UK prime minister David Cameron has said he wants to export gay marriage to the developing world, notably to Commonwealth states in Africa. He’s quite right to be proud of the new UK gay marriage legislation, yet it’s worth considering the issue through the other end of the telescope, from an African perspective.
It’s illegal to be gay in most African states; in some of the few places where it isn’t illegal the direction of travel is towards making it so. The democratically-elected leaders of countries in which homosexuality is illegal have the strong support of both their spiritual leaders (e.g. Church of England Bishops) and general populations.
We already ‘export’ democracy, if you will. When elections appear rigged or institutions which should serve as a check and balance on elected governments seem weak, we quite rightly urge higher standards. So what happens when an African state runs successful elections and supports strong institutions, like the judiciary and the church, but then pass or maintain laws we don’t like?
Well, we can let it be known through the usual diplomatic channels and also through, say, campaigning NGOs, that we don’t agree with them and we’d like them to consider changing. African leaders are often sympathetic, actually, but point out that no democracy can legislate without public consent.
So when we challenge the agreed moral order in a state which might, say, be showing sound economic growth and maintaining law and order, we have to think more than twice before we threaten to reduce development aid unless they fall in line with our values.
When folk in Africa complain about post-colonial imperialism, they’re often referring to our occasional attempt to force them to agree to our moral norms. Muscular demands that they change can often (usually?) have the opposite effect. Moreover, the mooted idea that we might reduce assistance to some of the poorest people in the world unless they do immediately what it took us hundreds of years to do (the gay marriage legislation is of course brand new) looks more than muscular – to many Africans it looks downright arrogant and even aggressive.
A lot of people have careers reminding us how awful things are in Africa. Actually, there are countless good things going on across the continent and unless we recognise and reflect that then we really shouldn’t be surprised when Africans object to our attempts to force our moral norms in their sovereign states.