LGBT+ people need to be involved in designing aid and development policies and programs if we are to achieve a better world for everyone.

For a sector focused on achieving global fairness, aid and development has a long way to go when it comes to LGBT+ equality.

Complex cultural working environments, both within organisational structures and the regions in which they work, reflect contradictions between stated values and the reality on the ground.

This is especially true for LGBT+ employees and recipients of development aid, who often lack safe spaces in which to be “out and proud” at work and/or to deliver aid securely to those in need of support in countries where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are criminalised.

Significant strides have been made in rights and equality since the Stonewall riots 50 years ago, with the number of countries where gay sex is illegal falling from more than 100 to 71.

In many countries, homophobic hate has been criminalised and administrative barriers to legal gender recognition have been removed. The WHO has taken gender identity disorder off their international classification of diseases.

However, progress is being made “all too slowly”, according Gurchaten Sandhu, the newly appointed president of UN GLOBE – the staff group representing LGBT+ staff working for the United Nations.

And if we are to achieve the aims of the Sustainable Development Goals to leave no one behind by 2030, the pace 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 71 years for all countries to do so – albeit an unguaranteed number given the alarming human rights regressions in some countries.

Progress for the LGBT+ community is not homogenous, with those identifying as trans for instance experiencing unequal treatment.

Full inclusiveness requires an effort from the international community to be more innovative than its current approach and work with each population or group individually.

On every level, “all too often LGBT+ (people) are invisible”, Sandhu told me.

Organisationally their lack of being engaged in the decision-making process means internal and external policies and projects do not factor in LGBT+ people and their issues. For example, the narrow focus on health issues such as HIV when it comes to working explicitly for this community, “reinforces negative stigma”.

Listening to professionals with experience of this at the AidEx 2019 conference in Brussels in November, there are some clear ways progress and protection can be improved:

- Shift away from relying on the incorporation of buzzwords into programming

- Focus on developing preventative development policies over reactive ones

- Rely on evidence, not stereotypes

- Devise clear, concrete actions

- Start from the top to roll out policies to address under-reporting and insufficient security and risk management

The final point came from Julie Dunphy, senior policy and liaison officer in the Field Security Service for UNHCR.

Dunphy has introduced training sessions that accompany the UN refugee agency’s security policies. These seek to ensure security personnel understand LGBT-sensitive terminology so that they can “go out and be champions and feel comfortable using the appropriate language in their security briefs”.

International responses must find and work with the many well-organised grass-roots LGBT+ groups established in contexts where it is culturally unacceptable. Because, while we can have all kinds of guidelines and rules, stigmatised minorities are not always visible on the ground.

Change must be driven from the top and made mainstream throughout organisations in practical ways, as it takes leadership to stand firm for progressive values and implement them as the norm.

But we must ensure 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 who can share the most valuable insights. Attaining inclusive, diverse and safe workplaces necessitates a “working for and with” approach.

Recruiting LGBT+ staff in the first place is integral to ensuring people affected by crisis can be assisted appropriate to their needs whatever their sexual orientation, which is why organisations have every responsibility to do so.

In the words of Sandhu, the UN GLOBE president, to achieve meaningful and sustainable change, “We cannot just be armchair allies … but actively seek open, frank and uncomfortable discussions around power and privilege.”