50.50: Investigation

Exclusive: US Christian Right pours more than $50m into Africa

Conservative groups increase their spending and activity in what critics call an ‘opportunistic use of Africans’ for US-style ‘culture wars’

Lydia Namubiru square.png
Lydia Namubiru Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu
29 October 2020, 5.59am
David Bahati at an anti-gay rally at Christianity Focus Centre in Mengo Kisenyi on 17 February 2020, held by religious and political leaders who oppose LGBT rights
Benedicte Desrus / Sipa Press

More than 20 US Christian groups known for fighting against LGBT rights and access to safe abortion, contraceptives and comprehensive sexuality education have spent at least $54m in Africa since 2007. These are the results of a new investigation by openDemocracy, which documents the scale of this spending for the first time.

The Fellowship Foundation, a secretive US religious group whose Ugandan associate, David Bahati, wrote Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill, is the biggest spender in Africa. Between 2008 and 2018, this group sent more than $20m to Uganda alone.

Some of these groups appear to be spending increasing amounts of money in Africa. “Their imperialist DNA simply hunts for bigger spheres of influence,” said Sylvia Tamale, a prominent Ugandan law professor and gay rights defender, in reaction to openDemocracy’s findings.

None of the US groups reveals the identities of their funders or details of how exactly they spend their money overseas. Globally, openDemocracy found that a larger group of 28 US organisations had spent at least $280m around the world to influence laws, policies and public opinion against sexual and reproductive rights.

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“Creating mass hysteria around homosexuality” is a notable component of the work of US Christian Right groups in Africa, says Jessica Horn, an Afro-feminist who has studied Christian fundamentalism on the continent for more than a decade. Their agenda, she says, includes opposing reproductive rights and “controlling women’s bodies”.

‘Exporting hate to Africa’

Two groups that oppose contraception and abortion, Human Life International and Heartbeat International, have spent at least $4.3m, combined, on the continent. An earlier openDemocracy investigation found that ‘crisis pregnancy centres’ affiliated with Heartbeat violate South African law on abortion counselling and discourage contraception in Uganda.

“It's imperialism. It's neocolonialism. It's basically the Bible that they are coming back with, which is not African,” says Sibongile Ndashe, a South African feminist who heads the Institute for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA).

Haley McEwen, a researcher at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, calls US religious Right groups a “well-resourced transnational network of conservative organisations”.

McEwen says they are “exporting hate to Africa and other parts of the world, along with US-style culture wars and polarisation over issues relating to gender and sexuality”.

While same-sex marriage was legalised in the US in 2015, same-sex relationships of any kind remain criminalised in many African countries. Some African activists suspect this is what has drawn US conservatives to the continent.

“They have lost support in their home country. Now they are looking for countries where they can dump their ideologies,” says Frank Mugisha, a Ugandan LGBT rights activist. “They do it somewhere else where they feel they have more power.”

David Kato (centre) a Ugandan LGBT rights activist who was murdered in 2011 at the height of debates on an anti-gay law
Benedicte Desrus/Sipa Press/PA Images

Part of a bigger fight

Frederick Clarkson is a researcher at the Political Research Associates think tank in Massachusetts, which exposed the links between US religious activists and anti-gay legislation in Uganda in 2004. He said the wider context of these groups’ increasing activity and spending in Africa is a fight for the United Nations.

One of the groups, Family Watch International (FWI), is campaigning to ban comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in at least ten African countries and has since 2010 been coaching African diplomats on how to negotiate for conservative causes, via an annual training programme in the US.

They have lost support at home. They’re looking for countries where they can dump their ideologies

In recent decades, Clarkson says, the UN has become an increasingly progressive institution – and subject to an organised backlash from those who oppose women’s and LGBT rights. “Take the power of individual nations, even poor nations, and align it with conservative American and European interests. That changes the balance of power and moves it in a conservative direction.”

Clarkson also notes the history of Christianity in Africa as “a big part of the European colonial project”. Mugisha, the Ugandan activist, draws similar parallels.

“It feels like the beginning, those dark days when Africa was looked at like this dark continent and there was a scramble for it. ‘Let’s go and scramble for Africa and take territories.’ They’re like, ‘let’s go into Africa and take our ideas, they’ll buy into them.’’’

‘An opportunistic use of Africans’

Of the groups that are active in Africa, ten are members of the World Congress of Families (WCF), which has been linked to white supremacists in the US and Europe. Nonetheless, “lots of clergy [in Africa] are willing to partner with them, partly because they share conservative views, but also because they’re being opportunistic about the money,” says Jessica Horn. (WCF president, Brian Brown, denied the network had links to white supremacists and said: “We condemn racism.”)

“It’s an opportunistic use of Africans,” Horn argues. She laments that “we’re not always keyed into why it’s problematic to align ourselves with white supremacist power”, even though “we've been colonised and should know better.”

US money and religious conservative agendas have a track record of intersecting with health policy in Africa to tragic effect. In 2005, George W Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), reserved two-thirds of its HIV prevention funds for the abstinence and fidelity campaigns strongly supported by religious conservatives. PEPFAR spent about $1.4bn on such programmes.

A 2016 study of about 500,000 people in 22 countries found no evidence that these abstinence programmes were effective. “Spending money and having no effect is a pretty costly thing because the money could be used elsewhere to save lives,” said Eran Bendavid, a Stanford University assistant professor and one of the researchers on the study.

In some cases, PEPFAR money supported African ultra-conservative Christians such as Martin Ssempa in Uganda who promoted anti-LGBT sentiments.

Researchers have also found that arrests and convictions under anti-gay laws have significantly reduced the use of HIV prevention and care services by gay men in Africa, undercutting the progress against the HIV and AIDS epidemic that PEPFAR sought.

The Fellowship Foundation and Human Life International did not respond to openDemocracy requests for comment.

A representative of Heartbeat International said that it is “a non-profit federation of faith-based pregnancy resource centers, medical clinics, maternity homes and non-profit adoption agencies”.

It said: “Because every woman should be loved and supported during her pregnancy, Heartbeat International celebrates and serves local and regional life-affirming pregnancy help organizations across all continents and cultures, including Africa.”

* Additional reporting by Kerry Cullinan.

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