This three-months-long investigation followed aid money from international donors, who pledged to support LGBTQI+ rights globally, going to religious groups with history of anti-queer rhetoric in Ghana. We found that millions of US, UK, German and Italian taxpayers’ money went to projects run by or benefiting such groups, who are campaigning for a bill in Ghana that could introduce harsh sentences for identifying as LGBTQI+ or any form of advocacy and education about sexual and gender minorities’ rights. This story sheds light on the human impact of the backlash against LGBTQI+ people by those groups who benefited from Western aid.
The story had 232,592 unique visitors on web and mobile. The television package that accompanied the digital write was aired on CNN International’s evening news program, Amanpour, with Christiane Amanpour tweeting the story to her 3 million + followers.
The story was also shared on Twitter by influential international organizations, such as the Center for Feminist Foreign Policy, AWID and high-profile accounts, such as Shailja Patel and Denis Nzioka.
It was picked up by Attitude magazine, in a column by activist Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, who highlighted how CNN’s story shows “not only the dire experiences of Ghanaian LGBT+ people but also the millions of foreign money that is funding churches that are openly extremely homophobic and transphobic.”
It’s notable that some leaders within the churches mentioned in the story felt the need to speak to local media about the story, despite their refusal to speak to CNN, showing that they were concerned about our reporting.
Writers Claire Provost and Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah will be speaking about this story at the 2023 International Journalism Festival in Perugia.
This collaboration across London, Accra and beyond combined data analysis, pressing Western government bodies for answers as well as hearing alarming human stories on the ground.
Through desk and on-the-ground research, we identified Ghanaian churches and church organizations centered around the Christian Council of Ghana – one of the most vocal critics of sexual and gender rights in the country – and found anti-LGBTQI+ statements made by leaders of these organizations. Following a tip-off that Western governments are still donating money to projects linked to them, we trawled through multiple aid data sources in search of any mention of these groups, in the most recent five years for which figures were available (2016 to 2020).
Aid data is far from transparent or user-friendly. It took scrupulous data cleaning, merging and filtering in Excel and Google Sheets to identify a list of donations to projects run by or benefiting these anti-LBGTQI+ organizations. We went to the relevant authorities and intermediaries in the donor countries to seek confirmations and responses, but we knew the list is likely longer.
Some donors told us their aid had stopped after beneficiaries made public anti-LGBTQI+ statements but we didn’t stop at that. We presented them with evidence of their pledges to protect sexual and gender minorities worldwide, against a list of nearly a decade worth of anti-LGBTQI+ statements and activities in Ghana. This back-and-force communication resulted in additional disclosures and statements.
Alongside the written piece, a TV package was produced. CNN’s investigations team went to Ghana to speak to the victims of discrimination as well as to ask local anti-LGBT leaders questions face-to-face. Most of them declined to comment.
Context about the project:
Every year, Western governments spend billions of dollars as international aid – money that is supposed to help poorer countries achieve development goals and respond to humanitarian crises. These funds that flow across borders (and often through chains of intermediaries) deserve far more attention from journalists. There are gaps in transparency around this spending, however, and reporting is difficult. Not all donors disclose the same amount of information about their funded projects and the direct and indirect recipients of their spending; this information isn’t always formatted in the same way; and there can be significant time lags between when money is spent and when data becomes available.
In Ghana, the draconian anti-LGBTQI+ bill – which can still be ratified in Parliament any day ¬– has left those affected in constant fear and uncertainty. While its proposal has drawn sharp international and local criticism, church leaders play a central role in political and social life of the country and few dare to go against them. Interviews by CNN corroborated earlier evidence by human rights groups, such as OutRight Action International, that the anti-LGBTQI+ campaigning and the bill have already contributed to an increasingly hostile climate towards sexual and gender minorities. One of the reporters for this story is based in Ghana – it undoubtedly took courage to question the actions of people who have such a heavy weight in the society.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
There are other public interest and accountability stories to be told using these sources of information on international aid spending – combined with other types of reporting. Cross-border collaborations between journalists in donor and recipient countries can help follow the money on the ground and better understand the consequences of this spending.
This is an example of a data-driven investigation that didn’t require advanced programming skills but instead relied on what every good accountability story needs: attention to detail, perseverance and compassion. Data is only a jumping point.
It is also a data story that comes to life when paired with sensitive human-interest reporting, showing the real-world impact behind the numbers.
The framing of the story is also a lesson in how journalists can go tell stories situated in developing countries but where there is shared culpability or responsibility in the West. Western donors are being held to account here as much as Ghanaian churches.