At The Economist’s Pride & Prejudice event, much discussion abounds on the business case for being LGBT-friendly in 2016. But the diversity and inclusion debate goes far beyond workplace concerns in Western, cosmopolitan cities like London and New York.
There are still 76 countries globally where a person can be jailed for their sexual orientation or gender identity. In some of these regions, they are in danger of receiving the death penalty. “You can’t even begin to talk about the business case if there’s not a rights foundation,” says Shauna Olney, Chief of the Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch of the International Labour Organisation.
Robert Biedroń, the first openly gay mayor in Poland, says he is sceptical of supranational institutions like the European Parliament. “There is no one binding international treaty or convention around the world concerning LGBTI people,” he says. “There is the European Convention on Punishment for Road Traffic Offences, the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, but there is nothing for LGBTI people.”
Olney also believes that the lack of any universal declaration of human rights is something which urgently needs addressing. She offers evidence that a change in law can positively influence behaviour, citing bumps in perceived acceptance of gay people in Croatia following the introduction of same-sex marriage, and in Luxembourg after an openly gay man became prime minister. “Laws and politicians matter,” she says.
But outside of government, what can companies do? When doing business abroad, organisations must choose to adopt one of three models: “When in Rome,” wherein the company acquiesces to all local laws and customs; the “embassy” model, where local employees operate within the company as they would in the US or UK; and finally the “advocate” model, where the organisation has an immovable set of values. “We have a responsibility to look at our own values and live them,” says Claudia Brind-Woody, VP and MD of Intellectual Property Licensing at IBM. She describes IBM as “mostly advocate,” but acknowledges that the safety of employees is paramount and so sometimes they have to settle for being an embassy.
Bisi Alimi is an activist who fled persecution in Nigeria and now lives in the UK. To Alimi, the embassy model is not enough; the way he sees it, the head of a Western corporation can command the attention of a president or prime minister of an oppressive African nation, and he believes that companies with the wealth and desire to do business in these countries also have a responsibility to foster change.
“It’s simple capitalism,” he says. “To make profit, you need people. To get people, you need change.” He cites Nigeria’s natural beauty is a giant untapped source of tourist revenue, and also predicts that changing laws around homosexuality will mean less of a “gay brain drain,” which will in turn boost Nigeria’s economy further, as has already been seen in South Africa. “Activism is a selfish thing for me,” he says. “I want to take my husband back to my country… I have to work hard to make home a safe place for him.”
Of course, as human rights activist Nadia Zabehi points out, governments in many of these countries are far from secular, and the criminalisation of homosexuality is often dictated by sharia law. That isn’t something that can be solved by someone at BP or Shell picking up the phone. In many regions, effecting change is going to be a painfully slow process. “Cultures hold values and symbols dear,” says actor and campaigner Omar Sharif Jr, who was also forced to leave his home country of Egypt. “In the West, that’s the legalistic language of the constitution. In the East, the language is moralistic.”
Moad Goba, an LGBTI refugee mentor, acknowledges that there are certain leaders who would rather see their country starve than accept financial aid if it comes with conditions regarding equality. But she also believes that reshaping perceptions has the power to ultimately influence politics. “Changing hearts and minds often results in a change of law,” she says, urging companies who want to help to communicate with people living and working in these regions, to find out what they can do rather than making unilateral decisions.
And what if you truly believe your employees won’t be safe? Is it practical to simply withdraw your business from a hostile country if you don’t agree with its laws? Sharif thinks so. “Don’t try to work around it, don’t try to message around it; do the right thing,” he says. “Your business will prosper in other places.”
An especially high profile example of this is the decision made by Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, to block a loan to clinics which he deemed would further endanger already-vulnerable LGBT people living in Uganda. “It’s not about making a political stand, but looking at principle,” says Kim. “If we are supporting an institution which endangers people, we have to say no.”
On the other side of the fence is Sir Martin Sorrell, who believes that an altogether more pragmatic approach is best. He suggests, in retrospect, that leaders like David Cameron and Barack Obama might have been wise to take the opportunity to sit down with Vladimir Putin instead of refusing to attend the Sochi Winter Olympics.
“Quiet diplomacy works better than brazen head-to-head controversy,” he says. “They do listen, they do learn, and they can change.”