Across the United States, as state legislators have tried to limit the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, one of their biggest opponents has been business. Just last month, executives at more than 80 companies signed a public letter to the governor of North Carolina urging him to repeal an anti-gay law. Other corporations have cancelled plans in states repealing gay rights.
Why are these companies – which include giants such as Apple Microsoft, Marriott, Pepsi and Disney – taking a stand? One reason is that they don’t want their LGBT-identified employees discriminated against.
Across the ocean in Africa, there are also many legislators working to restrict the rights of LGBT people. Over the past few years, the continent has passed a record-breaking number of anti-LGBT pieces of legislation. This includes the Anti-Same Sex Prohibition Act in Nigeria and the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 in Uganda.
At the same time, we have seen an increase in threats to the lives and livelihood of LGBT people, their friends and family, all across the continent. These laws and threats create an environment of fear for local LGBT people.
Business in Africa is booming
This oppression comes at a time when more businesses are coming to Africa. In 2014 alone, over 71,941 new businesses registered in Nigeria, 45,366 in Kenya, 10,000 in Zambia, and the numbers are similar across many African countries. And according to the World Bank, foreign direct investment in the region has hit a record $60 billion.
But the anti-gay climate in many of these countries poses problems for Western companies that want to do business. What are they to do? I’ve noticed that companies doing business in African countries tend to follow three lines of engagement when it comes to LGBT issues.
When in Rome
Plenty of global businesses don’t want to risk their profits by being seen to promote LGBT issues in countries that are anti-gay – even if they do so in their home country. I experienced this firsthand when I approached a leading advertising company in London that does work on LGBT rights in the UK. As they also work in Nigeria, I suggested we collaborate on a video to counter the narrative that LGBT rights are not human rights. The company said that while they liked my idea and it fit into their corporate social responsibility strategy, they didn’t want to jeopardize their business opportunities in Nigeria by having their names linked to this very sensitive issue.
Every day across Africa, companies are playing ball with oppressive governments in the name of profit. The reality is, most of the time, businesses don’t appreciate the power – and obligation – they have to create progressive environments in which their staff can live and thrive.
The embassy approach
In this second approach, businesses feel they have a responsibility to their staff in the workplace, but not outside of work. This means that, as a Nigerian who is LGBT working with a global company, it is OK to be gay at work. Your rights are protected within the four walls of the company. However, once you step out of the workplace, you have to take responsibility for your own safety.
But an openly gay member of staff cannot go back in the closet after work: they would be living in constant fear of a colleague disclosing their secret.
This approach also raises several fundamental questions: Should businesses stand back in the name of profit while LGBT people are being killed for demanding their fundamental human rights? How much profit is worth the life of an individual working hard to make their country a safe place for everyone to live in?
Desmond Tutu put this perfectly when he said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Businesses as change-makers
In this third approach, companies take it upon themselves to advocate for social justice issues, including LGBT rights, as part of a good business model. A great example is the position the Virgin Group took when Uganda passed its anti-gay law. CEO Richard Branson, who oversees 400 companies, including an airline, said they would no longer do business in Uganda, and he called on others to follow suit.
He made this decision because of his LGBQT cabin crew, pilots and on-the-ground staff who would be in danger of arrest and persecution. For Virgin, it was not just about making more money, it was about standing up for the persecuted.
Many businesses see this type of stance as too great a risk. That’s short-sighted. Eventually, this type of action will help such businesses thrive, and they will be rewarded by the public for having taken decisions in line with their values.
How businesses can support LGBT rights in Africa
Of course, I support the third approach. And businesses really should, too. It’s in their best interest. The simple logic is, businesses needs profits, and to make profits, businesses need people to spend money. In order to have the money to spend, people need to earn money in a conducive environment.
This triangle is one that I call People, Business and Rights. The potential to earn more in a free and just society is one that must be at the core of business values, because it is simply good business logic. Creativity and productivity thrives in a free and just society.
While this might sound like an uphill battle for businesses, it doesn’t have to be.
One of the most important ways businesses can be advocates is by incorporating these fundamental human rights into their corporate DNA.
What do I mean by that? Well, the reality is that while human rights are universal, the approach we take in enforcing them must be caution and culturally sensitivity.
For instance, although it might be good publicity and a show of solidarity for a company to fly a rainbow flag during Pride Week in the Western world, it would not make sense to do this in most African countries. Instead, companies can start tapping into the powers they have based on their proximity to politicians and influential people within the countries where they work.
Businesses have the power and the opportunity to bring about change for LGBT people, even in the most hostile of places. This is one power from which they must not shy away.
This article is part of our Africa series. You can read more here.
The World Economic Forum on Africa is taking place in Kigali, Rwanda from 11 to 13 May.