Aid groups fall short on disability commitments, advocates say

The U.S. Agency for International Development provide business courses and technical support for mobility-impaired persons in Vietnam. Photo by: USAID Vietnam

Donor agencies and implementing organizations are failing to deliver on commitments to disability inclusion, according to a group of civil society organizations who published a “call to action” urging greater ambition by the development community on Devex Friday.

Both in terms of funded programs in partner countries and in their own hiring practices, development donors and implementers have neglected to prioritize the world’s 1 billion disabled people — roughly 15 percent of the global population — made vulnerable by stigma and disproportionately living in poverty, the civil society leaders say.

“I often worry that it is organizations that consider themselves to be progressive, organizations that consider themselves to be inclusive, who don’t even think about these issues,” said Don Steinberg, CEO of World Learning.

Steinberg and others are urging donors, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, with whom many of these organizations partner, to “require specific references to disability inclusion in all projects and solicitations” and to allocate 3 to 5 percent of project resources for “accommodation, accessible facilities, awareness raising, institution strengthening, research and data collection, and other needs.”

These leaders welcomed some broad successes — the emphasis on disabilities in the Sustainable Development Goals and a growing number of countries with national action plans, for example — but they also noticed that real action was lagging behind.

When InterAction’s Disability Working Group surveyed 85 public USAID solicitations last year, they found that only 20 percent of them “required people with disabilities to be included and to participate in any meaningful way throughout the program.”

When the donor agency does not include language requiring attention to disabilities inclusion, it creates a “ripple effect of exclusion,” said David Morrissey, executive director of the United States International Council on Disabilities. Prospective bidding organizations are less likely to include language about disabilities in their proposals, and therefore less likely to dedicate funding specifically to disabilities inclusive programming.

Implementing organizations that do try to include disability inclusion in proposals to USAID can find themselves at a disadvantage for doing so, Steinberg said.

“You have the bizarre situation where if you as a bidder actually read USAID’s policies and want to incorporate disabilities, but the [request for proposals] or [request for assistance] doesn’t mention it, you can be excluded from competition for that,” he said.

USAID declined to comment specifically on the call to action or its recommendations, but instead pointed to the agency’s nondiscrimination policy, which “explicitly prohibits contractors from discriminating against any foreign aid beneficiaries on the basis of any factor — including race, religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity,” according to a statement by USAID Administrator Gayle Smith at the time of the policy’s launch in October.

Steinberg, who served as deputy administrator at USAID until 2013, said the pressure donors and implementers face, particularly in humanitarian situations, often relegates disability inclusion to a second level priority.

“I have heard officials say, we’ll worry about disabilities later, because our priority is something else,” he said.

Donors have also been slow to attach sufficient resources and personnel to disability inclusion, according to the organizations issuing the call to action. While donors have made a significant effort to “mainstream” crosscutting concerns such as gender equality and climate change into their programs, disability inclusion has yet to garner similar attention.

Morrissey pointed to “up to 100 staffers assigned into women’s issues” at USAID, whereas disability inclusion is the province of one coordinator.

While functional areas such as global health and food security are backed by entire bureaus, disability inclusion is often relegated to a single office with limited authority. In most cases officials responsible for disability inclusion do not have the right to overrule the mainstream bureau, and they lack their own funding authority, Steinberg explained.

“You need to have offices created … but you also need to fund those offices, give them resources so they can actually influence decisions, and you have to give them sign off authority on projects in other areas so they can say, ‘no, you haven’t included people with disabilities in this space. You can’t go ahead with the project,’” he said.

Finally, the development community has not paid enough attention to disability inclusion within its own hiring practices, according to the organizers of the call to action.

“The reality is, unless you go in and you look at hiring practices, employment practices, promotions, separation, unless you actively recruit candidates for your position, and not only give them equal access but provide them mentoring support even before they get into your organization so they can compete for the position, then you’re failing,” Steinberg said.

According to Morrissey, the lack of attention to disability inclusion is part of a long history of treating people with disabilities as “less than equal” and for passing off responsibility for inclusion to someone else.

But the development community does itself and its mission a disservice by not upholding a more concerted commitment to inclusion, Steinberg said.

“This is not an exercise in charity. We find that we are a much more effective organization when we include disability … It is also a huge morale builder,” he said.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.