Can UK trade policy be a 'catalyst for social change' on LGBT+ rights globally?

Fri 16 Jun 2023
Posted by: William Barns-Graham

Pride month 2023

In 67 countries globally, LGBT+ people remain criminalised. Nonetheless, trade continues between those countries where LGBT+ rights are protected and those where they are not.

It’s often said that trade can be a force for good, not just because it improves global prosperity, but because it also drives social progress too.

Indeed in 2022, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first female and African director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), told the Conversation that the diversification of international supply chains following the pandemic was an “opportunity to use trade as an instrument for inclusion”.

Hunter Matson, a trade policy and research specialist at the Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT), agrees about trade’s capacity to drive inclusion.

“Equality, inclusivity and acceptance are not universal values but trade can carry these ideas around the world,” he tells me.

He explains that it’s important to bear in mind that trade doesn’t just involve exchanges involving goods and services, but also the “sharing of ideas”. To this extent, the sharing of more liberal attitudes towards LGBT+ people is a possibility and he cites the recent progress on gender inclusivity in trade as evidence for this. He explains:

“Trade liberalisation itself can be a catalyst for social change, indirectly fostering the spread of diverse norms and values across borders.

“Exposure to new ideas and values can have a significant impact and ingrain acceptance of LGBT+ individuals. It's a complex dynamic, delicately balancing the goals of free trade and social justice.”

The economic case

Andy Melia, the director of strategic partnerships at Open for Business, a coalition of global companies dedicated to LGBT+ inclusion, argues that inclusivity makes economic sense too. He explains:

“We see a clear link between inclusion and good business outcomes. For example, there’s data showing that countries with more tolerant and inclusive attitudes attract greater levels of foreign direct investment (FDI).

“Businesses are often more willing to invest in economies and societies if their workforce is able and comfortable to visit and move to these different places.”

Open for Business’s economic case for LGBT+ inclusivity consists of 27 propositions including FDI, connectivity to global markets, talent acquisition and retention, and companies’ financial performance. It includes multiple compelling data points that show the correlation between LGBT+ inclusivity and more economically prosperous societies.

For instance, 74% of high income countries have employment protection for LGBT+ people, 54% have some form of same-sex couple relationship recognition (i.e. marriage or civil partnership) and only 19% of these countries criminalise consensual homosexual acts.

By contrast, 57% of low income countries criminalise consensual homosexual acts, with only 5% of these having some level of employment protection for LGBT+ people. 0% recognise same-sex relationships.

Melia says there is a “positive correlation” between indicators of economic strength, like FDI flows and sovereign debt ratings, and societal acceptance of homosexuality.

“The data we’re seeing demonstrates that inclusion and tolerance are almost as important factors in economic performance as things like infrastructure, education and personal political security,” he says.

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, the executive director of Kaleidoscope Trust, a charity fighting for LGBT+ rights in the Commonwealth, believes that people involved in international trade have a role to play in making this economic case.

“Among other levers, trade can be used to allow this message to be better communicated with countries where LGBTI+ people currently face discrimination and persecution,” she says.

The moral challenge

The debate around LGBT+ rights globally is not just an economic one, though. Melia notes that the difficulty faced by charities and coalitions like Open for Business is that they’re coming up against “moral arguments” in many countries.

“There’s a number of times you will hit a moral argument around this. LGBT+ issues get chucked into a moral bucket and that’s it. There’s no consideration of the very clear economic case.

“The barrier is that you have a clash of moral systems and a lot of people don’t listen and engage with each other because morality is a hard line.”

However, Melia is hopeful that raising awareness of the economic case will “enable different conversations”.

“For us, it’s really important to recognise that LGBT+ inclusion helps grow economies, improving their security and health.

“For example, in Kenya discrimination costs the economy up to US$1.3bn a year, which is equivalent to its healthcare budget. In the English speaking Caribbean, the figure is approximately US$4.2bn, which is around 5% of its GDP.

“And then there was a World Bank study in 2015 which found that LGBT+ discrimination in India cost the country about 1.7% of its GDP. India has since decriminalised same-sex activity and part of the reason for this is the economic case against discrimination – though it should be stressed that this is one of many reasons.”

Making the case

The economic case in favour of inclusion – and for many people, the moral argument – is clear. But who needs to hear it and who else needs to make it?

Organisations like Open for Business and Kaleidoscope Trust are certainly at the front line on the issue, while multilateral organisations like the WTO and UN are important forums in which the case can be exchanged.

Matson explains:

“International organisations themselves do not enforce social norms but rather serve as discussion forums for countries around the world, including on topics related to human rights.

“The Secretariats of these organisations are primarily tasked with collecting data and monitoring changes in regulation within member states. In this regard, international organisations can be useful tools to start collecting data and disaggregating it based on sexual orientation, similar to what has been done for gender, and present the data to members to discuss the pathway forward.

“As the old saying goes, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

The case also needs to be made between national governments and, in this respect, the UK has a significant and historic role.

The Kaleidoscope Trust website notes that homophobic laws originally passed during Britain’s colonial rule still apply in half of the 67 countries where LGBT+ people are criminalised today. For Matson, the UK government needs to navigate its leadership of another multilateral organisation, the Commonwealth, to address this.

“The UK government navigates its leadership within the Commonwealth with a dual commitment to upholding human rights, including LGBT+ rights, and respecting the sovereignty of each member state.

“It aims to lead by example, share best practices, and use diplomatic avenues to promote positive change, recognising the delicate balance between advancing human rights and maintaining harmonious international relations.”

Trade policy’s role

The UK’s newly found independence over its post-Brexit trade policy is key to this, particularly as the UK looks to deepen trade ties with several of the 67 aforementioned countries.

Current business and trade secretary Kemi Badenoch has previously spoken about the need to “show how muscular liberalism and free trade are a force for good in the world”. Liz Truss, in her previous role as international trade secretary, also spoke of trade policy needing to “reflect our values”.

However, Truss also said that the then-named Department for International Trade was primarily the government’s “lead commercial department” and has herself received criticism from several LGBT+ organisations for her stance on trans rights.

Opoku-Gyimah has called on the government to be “explicit about its commitment to LGBT+ rights in all foreign policy interactions, including trade negotiations”.

“There are many factors to consider when deciding how governments negotiate trade agreements between themselves, and how businesses choose to operate within these parameters.

“Given that we are a human rights organisation, I do need to stress that I'm no expert on trade policy, but there is evidence that trade negotiations can be used to encourage improvements in promoting human rights, notably especially when this takes place alongside implementing broader environment, social and corporate governance considerations.

“Indeed, due to this evidence, Kaleidoscope Trust has called on the UK Government to develop a cross-governmental strategy on progressing global LGBTI+ rights which includes all relevant departments and trade missions.”

Melia adds that policymakers should look to build in the economic case for LGBT+ inclusion into their negotiations with trade partners. He argues, however, that these negotiations are an important forum for making this case, and as such, government shouldn’t boycott deepening trade ties with prospective governments on account of their current stances on LGBT+ issues.

“What we want to be clear on is that this data can help to enhance conversations and hopefully shift the dial by being clear on why this is good and important.

“There should be clear values embedded in trade negotiations, underpinned by the economic data.”

For Matson, trade negotiations are always a “sensitive balancing act”, because of the inevitable cultural differences that exist between countries. However, he argues that agreements can “incentivise change”. He explains:

“Integrating LGBT+ rights into trade negotiations requires a multifaceted approach.

“It involves weaving human rights clauses into trade agreements, establishing conditionality to incentivise change, offering assistance for capacity building, employing diplomatic channels for advocacy, and fostering corporate social responsibility.

“While it's a sensitive balancing act, it's crucial that the pursuit of trade doesn't compromise core values on human rights.”

Get in touch

The IOE&IT Daily Update team will be publishing features about LGBT+ issues in trade throughout Pride Month this year and is keen to hear from LBGT+ individuals and members working in the international trade sector about your experiences.

We’re looking to cover the following issues:

  • Do LGBT+ supply chain, trade and customs workers feel safe in their workplaces?
  • How should LGBT+ issues be factored into UK trade policy?
  • How can businesses ensure LGBT+ rights are protected across their supply chains?

If you’d like to be featured in or to support our content about LGBT+ issues and trade, please contact