This year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Delegates wrestled with weighty topics: cybercrime, food security, the migration crisis and the future of the global financial system. Just looking at the agenda might have been enough to send some people back to bed.
This year a new subject emerged in discussions: global LGBT rights. The first official media briefing of the entire event was on LGBT issues in emerging markets, and WEF’s formidable social media machine was buzzing on the subject, building on a series of blogs published on the Forum’s website.
The 2016 agenda included an in-depth session on the business case for LGBT inclusion, during which Accenture, Barclays, Tesco and Microsoft announced they have joined Open For Business, the coalition of companies arguing for global LGBT inclusion. The coalition, which I helped establish, includes Virgin Group, McKinsey & Company, Google, Brunswick and others; all taking a clear stand on the issue.
It all begs an important question: why? As global terrorist threats escalate and world stock markets plummet, why are the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people being discussed by the corporate power-brokers at Davos?
The harsh reality is that almost 2.8 billion people are living in countries where identifying as gay could lead to imprisonment, corporal punishment, hanging or stoning to death. Sometimes these laws are rarely enforced; often the laws are vigorously prosecuted, with arrests made on the basis of text messages or clothing styles.
Forced conversion therapies are imposed in some countries: example treatments have included hypnosis, lobotomy, electroconvulsive therapy, and even chemical castration. Among the more disturbing is the “corrective rape” of lesbians, which has been well documented in many parts of the world.
Police are often actively engaged in harassment and intimidation of LGBT individuals. News footage showed riot police being deployed to a Pride march in Istanbul last year: the small gathering of rainbow-clad partiers was dispersed with water cannon and plastic bullets.
Frequently, police look the other way as LGBT people are set upon by mobs – encouraged, no doubt, by the strong words of their leaders. One head of state described homosexuality as “unnatural and disgusting”, and another called gay people “vermin”. One leader joked that LGBT stood for “leprosy, gonorrhoea, bacteria and tuberculosis”.
Clearly, the treatment of LGBT people around the world is one of the most urgent human rights issues of our time. But that still doesn’t explain why on the Davos agenda this year, between debates on banking regulations and the oil price. After all, the World Economic Forum isn’t exactly a human rights organisation. What’s changed?
The conversation about LGBT inclusion has moved on. We have more than the moral case; there is now a comprehensive economic and business case, backed by solid evidence. In other words, open, inclusive, diverse societies are better for business and better for economic growth – and we can prove it.
This argument is set out clearly in a report published last year by Open For Business, which I co-authored with my colleague Lucy Parker. It shows how inclusion and diversity go hand-in-hand with higher economic growth, improved individual performance and better business results.
That’s why many business leaders were keen to raise this issue at Davos. They know that anti-LGBT policies run counter to the interests of business, and they’re keen to protect their LGBT employees wherever they are in the world. That’s why they want to send a clear message to politicians in countries with anti-LGBT policies.
As Virgin’s Richard Branson put it: “The promoters of hateful laws often hide behind “cultural differences” and complain that we are trying to impose our Western values. They can’t do that anymore. We’ve moved the argument on. It’s no longer just about values - it’s about good business sense, and good economic policy.”
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