Disability as an issue needs to be a priority within development programmes, according to UK MPs.
A report published on Thursday by the parliamentary international development committee stresses the close links between disability and poverty. Launching the report, Malcolm Bruce, the committee’s chair, said: “Disabled people in developing countries are the poorest of the poor: if we are serious about tackling extreme poverty, our development work has to target them.”
In 2011, the World Health Organisation and the World Bank figures estimated that about 1 billion people – 15% of the world’s population – are disabled. The definition of disability under the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities encompasses a wide range of impairments – physical, sensory, intellectual and mental health – but with a common experience of stigma and exclusion.
Figures from University College London suggest that 80% of disabled people live in developing countries. According to research by the Department for International Development (DfID), they are more likely to fall into poverty and face discrimination, stunting not only an individual’s development but also that of their families, communities and, ultimately, the national economy.
A key recommendation laid out in the report is for DfID to produce a disability strategy. This, the report argues, would not only allow for a more systematic approach to disability programmes, by setting objectives and timescales, but would also demonstrate a commitment to disabled people. For too long, according to international development minister, Lynne Featherstone, in her response to the report, “people with disabilities have been treated as an afterthought.”
The report also emphasises the need to give disabled people a central role in development programmes, in order to ensure that they are as targeted to the needs of disabled communities as possible, so as not to “perpetuate existing power imbalances whereby non-disabled people control funding and make decisions on behalf of disabled people”.
Specifically, the report recommends that: disabled people “play a prominent role in drawing up DfID’s disability strategy, and help shape its country operational plans”; are given visible and senior roles in programme delivery; and that disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) from developing countries join its disability advisory group.
One key area the report identified where DfID could improve is the role it affords disabled people’s organisations in access to direct funding: “disabled witnesses from Kenya and Palestine told us that, in their countries, it is ‘almost impossible’,” because of the accessibility and complexity of application formats, “for DPOs to apply for funding directly from DfID.”
Tanya Barron, chief executive of the international children’s charity Plan UK and a board member of the World Bank’s global partnership on disability and development, echoes the need for a “purpose-built, joined-up strategy” that gives “disabled people a voice in shaping programming”.
One target of this overarching strategy must be children. “Children with disabilities are one of the most marginalised groups in the developing world … [they are] more likely to miss out on school, receive sub-standard healthcare and experience violence and abuse than those without,” Barron said.
According to the Global Campaign for Education, 40% of out-of-school children have a disability, and more than 90% of children with disabilities are out of school in Africa. The report makes clear that access remains problematic: “A witness from Palestine told us how, while children with physical disabilities could often access school, many with intellectual disabilities could not.”
It stresses the importance of tackling “more stubborn barriers [to access] such as information and stigma”, recommending DfID chooses one or two key sectors, such as health and education, and a small number of countries on which to focus. One way of tackling stigma, suggested by some authors of the report, would be to challenge exclusion by forming alliances with other marginalised groups, making it “easier for disabled people to access self-help schemes from across the community”.
Instances when disabled people are most at risk, such as in emergencies – disaster and conflict situations – were also highlighted in the report. According to Bruce, “without proper support, barely one fifth of disabled people can readily evacuate in the face of a disaster”.
Elderly people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to crises, the report says. It is unsurprising that older people suffer more from disability than any other age group – 46% of over-60s are disabled (pdf). But often their disabilities are dismissed as merely inherent to the ageing process, and their specific needs can therefore be underrepresented, as highlighted in a report (pdf) by Handicap International and HelpAge International on hidden victims of the Syria crisis.
While the report and its recommendations have, on the whole, been welcomed, NGOs stress the need for action. Dominic Haslam, Sightsavers’ policy director, says: “It’s been 14 years since the last DfID paper on disability. This is a once in a generation opportunity to put people with disabilities … at the heart of UK development policy. If this opportunity isn’t taken, it risks making a hollow promise of the High-Level Panel’s [chaired by David Cameron] call to leave no one behind in the next global development framework.”
Featherstone welcomed the report. She said: “I’m determined to increase our focus on disability within DFID, and I’m encouraged by the recommendations the committee has made. We will consider the committee’s report in detail in making sure DFID leaves no one behind.”
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