While growing attention has been paid to the role of women in advancing development, the role of LGBT+ people and their relationship with development is less well attended to in academia and beyond.
Take Singapore, for example. A state widely recognised for its impressive economic development, high HDI scores and GDP per capita. Yet it has some of the most repressive laws for LGBT+ people in the world. Compare it to its fellow Asian tiger, Taiwan, which legalised same sex marriage in 2019.
At the other end of the scale, Switzerland still awaits legalising same sex marriage and adoption – yet Colombia, Ecuador and many states of Mexico, all less developed by most metrics – legalised same sex marriage years ago.
It is clear there is no set pattern to when states grant more LGBT+ rights. While statistics show a correlation between better LGBT+ rights and higher economic development, the causation is not so clear. Is it that higher levels of development allow states to grant more individual liberties and rights, or is it that LGBT+ inclusion is favourable to economic development? Essentially, which comes first, the chicken or the egg?!
Some theories state that economies reach a certain tipping point when they become economically developed and stable enough to prioritise human wellbeing, or the environment perhaps, over solely focusing on the economy. Human rights and wellbeing are then advanced and more individual rights and liberties are granted. Furthermore, as countries develop, they tend to become less religious or more religiously diverse which can often lead to a softening of stance on LGBT+ policies, with less opposition from the population.
Some states may also find that less restrictive laws on LGBT+ people are helpful to develop through opening them up to more aid and investment opportunities. David Cameron made a (ultimately largely empty) threat to stop supplying aid to some countries over their anti-LGBT+ laws. Though the tough record of countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE on LGBT+ rights doesn’t seem to have stopped them being allies of the UK.
In many cases, there is of course a legacy of empire involved too, conveniently ignored by Cameron when he made the aforementioned comments. The UK enforced anti-LGBT+ laws across its colonies, and today over half of the 70 countries that still criminalise homosexuality are former British colonies.
Having as large of a healthy, educated population as possible seems to make sense economically for other reasons too – the more people that can work and the less strain on healthcare; the better the productivity and economy of a nation, right? Logic suggests keeping LGBT+ people healthy, protecting them from violent crimes and removing barriers to work would lead to a larger and more productive workforce.
Yet at present, transgender people are up to 50 times more likely to contract HIV than cisgender people globally. Alongside other reasons for this disparity, healthcare and employment (or lack of) both play a role. Transgender people are more likely to take on often unsafe sex work, as they face barriers to less dangerous employment, meanwhile there exists discrimination in healthcare in most places. Such horrific statistics hurt not only those immediately affected, but ultimately the health of the nation. Ill people cannot work, may be more reliant on the state and are often forced into informal jobs which do not contribute to the economy in the same way the formal sector does. Ultimately, the economy takes a hit when large groups are marginalised to the fringes of society through work, health and social discrimination.
This way of thinking is gaining recognition in regard to enabling more women to get into education and the workforce, yet the development field has not yet promoted the advantages of LGBT+ inclusive economies for development with the same vigour. While the role of women is now increasingly seen as key to development, even enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals, LGBT+ people seem somewhat forgotten in this.
Take Uganda, for example. Rightly applauded for the number of women in its Parliament, yet it has some of the worst LGBT+ laws in the world. While the rise of women into top political roles is to be respected, would these women be there if they were trans women? Or if they were bisexual women?
Rectifying this begins with non-discrimination laws for the workplace and education, employment quotas, full and equal access to healthcare and a no-tolerance, strong punishment policy for hate crimes against LGBT+ people.
Of course, LGBT+ rights should be granted, improved and upheld regardless of their impact on economic development – I should hope that goes without saying. Yet in the same way it has been for women, the selling point for states implementing better rights and becoming more inclusive may well be in the economic benefit they bring.