Back in 1988, I was denied a job in the Bangladesh civil service. This wasn’t because I didn’t have the skills to do the job – I had a Masters in Economics from the University of Dhaka – but because I am disabled. I contracted polio at the age of three, and was left with a mobility impairment, which according to the rules then in place meant I was excluded from being a civil servant.
You might think this sounds outrageous, but this kind of discrimination is still all too common around the world. Over the last few months, the UK Parliament’s Select Committee on International Development has been holding an inquiry looking at disability and development, and it has heard countless stories like mine, and worse: like the disabled woman in West Africa who reported that when she presented at a hospital in the early stages of labour, health workers laughed at her and asked how on earth she could have managed to get pregnant. The Select Committee, which is a parliamentary body set up to monitor the activities of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), decided to hold this inquiry because they had been told again and again by organisations like ours that the aid system was not delivering for disabled people. They found that this is true.
The report that the Committee has released today tells a compelling story. DFID has a reputation for being one the most progressive donors on disability (although it’s been overtaken by Australia in recent years), but the Select Committee’s evidence shows that even at DFID only 5% of bilateral aid spending is on programmes that are designed to benefit disabled people. With 15% of the world’s population being disabled, this clearly isn’t enough.
Worse still, many development programmes are – inadvertently or not – designed in ways that exclude disabled people, such as the World Bank-funded project in Uganda that installed boreholes with steps, which people who use wheelchairs can’t access.
This kind of exclusion is a major cause of poverty, and in some cases is leading to the world’s one billion disabled people falling even further behind the rest of their communities. As Bob McMullan, one of the witnesses at the inquiry pointed out, if any country with one billion people had such low employment, education and health outcomes as the world’s disabled population, it would probably be at the top of international development priorities. However, we know how to change the situation.
In Bangladesh, disabled people came together in Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) and we defeated the discriminatory policy that excluded disabled people from the civil service. I could have that job if I applied now. There are also some great examples of donors working well with disabled people, including at DFID – for example the changes that were made to a social protection programme in Zimbabwe based on consultation with DPOs, which led to a dramatic increase in the number of disabled people that the programme reached.
Over the last year or so, we have been very encouraged by the actions of Lynne Featherstone MP, one of the Ministers at DFID, who has consistently championed the rights of disabled people. The Minister recently announced a commitment that from now on all new school buildings that DFID supports will be designed to accessible standards that include disabled people.
But we share the Select Committee’s concern that the current support for inclusion at DFID is carried by a few key individuals who will in all likelihood move on, and we want to see the Department being more ambitious about what they can achieve. The Committee’s report recommends that DFID put in place several key mechanisms to make sure disability gets mainstreamed across the organisation, rather than staying a niche issue that individuals work on if they have a personal interest, including the following:
- a disability strategy with clear targets and timescales;
- a larger team of staff working on disability, including ‘champions’ within each country team and a senior sponsor; and
- strong reporting processes to ensure accountability.
The report also contains a welcome emphasis on the central role of disabled people in this process, calling for DFID to actively encourage and
support disabled people’s leadership, and to seek their guidance on how to design, implement and monitor programmes. Our experience working with DPOs in Africa and Asia over the last 30 years demonstrates how important this element is: disabled people are the best experts on their own development, and truly empowering them to get involved in the development process is vital. With the publication of this report, a very important step has been taken towards making aid more inclusive.
Because this is an official select committee report, DFID must provide a government response setting out how it will meet the recommendations made. We look forward with much excitement to this response, and to seeing DFID take immediate action to increase education of disabled children, employment of disabled youth and investment for the health of disabled people in low and middle-income countries.
Making DFID’s aid more inclusive of disabled people will be transformative, not only for disabled people themselves, but for whole communities. In her evidence to the inquiry Lorraine Wapling described how an employment project for disabled people in Malawi has helped the whole community:
‘One community leader, completely spontaneously, said to me, “It has made a huge difference. Now that disabled people are benefiting our community, the whole community has come out of poverty. […] Before, they were dependent; they were drawing our resources. Now they are productive, it means the whole community has a better potential.” That, for me, represents what we mean by value for money’.
Mosharraf Hossain is Director of Policy and Influencing and Julia Modern, Parliamentary Liaison Manager at UK based ADD International. which works with disability movements in 8 countries in Africa and Asia, challenging the barriers and discrimination faced by disabled people.