good causes

All The Cash Donated to Help Iraq’s Gays, Where Is It Going?

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Was life for Iraq’s gays actually better under Saddam Hussein’s regime? That’s what they’re telling documentarians researching reports of glued anuses and public beatings.

As Iraq’s gays tell it in the BBC’s doc Gay Life After Saddam (airing Sunday), “the violence has intensified in the past few months. Others say killings run into the hundreds and have been going on since 2003. […] Some spoke fondly of an underground gay culture that flourished before the war in Baghdad.” But, reports the BBC, “it was unclear exactly what Saddam’s view on homosexuality was, and there has been some evidence to suggest that the former dictator was acting to clamp down on sexual minorities in the latter years of his reign. So who is to blame for the violence against LGBT people in Iraq? Some blame militia, while others accuse religious leaders of stoking up hatred of homosexuals, though some clerics have also recently condemned the attacks on gays.”

Interestingly, many of the interviews with these folks was coordinated by Iraqi LGBT, the London-based organization that’s been on the megaphone about human rights violations in Iraq. Except in a new twist, the once-lauded Iraqi LGBT is now facing significant criticism about its non-transparency, especially when it comes to the cash that’s been donated to the org.

Leading the charge is activist Michael Petrelis, notorious (and applauded) for stirring up shit among gay rights groups. He’s been asking Iraqi LGBT head Ali Hili, regularly quoted in the press, for some financial info to learn how the money being donated — including $10,000 from U.S. Rep. Jared Polis — is being used. Except Hili won’t provide answers, and is now engaged in a complete communications blackout with Petrelis, apparently because the activist’s “pushiness.” (Even Polis’ office doesn’t know how the money was spent.)

Yes, the guy who just wants some accountability from an organization that he’s done a significant job promoting, is now being shunned by Iraqi LGBT. Reports the San Francisco Bay Times:

Reading Petrelis’s hectoring email string, posted on his blog, one first feels some sympathy for the beleaguered activist at the receiving end of Michael’s incessant demands for details. In the end, however, one starts to wonder why the hell Hili can’t get it together to send even a minimal report, particularly since Petrelis and other Bay Area activists raised some money for the cause themselves at a May 17 event. Notably, Hili fired off an appreciative email on the 18th of May, asking for planning purposes how much had been raised and when he could expect the funds.

“Michael,” writes Hili on June 18, “your pushiness has gone too far. This is why i don’t want to give you any information because of your aggressive approach. Until you decide to change your approach i don’t believe i can communicate with you.”

Subsequently, Petrelis is informed that an accountant is working on a report, but that said accountant is busy with other things and that the report will take time. Another email says the accountant is waiting for some special software. Communication stops in late June, but not before Hili sends Petrelis an invitation to one of those scam photo sharing web sites, presumably an unrelated event.

And herein lies the ethics quandary: Undoubtedly, Iraqi LGBT is doing Very Good Things for gays in Iraq. Visibility for their cause, but also on-the-ground services including safehouses, food, and counseling. But when an organization solicits funds, it owes donators at least some information about where that money is going. We’d demand the same from any do-gooding group. Iraqi LGBT maintains it cannot divulge too much information for fear of that data being used against it in Iraq. But then it also claims it does make monthly financial reports available, but only for large donors.

The whole thing is becoming an unfortunate situation. We need organizations like Iraqi LGBT who work on the ground in Iraq. And they deserve our financial support. But we also need some transparency, not just to know how the money is being spent, but also to gauge whether Iraqi LGBT could benefit from more funding. Certainly there’s a middle ground.

(NB: If you’re wondering why this data isn’t public, it’s because Iraqi LGBT is — not yet — a registered charity in Britain, and thus not required to file appropriate documentation.)