Queer Development: The World Bank and Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

When we think of the World Bank (WB), the idea of development is the one that is often touted; this is often true, although the various ideologies along the spectrum of political thought will argue the benefits and disadvantages; often vigorously. Yet, it is undeniable that the WB has shaped our idea of development – how it happens, by whom it happens and why it happens – over the last half-century. And while their critics, like William Easterly[1], argue that human rights should evolve naturally rather than be imposed from outside technocrats, others, like Mr. Clifton Cortez believe that human rights should be encouraged because of the huge economic incentive.

Mr. Cortez recently gave a lecture at Leiden University, The Hague Campus. In conjunction with the professor of LGBTI Comparative Law, Mr. Cortez introduced the attendants to the World Bank’s SOGI department. SOGI, which stands for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity is a newly founded department, headed by Mr. Cortez, which aims to promote development that is both inclusive and intersectional. During the lecture, he made the assertion that human rights and inclusive development are interlinked and should not be separated.

The economic incentive, mentioned above, was indicated to be the major motivation for governments. It is hypothesised that by excluding sections of society, in this case, sexual minorities, governments are denying productive members of society the ability to add their talents, resources, and energy into national economies. Ultimately, this means that governments are less off because of exclusion. This is not a new hypothesis as it has been deployed against ethnic regimes, including apartheid-era South Africa. The fact that the WB is now including LGBT+ in this inclusive development model is, however, relatively new and quite remarkable.

The department works on five areas of LGBTI inclusion: health, education, civic participation, security, and violence, economic.

Several examples were given of this new model. Most notable, Mr. Cortez mentioned Chile, which of its own accord, approached the World Bank for funds to invest in a counseling program. It had found that LGBTI students were the most likely to drop out of tertiary education and the country wanted to help these students remain in and finish their education so that they would be able to add to the national economy.

In addition, SOGI plan to release a study on intersex rights in Thailand in January (Mr. Cortez, himself a gay man, had spent ten years as a human rights lawyer in Thailand, working on HIV-related cases). The study had shown that intersex people often faced discrimination in certain sections of the insurance market, compared to cis people. Whilst Mr. Cortez admitted that the results were not statistically significant as of yet, it is a start for his young department.

Finally, Mr. Cortez refused to name the 6 states his department identified as the most dangerous for LGBTI due to the top levels of government actively and openly discriminating and encouraging discrimination. We can only hope that Mr. Cortez’s pioneering efforts for LGBTI in world economics and development lead to a cascading effect, empowering LGBTI persons around the globe.

[1] William Easterly, a former World Bank employee, wrote a book called ‘Tyranny of Experts’ in 2013 in which he criticised the role of institutions such as the WB in developing countries.