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Interview: Radhika Balakrishman

Prof. Radhika Balakrishnan

SPW talked to Radhika Balakrishnan, the Executive Director and a Professor at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, about aid conditionalities to developing countries and its impacts on national human rights agenda. Read the interview below.

SPW: How do you evaluate the use of aid conditionality to protect women’s or LGBT human rights? What are the effects of conditionality on recipient countries?

Prof. Balakrishnan: This is really a very complicated issue. Conditionalities have been a core component of IMF structural programs since the 1990’s and although people say and think that these programs are over, they continue to be implemented and many of them include different versions of conditionality. I think we need to be very careful. I am really worried that women’s rights may now be used as another conditionality for aid, meanwhile there are no substantial investments in women’s human rights as a goal in itself. Everyone is now talking about a rights-based approach to development but we need to be careful that rights are not used as a form of aid conditionality. I would argue that this must be turned upside down. We must in fact emphasize that those working within a human rights framework need to use the framework to assess the quality and effects of donor assistance and development programs.

For example, when the IMF asks governments to cut health care expenditures, it forces states to violate the rule about non-retrogression on the right to health.
Using such a reverse frame we can hold accountable states and institutions who impose these types of conditionality, by reminding them that these rules violate the ability of national governments to fulfill fundamental human rights standards. In other words I think that we must shift the focus towards those who impose conditionality, rather than using rules of conditionality to guarantee the human rights of women.

I can give you one example from the work we did on human rights and macro economic policy in the US and Mexico. In order to accommodate NAFTA the Mexican constitution had to be changed. The NAFTA agreement required Mexico to change its constitution in regard to principles enshrined in the constitution to guarantee economic and social rights, such as the premise of collective ownership of land, that had been established by the 1910 revolution. Using the reverse lenses it became evident that NAFTA, a trade agreement, forced Mexico to violate long established human rights obligations.

SPW: Have you thought more specifically about the possible impact of aid conditionality in relation to sexual rights?

Prof. Balakrishnan: Once again it is very complicated. On the one hand, you want to support sexual rights and want to find ways to pressure those governments that resist or even violate those rights. But if you resort to conditionality to make this pressure you risk alienating people who could become allies to your cause, as they may see it as something alien. The work on reproductive and sexual rights, which are extremely sensitive issues, must always be closely linked to groups on the ground and attuned to what they are asking.

SPW: Many people argue that conditionality is typical of Western colonial modes of operation and that specifically in the case of LGBT rights it reflects the hegemony from groups in Europe and the US over local movements elsewhere. What is you opinion about this?

Prof. Balakrishnan: First, I would disagree with those who say that LGBT rights is a Western concept, being imposed on others. What happens is that quite often donor governments raise these agendas without having any dialogue with local groups working with sexuality issues. In doing so, the perception arises that their money and support is just another external imposition and this may strengthen the position of the conservative voices who affirm that sexuality rights are a Western-imposed idea. Any donor or group concerned about LGBT issues must necessarily dialogue and work closely with groups on the ground and reach strong political consensus with them about what actions may be more useful and what actions are not to be done.

I can tell you a story, which is not precisely about LGBT issues, but presents many similarities. Many years ago, when working for a donor agency, I had learned that another donor decided to fund schools for girls in Bangladesh. This program triggered a strong reaction of the Islamic conservatives who attacked the project as a Western donor-imposed agenda and burned the schools down. We must recognize that, at one level, what they said was not untrue: the decision about building the schools was taken in Italy, not in Bangladesh. On the other hand, if the agency had engaged properly with local groups and developed a program designed from the bottom-up this disaster may have been prevented.

For more information, please look at GCAP-Feminist task force, DAWN, Third World Network and AWID who have been working on these issues. Search for “aid effectiveness”, there’s tons of materials there.