KAMPALA, Uganda — The health project in Uganda for which the World Bank is delaying a loan does not face an immediate shortage of money, an official said Friday, allaying concerns that work to improve maternal and child health services could stall because of the country's new anti-gay law.
The Ugandan government's decision to strengthen anti-gay legislation has upset the East African country's relationship with development partners, part of the unfolding fallout from the enactment of a bill over which Uganda had been warned there would be consequences. At least three European countries are withholding millions in aid to Uganda's government, the United States is warning of similar action, and the Ugandan shilling has been losing its value amid reports of substantial aid cuts.
Now the World Bank is delaying a $90 million loan to Uganda's Health Ministry — money intended for a project to strengthen the country's health systems — because it wants to ensure that the development objectives of the project would not be adversely affected by the anti-gay law.
The $144 million project focuses on maternal health, newborn care and family planning — public health areas whose grim figures have long attracted the attention of foreign donors.
At least 16 Ugandan women die in childbirth daily, a shocking statistic that made the project critical in this East African country that depends on donors for about 20 percent of its budget. Announcing the project in 2010, the World Bank noted that without "significant investments" Uganda was "unlikely to achieve the Millennium Development Goal targets related to reducing child mortality and improving maternal mortality."
The project is set to close in 2015.
Sheila Gashishiri, a spokeswoman for the World Bank in Uganda, said Friday that the project will continue despite the postponement.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who enacted the law Monday amid Western pressure to veto the bill, may have anticipated the international backlash his government now faces.
Days before he signed the bill, Museveni said he was ready to fight what he called "the homosexual lobby" and urged lawmakers with the ruling party to support him. In signing the law, he said he wanted to stop the west from promoting homosexuality in Africa. Critics say Museveni, who has held power since 1986 and is up for re-election in 2016, may have calculated that the political benefits of enacting the bill outweighed any losses on the international front.
Homosexuality is criminalized in many parts of Africa. Nigeria last month passed an anti-gay law. But the Ugandan law — an earlier version of it included the death penalty for some homosexual acts —has become notorious around the world for its severe punishment of gay sex. The law sets a life term for those convicted of engaging in gay sex. It also creates the offenses of "conspiracy to commit homosexuality" and "aiding and abetting homosexuality," both of which are punishable by seven years behind bars. Those convicted of "promoting homosexuality" face similar punishment.
Uganda's law has been condemned by the United Nations, the United States, and several rights watchdog groups.
Ugandan officials insist the law has wide support at home.
Ofwono Opondo, a spokesman for Uganda's government, said in a series of Twitter posts Friday that the West "shouldn't force homosexuality on Uganda."
Western aid cuts over the anti-gay law, he said, amounts to "blackmail."