The U.S. Agency for International Development announced Wednesday that its contractors cannot discriminate based on race, religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. The policy does not apply to employees of foreign aid contractors and grant recipients. Rights groups cautiously welcomed the announcement.
“We applaud the Obama administration for taking a bold and principled stand to ensure that American foreign aid dollars cannot be used to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” said Robert Bank, head of the American Jewish World Service, in a statement. “We urge the president and the Obama administration to build on this new nondiscrimination policy and require all aid agencies to adopt full nondiscrimination clauses in their contracting, grant making and procurement policies.”
Protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is a notable addition to the policy. It stems from the Obama administration’s 2011 presidential memorandum on LGBT rights, which sought to end violence and discrimination against LGBT people everywhere.
“Building on President Obama’s commitment to social inclusion around the world, this new nondiscrimination policy marks an important step forward for USAID and our partners, and ensures our inclusive approach to development will continue into the future,” said USAID Administrator Gayle Smith, in a statement.
This alleviates a real problem with U.S. foreign aid. Before the rule, contractors spending the more than $1 billion a year in aid money could refuse to work with partners advocating for LGBT rights, for example. That is no longer allowed.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice championed the policy change during a speech at American University. She stressed the importance of the U.S. supporting gay rights activists in countries like Uganda where legislative efforts seek to criminalize and harshly punish homosexuality. She said that efforts by the U.S. to advance LGBT rights around the world, along with this new policy, illustrated the rising importance of the issue.
“This rule means that any organization that contracts with USAID must ensure that all people can benefit from its federally funded programs, regardless of race, religion, disability – or sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s a major step towards ensuring that American assistance is provided in a fair and equitable manner,” she said.
Rice cited examples of the U.S. supporting LGBT people in the workforce. In one case, the U.S. blocked Russia from trying to deny gay U.N. employees and their families the benefits afforded to other staff.
“So, to every person who might still be struggling with who they are, trying to reconcile who they love with the faith or traditions they love, know this: We see you, we hear you, we are here for you,” said Rice.
That may be the case abroad, but there are some major exceptions to the new USAID rule. The new rule does not extend to grant recipients. They, too, represent a significant portion of the nearly $16 billion spent on foreign aid each year. It also does not extend protection against discrimination for the people employed by contractors. A 2014 executive order banned federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT people, but it did not cover companies working abroad.
The loophole in the employee discrimination rule may be to allow groups like World Vision to continue getting federal funds. In 2014, World Vision USA announced that it was lifting its ban on hiring Christians in same-sex marriages. It took two days for a backlash to force the group to reverse its decision. The policy remains and the new USAID rules do not impact World Vision’s grants and contracts.
“While this is a step forward, we ultimately hope to see all implementers across all U.S. foreign affairs agencies – including USAID – include nondiscrimination policies that cover not only the services they provide, but also the people they hire. No organization supported by U.S. taxpayer dollars should turn anyone away because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said David Stacy, director of government affairs for the Human Rights Council, in a statement.