The Equal Rights Coalition in Vancouver - A Political Win but an Economic Missed Opportunity

| By Phil Crehan

From August 6-8, the governments of Canada and Chile co-convened the second meeting of the Equal Rights Coalition (ERC) - the premiere international alliance comprised of 39 governments and 29 organizations – titled “Leaving No One Behind: the Equal Rights Coalition Global Conference on LGBTI Human Rights and Inclusive Development”.

On one side, the conference and momentum of the ERC was a success. The numerous governments in attendance reiterated their continued political support to the human rights of LGBTI people, and the government of Cyprus signed on to the ERC, becoming the 40th government to lead this charge. Additionally, and as announced by the Canadian Prime Minister’s Special Advisor on LGBT+ issues, Randy Boissonnault, the government of Canada freed 1 million dollars in resources for LGBTI organizations. These clear wins will contribute significantly to the global progress of LGBTI people.

On the other side, this momentum was not quite the tidal wave I was expecting, and I left with a feeling of missed opportunities. There was a seeming unwillingness of the ERC to consider the viability of economic empowerment and inclusive growth as a legitimate pathway for LGBTI advocacy. Although the conference included “inclusive development” in the title, many of the discussions and outcomes focused only on leveraging governments to enact rights. Missing were the discussions and strategic conversations on economics, and even basic explanations of inclusive growth were absent.

With the international division of the U.S. National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC Global), we define the pathway toward LGBTI economic empowerment as the equality of opportunity to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from the formal economy. We refer to inclusive growth as the process in which employment and financial advances apply equitably across all sectors, social groups, and socioeconomic classes – regardless of sexual orientation, gender expression/identity, and sex characteristics. 

Let’s briefly consider the scope of LGBTI economic empowerment, and run through the myriad of institutional mechanisms that are currently underutilized yet remain available to LGBTI advocates:

National poverty strategies and Ministries of Finance. As mentioned in numerous diagnostics and conversations, LGBTI well-being is also an issue of poverty alleviation. When people experience homophobia, transphobia, and compulsory surgeries in the home and at young ages, there are significant impacts on an LGBTI persons’ standing in their community, on their social capital, and on their human capital skills. Specific mechanisms like bullying in schools, occupational segregation in the labor market, and violence contribute to a lower socioeconomic status, and potentially even cycles of poverty. In numerous countries, national action plans and Ministries of Finance are specifically tasked to develop anti-poverty programs and deliver essential services and investments. Engaging those ministries and developing LGBTI-inclusive strategies (starting with diagnostics and reliable data collection) can create significant entry points for LGBTI people, including a significant rise in resources.

The “private sector”. As LGBTI advocates, we tend to analyze governments with delicacy and nuance, regarding viable entry points and potential backsliding on rights. Equally, let us also give the same “benefit of the doubt” to corporations. To speak of the thousands of corporations around the world as one simple category of “the private sector” is to miss the diversity of corporations that exist among numerous sectors and in various regions, as well as to miss out on the cutting-edge work that is already taking place with LGBTI people in the Global South and North alike. This pathway of advocacy has already expanded the scope of investments into LGBTI issues, with significantly more potential on the horizon. (For another perspective, I recommend this blog by Caleb Orozco).

The multilateral development banks (MDBs). Speaking as one who worked for the World Bank and who helped lead the inclusion of LGBTI issues into the Bank’s programming, I’m thrilled to see this work advance and continue to be led by strong internal champions and the SOGI Advisor. However, let us not allow this institution to advance LGBTI issues strictly on its own terms - it is crucial that governments and civil society alike continue to advocate for these issues to take a more prominent role in its USD 4.5 billion annual budget. The history of making the World Bank more responsive to the needs of the most marginalized is a history of progressive governments and civil society holding it accountable. Aside from the World Bank (and although there was one representative from the Inter-American Development Bank), the rest of the regional MDBs were absent. This presents an opportunity for the governments of the ERC to utilize their unique leverage at the MDBs to influence the inclusion of LGBTI issues into programming, and to truly advance a form of economic development that will “leave no one behind”.

I finish with four recommendations for the ERC to consider as it advances its work outside of the conference, with a focus on LGBTI economic empowerment and inclusive growth:

  1. Convene Ministers of Finance and expand the scope of national action anti-poverty plans to include LGBTI people.
  2. Invite corporate champions of LGBTI rights and inclusion. Understand the entry points that already exist between corporations and LGBTI groups, and understand the mutual benefit that brings to both. At the least, this includes – diversity and inclusion within the workplace and the impact on a corporation’s hiring practices; LGBTI employee resource groups; corporate social responsibility; and how LGBTI-owned businesses can be better included into corporate supply chains through Supplier Diversity. The UN Standards of Conduct for Business that tackle LGBTI discrimination provide a great typology and common standards to understand these dynamics, as well as hundreds of corporations who have shown support.
  3. Consider viable strategies to leverage the power and resources of the MDBs. As many of the governments on the ERC are also donors to the MDBs, you hold significant positions of power within these public institutions in the form of voting power at the level of the Executive Board of Directors.
  4. Tap into the ingenuity, creativity, productivity, and collective power of the global LGBTI community. Let us always fight the injustices and human rights violations that result due to stigma, harsh laws, violence, and discrimination. Equally, let us celebrate the resilience of LGBTI people, business owners, entrepreneurs, and change-makers. This reconceptualization includes a further development of the “business case”, but also goes beyond that. It entails a reconceptualization of LGBTI resilience and showing how economic might can be magnetic to new allies and partners.

Numerous LGBTI organizations and some of the international organizations are already engaged in this dialogue and are structuring the beginnings of an infrastructure to tap into the power of LGBTI economic empowerment and inclusive economic growth. As the premier international alliance on these issues, the ERC must take seriously this pathway and try to better understand, invest in, and promote it. To do so requires precision, nuance, and significant coordination between civil society, governments, private sector champions, and international organizations.