it is not fair to deny an entire nation of people aid due to the policies of their government. Is it fair to make millions suffer for the laws created by a few? About forty per cent of Uganda’s rural population, numbering close to ten million people, currently live in poverty. With the lack of sufficient healthcare and social services in Uganda, the AIDS pandemic has left over one million children orphaned.

The problem does not end here however, as several other countries in the Commonwealth are dealing with high levels of poverty. Malawi has also come under fire for their attitude towards human rights, and was denied budgetary support of nineteen million pounds for its people, and with Sri Lanka accused of war crimes, millions more people will be denied aid as a result of the actions of just a few. The war crimes in Sri Lanka also demonstrate that gay rights are not the only issue when it comes to aid. Will we see the day when western countries refuse to give aid to regions where people can have multiple marriage partners? Or because they don’t agree with a majority Muslim nation’s policy on the role of women in society? Without a doubt, there is a lot of progress to be made in many developing countries’ human rights, but it is imperative to keep in mind that we can’t expect decades-old laws and traditions to be altered to more equal and fair standards instantly. This is both unfair and unrealistic. I’m sure most of us would agree that if we were in the position of these developing countries and were asked to change our values and traditions overnight, we too would be inclined to protest.

The majority of countries seeking aid have very high birth rates, which means that a very large proportion of the people currently suffering in countries such as Uganda are children. All of us have seen enough heart-wrenching Trocaire advertisements to know that the problem is a gravely serious one. Millions of innocent citizens are going to continue to suffer, simply due to the fact that wealthier nations don’t like their country’s laws. While it can’t be denied that many people are currently being wrongly repressed by conservative values, in order to really help them, the overall quality of life needs to be improved first. Interestingly enough, many of the countries whose laws are being criticised, are following the values Britain held before. Some forty-one commonwealth nations currently have anti-gay laws, in accordance with what Britain once had. I think it’s fair to say that the UK deserves some of the blame for imposing these discriminatory laws in the first place.

If developing states continue to be denied aid, the problems that they face today are going to continue to get worse. As countries continue to develop, so does the liberalising of their laws, as we have seen with practically every first world country. Giving them the basis for this development will lead to an improved life for all. The current policy Britain is upholding with aid cannot be called ‘fair’; the most appropriate word for it is blackmail.

Rebuttal – Evan O’Quigley

It’s easy to oversimplify the issue when thinking strictly in terms of gay or women’s rights, but when looking at the larger picture and what is going on in Uganda and many other places, the proposal seems far more justifiable. The reality is that female genital mutilation, torture abuses by security agencies and child labour are continuing every day. This should not be addressed simply as an eastern-western culture clash.

David Cameron himself admitted that this change will not to be made overnight, and it is unlikely that the UK are really going to cut foreign aid and thus immediately endanger many lives. This writer believes that the threat to cut aid is an attempt to change the conversation and achieve progress with regards to human rights in Uganda and the rest of the countries concerned. It is useless making efforts to improve countries through aid if there are not also efforts to persuade the various world governments to implement real democratic principles, so that all can experience a true quality of life regardless of gender, sexuality or political preference. ‘Values and Traditions’ are no excuse, as those who have been affected by such abuses would certainly agree.