Diplomacy and Donor Relations Overseas

One of the ways that donors can protect and promote the rights of LGBT persons is through the work of their staff posted overseas. This includes donor agency staff based in country offices and diplomatic staff based in embassies. Donor agency staff are responsible for carrying out the development priorities of the donor country while embassy staff are responsible for representing the home country abroad, advancing foreign policy priorities, and providing assistance to citizens based overseas. As part of this work, staff posted overseas are regularly engaged in dialogue with a range of local officials, including: government ministers; civil servants; law enforcement agencies; local NGOs and in some cases, presidents and prime ministers. They also work closely with other bilateral and multilateral donor agencies and foreign embassies. As such, they can be in a good position to influence the legal and policy agenda around LGBT/SOGI issues. Some of this dialogue is public, in the form of meetings, conferences and events, but much of it is private and is not necessarily recorded in publicly available documentation on what donor countries are doing in relation to LGBT/SOGI rights. This means, that while such low profile work can have influence, it is very difficult to assess what that might be.

While this work has been going on behind the scenes in some countries for a number of years, it is only recently that donor agencies and embassies have started to include LGBT/SOGI rights in their policy and programming. Over the past 5 years, some large donor agencies (e.g. those of the EU, Germany, Sweden, UK) and/or foreign ministries/departments (e.g. Norway, UK, US) have introduced guidelines, toolkits, strategies or approach papers which set out exactly what their priorities are and how staff posted overseas are expected to deliver them. While not binding, these guidance documents are important as they make clear what each country or organization’s commitments are and where staff should be focusing their efforts.

Examples from current guidelines include:


  • Eliminating discriminatory laws and policies
  • Supporting and protecting human rights defenders
  • Supporting and building local coalitions


  • Raising issues at high-level meetings whenever possible and appropriate
  • Working with other donor agencies and diplomatic missions to ensure a coordinated approach.
  • Being aware of the local context, including local use of language in relation to SOGI
  • Raising the issue generally in talks with authorities and human rights organisations
  • Maintaining contact with local LGBT groups and considering opportunities for financial support
  • Coordinating responses in the event of abuse
  • Helping to build coalitions
  • Visiting prisoners and monitoring trials

While such actions are important and can play a significant role, having guidance in place does not mean that it will be followed. There are a number of factors that influence whether and how far guidance is applied in practice:

  • How guidance is integrated into overaching guidance documents
  • Whether its use is incentivised within the organisation
  • Priorities and experience of those in post
  • Political focus on the issues in the donor country
  • How politically sensitive the issues are in the partner country
  • Competing priorities
  • Resource constraints
  • Opportunities for engagement in the partner country
  • Social norms and attitudes including religious norms in the partner country

The guide to Accessing U.S. Embassies points out that because an embassy is not publicly supporting the LGBT/SOGI rights agenda this does not means that it is not a priority. It may simply be that, due to the sensitivity of the issues, this work is taking place behind closed doors. It is important to remember, however, that the 'sensitivity' of the issues may also be used as a reason for inaction. It is therefore vital that local organisations engage with donor agencies and embassies to ensure that they have the correct information about LGBT rights and are held to account. For further information see what you can do.

What works? Quiet diplomacy or public intervention?

There is widespread agreement in donor guidance documents that direct, public intervention on LGBT issues can be counterproductive and even harmful for those it aims to protect. The documents recognize that public interventions can lead to a political or civil society backlash, which can increase the levels of violence and harassment directed towards LGBT people. Public interventions may also be perceived as a ‘western’ attack: “Public diplomacy can degenerate into allegations of improper influence, and when it relates to LGBT human rights concerns, may be met with accusations of “neocolonial” interference” (Accessing U.S. Embassies: A Guide for LGBT Human Rights Defenders, p.10). To read more about the debate around aid conditionality see the further reading section below

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda welcomes new ambassadors. Source: Creative Commons, State House, Entebbe

As a consequence, most guidelines say that ‘quiet’ or ‘private’ diplomacy’ is the most effective strategy for protecting and promoting LGBT/SOGI rights overseas. Quiet diplomacy includes activities such as: raising concerns in private conversations with authorities; discussing issues relating to LGBT/SOGI rights with relevant organizations; issuing diplomatic demarches (a formal diplomatic statement that an embassy delivers to the host government to raise a particular issue of concern); including LGBT organizations in social and professional networks; and normalizing LGBT involvement in annual events and forums. Depending on the context and the sensitivity of the issues locally, donor agency and embassy staff may also support civil society organizations through direct engagement; discreet capacity building; or by sponsoring discussions or events such as Pride or IDAHO (International Day Against Homophobia). This approach is sometimes described as ‘risk-sensitive’ or ‘do no harm’.

While quiet diplomacy is predominantly the preferred approach, there are occasions where a more public intervention is seen to be necessary. More public interventions include: press releases; media interviews; comment pieces in the national press; and information posted on donor websites. In addition, Heads of Office, High Commissioners and Ambassadors increasingly use Twitter feeds and other forms of social media to comment and express support for LGBT rights.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula for what works and little evidence exists to support staff posted overseas. However, current guidance, based on learning from recent incidents, suggests that:

  • All forms of public diplomacy need to be coordinated with local groups.
  • In-country staff need to be fully aware of the local context and have made a proper assessment of the risks before taking action
  • Timing is important. Change processes may be slow but a poorly timed public intervention could harm rather than advance local efforts.

Quiet Diplomacy: The case of the US embassy in Kigali

In 2013, the US Embassy in Kigali was approached by members of a local LGBT civil society group asking for support. After meeting with members, the Embassy agreed to host an event to mark the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) in Kigali. This event formed part of the Embassy’s commitment to human rights work, including support for local organizations and communities and was the first event of its kind in Rwanda. The event brought together a small group of government officials, members of the diplomatic community and LGBT civil society group members for an evening of celebration. The event was informal and was designed to bring together groups in a safe and welcoming environment. To avoid any unwanted visibility, the embassy arranged transport for civil society group members and ensured that no press photographers were present. While homosexuality is not illegal in Rwanda, and reported human rights abuses on the basis of SOGI are low, social norms related to sexuality remain conservative and the opportunities for civil society activism around sexual rights are limited. By holding an informal, yet celebratory event, the Embassy was able to facilitate dialogue around the lived experiences of LGBT Rwandans while not increasing the visibility of members who may not yet be ‘out’ with their families or communities. The event also brought donor agency and diplomatic staff in contact with LGBT rights groups, providing an opportunity for further networking and collaboration.

As illustrated by the protests that erupted in Islamabad following a US-sponsored Pride event in 2011,even low-key involvement by foreign embassies and donor agencies working in partnership with local organisations, can have negative consequences. As such, support must be assessed on a case by case basis.

What you can do:

The focus on LGBT/SOGI rights in the recent guidance documents presents an opportunity for local civil society groups and activists to share their experiences and gain support. There are practical steps that you can take to help you access support. These include:

  • Have the right information: Try to keep accurate, regular records of all incidences of harassment, abuse or discrimination that your organization comes in to contact with and of all the activities of your organisation. Try to record as many details as possible in the same format.
  • Make contact: Find out which embassies present in your country are sympathetic to LGBT rights concerns. Contact the embassy by phone, letter or email to arrange a meeting with their officer responsible for human rights.
  • Consider the risks: Think about how public you would like your campaign, experiences or efforts to be. Discuss with your members or within your groups what would be helpful in terms of international support.


If you are sending an email to a member of staff at a donor agency or an embassy, Stonewall recommend:

  • Keep your introductory email brief
  • Start off by saying that if you’ve not sent your email to the right person, could they please let you know who the best person to contact would be.
  • State who you are and who you work for.
  • Explain briefly what you are contacting them about.
  • Politely request a confidential meeting at the embassy or donor agency office. Outline the key things you would like to discuss at the meeting.

*See here for a detailed guide on how to access US Embassies in your country (US State Department) See here for practical information on the role of UK Government staff in your country and how to contact them. (Stonewall International)

Further Reading

LGBTnet. Website of LGBT Denmark which provides an introduction and resources on how to work with aspects of sexual orientation and gender identity for NGOs and others engaged in international development.

Revitalising the fight against homophobia in Africa. Report by R. Downie, May 2014

One step forward, two steps back? The gaps between LGBTI policy and practice in foreign aid. Devex, 11th February 2014

On ‘gay conditionality’, imperial power and queer liberation. Rahul Rao.

Aid conditionality and sexual rights in the third world. E-International Relations. Bruce Warwick, 1st April 2013

Aid conditionality and respect for LGBT people rights. Sexuality Policy Watch. Luis Abolafia Anguita, (date unknown)

Aid Conditionality and the limits of a politics of sexuality. Participation, Power and Social Change Blog, IDS. Akshay Khanna, 31st October 2011.