Aidex Voices

AidEx speaks to the newly appointed UN GLOBE President Gurchaten Sandhu about LGBT+ equality and inclusion in the humanitarian aid and development sector.  

Gurchaten Sandhu has spent the past twelve years at the UN agency ILO, building expertise and knowledge on promoting social justice through quality, inclusive work for all, with a particular focus on enhancing LGBT+ rights at work and economic inclusion. Ultimately, everyone’s ability to be their authentic selves in the workplace without fear of persecution for who they are or who they love is both a professional and personal priority for Gurchaten.

He recognises the significant strides have been made in LGBT+ rights and equality since the Stonewall Riots 50 years ago, such as the decriminalisation of same sex intimacy, criminalisation of homophobic hate crimes, removal of administrative barriers to legal gender recognition, and the WHO’s removal of gender identity disorder from their international classification of disease.

However, progress he believes is being made “all too slowly” and if we are to achieve the SDG’s aim to leave no one behind by 2030, the pace of progress must be accelerated. At the current rate, an average of just one UN member state per year is changing their laws to decriminalise, meaning it would take 69 years for all countries to do so – albeit an unguaranteed number given the alarming human rights regressions in some countries.

Moreover, Sandhu asserts how progress for the LGBT+ community is not homogenous, with those identifying as trans for instance not experiencing equal treatment. Recognition of this requires an effort on behalf of the international community to innovate its current approach and work with each population or group.

Looking specifically within the aid and development sector, the UN GLOBE President believes that on every level, “all too often LGBT+ are invisible”. Organisationally their lack of being engaged in the decision-making process means internal and external policies, programmes and projects do not factor in LGBT+ people and their issues. The narrow focus on health issues such as HIV when it comes to working explicitly for this community, he says “reinforces negative stigma”.

Sandhu believes the key to achieving inclusive, diverse and safe workplaces is by ensuring the very people around the table designing the materials include LGBT+ people, particularly from the global south or low-and-middle-income countries. Remunerating them for their time is crucial, especially as it is often grass-roots activists for instance who can share the most valuable insights. Effective progress necessitates a “working for and with” approach.

“We cannot just be armchair allies. And this requires not just sticking on a rainbow pin but actively listening and understanding the role we can play to support LGBT+ equality. What is also needed is a more open and frank - and possibly uncomfortable - discussion on power and privilege.” 

lowering risks for LGBT+ aid workers and recipients

At AidEx last week on 14 November in Brussels, Sandhu moderated a panel discussion on LGBT+ security in the field where numerous key suggested outcomes arose.

International Advocacy Advisor for RFSL, Micah Grzywnowicz commented on the need for employers to facilitate access to networks for LGBT+ field workers considering the complicated and isolated contexts they typically work in. They argued for more preventative development policies over reactive that should be based on evidence as opposed to stereotypes in order to achieve meaningful and sustainable change.

In answer to Sandhu’s questioning of whether policies are enough, CEO of RedR UK Jo de Serrano raised the issue of organisations lurching to incorporate buzzwords into their programming, all the while neglecting the very people who deliver the programmes.

She argued protection for LGBT+ aid workers can be improved by initiating discussions on the challenges of linking protected characteristics to safety and security of travellers and ensuring risk assessments provide information on the cultural and legal environment.

Senior Advisor for Global Advocacy at OutRight Action International, Paul Jansen remarked on how whilst we can have all kinds of guidelines and rules, LGBT+ people are not always visible on the ground especially where it is culturally unacceptable to identify as non-heterosexual. From his experience, well-organised structures exist on the ground for communities that can’t be legally out and proud which is something we often miss, and so must adapt our responses to include those.

Julie Dunphy, Senior Policy and Liaison Officer in the Field Security Service for UNHCR remarked on the underreporting and lack of sufficient security and risk management systems: “In an ideal world we shouldn’t have a separate policy that delineates this, but we had to come up with clear concrete actions and we started with the top guy to roll out the policy.”

It is why Dunphy has worked to introduce training sessions that accompany UNHCR’s security policies which seek to ensure security personnel understand the language and terminology so that they can “go out and be champions and feel comfortable using the language in their security briefs”.

The overarching consensus established internal structures must have policies, processes and procedures to offer LGBT+ employees legal protection from discrimination, such as recognition of their relationships with same sex partners, but never singling individuals out. Crucially, change must be driven from the top and mainstreamed throughout organisations in practical ways, as it takes leadership to stand firm for progressive values and implement such as the norm. Recruiting LGBT+ staff in the first place is integral to ensuring people affected by crisis can be assisted appropriate to their needs whatever their sexuality, which is why organisations have every responsibility to do so.

Gurchaten Sandhu is the President of UN GLOBE, the staff group representing LGBTIQ+ staff working in the UN System and its Peacekeeping Operations. UN GLOBE works to change the internal culture of the UN System to ensure the equality and inclusion of LGBT+ people.