Seven-year-old Samuel Bangamwabo with his father and mother. Samuel will start to attend school in Rwanda in January. Photo by: Peter Caton / VSO

This week, civil society groups are gathering in New York to discuss a set of sustainable development goals proposed earlier this year by U.N. advisors. It’s a chance for attendees to shape the post-2015 global development agenda — if civil society leaders can agree on which direction to take.

Lobbying has intensified over the past year to ensure that the next development framework addresses issues such as environmental stewardship, universal health coverage and the rights of women, children and minorities.

Equally important, though, is to sustain progress already made on the ground. Take the case of Rwanda.

The country’s economic growth averaged 8 percent for the past few years, except in 2013, when a number of foreign donors temporarily suspended aid to the country for its alleged support of M23 rebels in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. Poverty declined to 44.9 percent in 2011 from 56.7 percent in 2006, according to the latest World Bank data. More children are enrolled in primary schools. And a series of reforms have dramatically improved the business climate for domestic and foreign investors.

Yet these advancements haven’t translated into significant change for people with disabilities, according to Kate Turner, a VSO U.K. volunteer who currently works as an advocacy adviser for the National Union of Disabilities' Organizations of Rwanda, a platform composed of eight national civil society groups working on disability. Awareness of the rights of people with disabilities remains low in Rwanda, she said, and many children are still kept at home, prevented from attending school or going out in the community.

In its second poverty reduction strategy, the Rwandan government mentions disability as a cross-cutting priority. It highlights several actions:

    •   Require the public and private sectors to ensure access for people with disabilities in all new buildings.

    •   Push media to develop skills or create ways to make their reporting accessible to everyone.

    •   Increase the number of education personnel with skills in dealing with children with special needs.

    •   Scale up assistive devices.

    •   Review legal and regulatory frameworks to ensure they don't discriminate against people with disability.

The plan itself is a huge achievement. Not many poverty reduction strategies lay out plans to tackle disability. And for a country with a fledgling movement of disability advocates — NUDOR and the National Council of Persons with Disabilities were both created just three years ago — it's significant progress.

What's encouraging is that the plan is moving: There's now a sign language interpreter in mainstream Rwandan media, and Turner said the press has been more vigilant in reporting about disability. The government also has released guidance for making buildings accessible to people with disabilities.

"A lot of these things are definitely in motion, which is very encouraging. It hasn’t just sat on a piece of paper," the VSO U.K. volunteer said.

Disability groups are also getting more presence now in different sectors. In fact, just this June, Turner participated in a meeting by development actors advancing agriculture in the country. One of the topics of discussion was on finding ways to include people with disabilities in income-generating activities.

There's nothing concrete yet and everything is still in discussion, Turner said. And agriculture is just one of the many areas disability groups are focusing on. They are also involved in talks with actors working on education and social protection, for instance, the former co-chaired by the U.K. Department for International Development. Then there are issues like health care, access to clean water, sanitation and transportation, just to name a few.

Political will within the government is "strong," Turner said, and international actors are paying attention. The Japan International Cooperation Agency, for instance, is providing skills training to ex-combatants that have sustained injuries and impairments from conflict for livelihood opportunities. Other aid groups are helping schools adopt an inclusive and learner-centered methodology, like DfID, which is expected to come out with a disability framework in November that would further guide its programming in Rwanda and elsewhere.

There’s still much to be done to collect data, raise awareness and implement change. For instance, it's hard to say how many people with impairments the government is actually reaching in its efforts, and whether these efforts are balanced between the urban and rural settings. Census data doesn't include children under 5. Household surveys may fill in some of the gaps.

"It’s all in the pipeline, but at this moment in time, it’s not as robust as it could be," Turner said of plans to improve the available data on disabled Rwandans.

Disability was not included as a target within the Millennium Development Goals, whose deadline is next year, but there's been more attention paid to it in the ongoing negotiations for a followon set of goals.

Will it be included in the eventual set of post-2015 development goals like gender, which seems likely to get a mention as a cross-cutting? Turner will be looking for clues this week in New York as one of several youth bloggers tapped by the United Nations to cover the civil society gathering.

What happens at the grass roots, in countries around the globe, is of course much more important than what is decided in New York. Turner, for her part, said Rwanda’s disability movement has grown strong enough to continue even if its cause isn’t incorporated into the post-2015 agenda.

But, she said, "it would be amazing if it did.”

Advocates of all stripes will surely identify with that notion. The challenge will be to agree on a common framework.

Watch out for our in-depth coverage and exclusive interviews from New York #globaldev week this September.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.