Engaging the Private Sector to Help Advance LGBTQI+ Livelihoods

January 28, 2022


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This post was written by Ryan Kaminski, the USAID Inclusive Development Hub’s LGBTQI+ Advisor, with contributions from Jose Leandro.

In every region of the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and other people of diverse genders and sexualities (LGBTQI+) are economic agents, entrepreneurs, and innovators. With businesses responsible for nine out of ten jobs in the developing world and with their supply chains crisscrossing virtually every nation, it is critical to understand the private sector’s role in advancing LGBTQI+ equality globally.

A component of the February 2021 Presidential Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons Around the World calls for U.S. foreign aid, assistance, and development programs, including private sector engagement supported by USAID, to strengthen efforts to ensure respect for the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons and combat discrimination. 

USAID’s Private Sector Engagement (PSE) policy recognizes that “the private sector’s extensive networks and operations provide distribution channels to reach, and communicate with, underserved populations and individuals.” 

This includes the LGBTQI+ community.

The reality for many LGBTQI+ people is that economic discrimination and outright exclusion — including within the private sector — pose serious consequences for human dignity, individual livelihoods, national economies, and, ultimately, inclusive development. 

The Case for Private Sector Engagement

Recent research by Open For Business found that LGBTQI+ peoples’ participation, productivity, and growth in the formal economic sector in the 12 English-speaking Caribbean countries is artificially constrained due to legal, attitudinal, and institutional barriers. The study also underscored the related impact of LGBTQI+ “occupational segregation.” This acts to divert workers to the informal sector and lessen opportunities for professional advancement to senior-level jobs in the formal sector. Taken together, the costs can be staggering. Open for Business estimates this form of economic exclusion could cost the region billions of dollars, including as much as 5.7 percent of collective gross domestic product annually.

According to the World Policy Analysis Center, only 32 percent of countries globally have instituted protections from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and only 10 percent of countries cover gender identity. Lack of protections and widespread discrimination result in many LGBTQI+ people working in the informal job sector, where they are more vulnerable to violence and exploitation. People employed in informal economies are also unable to access state-sponsored social benefit schemes in times of shock and crisis. The current COVID-19 pandemic has amplified this harsh reality.

Current Efforts of Engagement

LGBTQI+ entrepreneurs and business owners and employees are responding creatively to these circumstances. For example, the PLUS. LGBTI+ Business Network, based in South Africa, engages sexual and gender minorities in the business community to support inclusive business environments and workplaces. Its focus also includes accreditation of LGBT suppliers and enterprise development, among other priorities.

The PSE Policy notes that USAID can play a valuable role in incentivizing and shaping the investments businesses make to encourage inclusivity and broad-based social impacts at scale. While there is no universal recipe for engaging the private sector toward these goals, four principles guide USAID’s efforts:

  1. Engage early, and often, with the private sector;
  2. Incentivize and value private sector engagement throughout planning and programming;
  3. Expand the use of USAID’s approaches and tools that unlock the potential of the private sector in achieving more effective and sustainable outcomes; and
  4. Build and act on the evidence of what works, and what does not, in private sector engagement.

Additionally, any and all efforts to engage the LGBTQI+ community must always be reinforced with the principles of “do no harm” and “do nothing about them without them.” 

More Tools for Engagement

Governments, employee workgroups and associations, community leaders, advocates, technical experts, and consumers also play a crucial role in holding private sector entities accountable to non-discrimination, labor, and human rights standards. 

Best practices range from advancing robust business due diligence, as well as human rights-based data collection to track progress toward LGBTQI+ economic empowerment across the private sector over time.

International initiatives offer mutually-reinforcing normative frameworks to back these efforts. For example: 

When done right, strategic private sector engagement and efforts to advance LGBTIQ+ equality can be mutually supportive. Doing so is a force multiplier for individual economic empowerment, transformative growth of livelihoods and whole economies, and inclusive development.