Africans are more tolerant of differences in ethnicity, religion and nationality than many familiar narratives would indicate, yet nearly eight out of ten do not want LGBT neighbors, according to a new report from Afrobarometer, a public opinion research organization set up by Africanist scholars.

The report was released to coincide with the United Nations’ Zero Discrimination Day on March 1st, and it has been designed to add much needed data points to ongoing discussions of ethnicity, religion, and immigration in African contexts, as well as the rights of the LGBT community and people living with HIV.

Africa is often discussed in terms of conflict driven by ethnic and religious differences. However, in a continent that Afrobarometer says “has become synonymous” with conflict driven by differences, the organization found after the completion of 50,000 interviews across 33 African countries that nine out of ten respondents said they would welcome or accept neighbors with a different ethnic background to themselves. Furthermore, 87% of Africans exhibited tolerance for those from a different religion.

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Generally Nice Neighbors…

A particularly important finding is that even though “sizable minorities express rejection of immigrants: Lesotho (42%), Zambia (35%), Mauritius (34%), Madagascar (33%), Morocco (33%), and South Africa (32%),” the research team found that “overall, 81% of Africans say they would like or not mind having neighbors” who are from somewhere else. Afrobarometer says that these results position Africans as “among the most migrant- tolerant people in the world.”

The report’s co-author, Dr. Kim Yi Dionne, a specialist on African politics at Smith College, emphasized that Afrobarometer’s findings are encouraging, as “you have this overwhelming majority of people who say they would be willing to have neighbors who are from other groups.”

In a conversation with the BBC, Dr. Dionne added that part of the motivation for building a large data set on tolerance comes from the idea that “there is a strong disconnect between lived realities in Africa and the way things are reported on in the media or even studied among academics.” She said, “I think that the findings from our research are quite contrary to the conventional narrative of Africa as a place of division – whether inter-ethnic, or inter-religious, or xenophobic, or even homophobic.”

…But Less So If The Neighbor is Gay

Afrobarometer says that intolerance towards LGBT people is still significant, yet the data makes the degree of variation between countries visible. Although the majority of respondents in Cape Verde, South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique expressed tolerance for LGBT people, acceptance dropped to 11% in Ghana, and in Senegal, only 3% of respondents said they would not object to the presence of an LGBT neighbor.

The Afrobarometer team even decided against investigating levels of tolerance towards LGBT people in Sudan, Egypt and Algeria because they saw the subject as “too sensitive” to be included in interviews. The report indicates that “it is only on the question of homosexuality that a majority (78%) of Africans exhibit deeply intolerant attitudes,” with four out of five respondents rejecting the idea of having an LGBT neighbor.

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Even with tolerance of LGBT people being reported at an alarmingly low 21% and mixed levels of acceptance for people with HIV at 68%, there are reasons for optimism moving forward.  The report’s findings showed that “younger citizens are more tolerant than their elders,” and that media exposure, access to education and proximity to different groups were all drivers of increased tolerance.

Dr. Dionne pointed out that, “We do see the media as a potential source for further increasing tolerance in the future – and I think this is important as we talk about some of those groups that didn’t quite generate the same attitudes of tolerance in the 33 countries that we studied.”

Perhaps the most encouraging element of Afrobarometer’s work is that it suggests public opinion around difference and identity is changeable. Overall, the report emphasizes that it is possible to shift attitudes to become more accepting of difference over time – an essential project in any country.

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