Stephen Brown is Professor at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, where he is also affiliated with the School of International Development and Global Studies. Apart from his fellowship at CRASSH, he is concurrently a Visiting Professor at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall.
Q: Stephen, you joined CRASSH last term as a Visiting Fellow. Could you tell us a little bit about what you are working on during your fellowship?
I am working mainly on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI+) rights around the world, with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. (The ‘plus’ sign in the abbreviation is there to recognise that there are sexual and gender minorities who identify with other terms or maybe no specific identity label at all.) I am currently working on two journal articles. The first analyses a government crackdown on homosexuality a few years ago in Tanzania, how Western countries reacted and why that was counterproductive. The second article takes a broader look at how Western countries generally respond to LGBTI+ rights abuses in Africa, why the measures they take are not effective and how they might do better. I am also planning to conduct research on how African LGBTI+ rights defenders use court cases to challenge colonial-era laws that criminalise homosexuality in their countries.
At the same time, I am pursuing some other research topics as well. I find it hard to work on only one thing at a time! Like for most people, COVID-19 threw a wrench in my research and writing plans, including forcing me to postpone my time in Cambridge. But the pandemic also provided me with a topic that I wanted to write about, such as its impact on development assistance and in particular how wealthy countries’ behaviour regarding COVID vaccines was harmful to poor countries and likely to prolong the pandemic. Some of that work focuses on my home country, Canada, whose policies need to be challenged.
Q: What drew you to your research initially and what parts do you find particularly interesting?
I have always been interested in the relations between the Global North and the Global South, in particular how Western countries become actors in the domestic politics of lower-income countries. My PhD thesis looked at foreign aid and democracy promotion in Kenya and Malawi. Most of my work since then addresses some aspect of the domestic-international nexus of politics, usually including the role of foreign aid.
I have a very ambivalent approach to external intervention in domestic laws, policies and practices. On one hand, I do believe that all countries would benefit from more democratic governance and a greater respect of human rights and that global efforts to promote those things are important. But on the other hand, I don’t think that Western countries should have the power to impose whatever they want on countries in the Global South. Moreover, such efforts have worked out very poorly in the past. Even if I might agree with some of the official goals, there are reasons to be sceptical about motives and the means employed, in addition to the matter of actual effectiveness.
The rights of sexual and gender minorities have long been of interest to me. My first in-country research, carried out while I was still a PhD student, was a study of the lesbian and gay movement in Argentina. My subsequent research took me in a different direction, but I have been circling back in recent years. I co-authored a couple of publications on Canadian policies on international LGBTI+ rights and have begun to look at sexual orientation and gender identity and expression as an issue in international relations. I was fortunate to get two grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to support this research, although the pandemic has stalled the fieldwork component. I hope it will be possible to get back to that before too long.
Q: Could you tell us about a recently published article or two?
My most recent article is titled ‘The impact of COVID-19 on development assistance’. It analyses how the pandemic has affected foreign aid. I argue that it has mostly accelerated existing trends. Some of these are positive, others are negative and for a couple is too early to tell. These changes have the potential to reshape the development landscape for many years to come.
A recent co-authored article, ‘Sexual orientation and gender identity in Canada’s ‘feminist’ international assistance’, analyses Canada’s policies and practices on international LGBTI+ rights. We find some clear instances of progress, but also many areas for improvement.
• Stephen Brown will be giving a talk hosted by the Centre for Gender Studies on ‘Visibility or impact? International efforts to defend LGBTQI+ rights in the Global South’ on Monday 14 March at 17:00 in the Quarry White House Auditorium, Selwyn College, Cambridge.