A class for children with disability under The Inclusive Education pilot program at the Ngele'ia Primary School in Tonga. The Australian government recently unveiled its updated strategy to strengthen disability-inclusive development beyond 2015. Photo by: Connor Ashleigh / DfAT / CC BY

When Australia sets foot at the U.N. headquarters in New York next week for the annual conference discussing the rights of people with disabilities, it will come armed with a new six-year strategy.

Following the announcement of deep cuts to the Australian aid program, Canberra last week unveiled “Development for All 2015-2020,” its updated strategy to strengthen disability-inclusive development beyond 2015, focusing particularly on the Indo-Pacific region.

This strategy builds on the Australian aid program’s previous six-year disability policy, which ended in 2014. The first blueprint was recognized internationally for its innovation, and this new road map incorporates best practices and lessons learned from implementing the previous strategy.

There are three key focus areas under the new strategy, which together aim to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities in developing countries.

1. Enhanced empowerment, leadership and decision-making in community, government and the private sector.
2. Reduced poverty for people with disabilities.
3. Improved equality in all areas of public life, including service provision, education and employment.

“As well as focusing on inclusive education and infrastructure, the new strategy also considers inclusive humanitarian action and disaster risk reduction, and governance issues,” DFAT explained to Devex. “The strategy also recognizes the diversity among people with disabilities, and seeks to explore options for increased inclusion of people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities.”

While the new strategy focuses heavily on the Indo-Pacific region, in line with Australian aid policy, “the aim is to make aid investments across all country and regional programs as inclusive as possible and as opportunities arise,” DFAT clarified.

Sophie Plumridge, executive officer at the Australian Disability and Development Consortium, welcomed the new strategy. She said it made the important connection between the cycle of poverty and disability and gives people with disability and their representative organizations a strong voice.

“Australia is taking leadership in raising the profile of disability inclusion by working with people with disability and ensuring their voice is heard,” she told Devex. “Everyone has individual needs and the new strategy recognizes that disability is part of human diversity and people with disability can both benefit from and participate in development.”

Evidence-based policies and programs

Although Development for All is not a new policy, the strengthened strategy likely means DFAT implementing partners might have to deal with greater and more stringent requirements for proposals and reporting.

Making Performance Count,” the performance framework for Australian aid, already requires country and regional programs to ensure people with disabilities will have access to the same opportunities as others. Reporting requirements are however expected to have a stronger disability focus, following Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s announcement that one of the strategy’s goals is to improve data collection by “gathering reliable, internationally comparable data on people with disabilities.”

The performance indicators are still a work in progress, but DFAT said they will be developed and refined “for use as appropriate in country- and investment-level monitoring and evaluation frameworks.”

Despite the strong data focus in developing and managing the impact of Australia’s aid programs on people with disabilities, however, DFAT said public reporting of this information will be through traditional annual reports, midterm reviews and a final evaluation of the strategy.

“High-level findings will be publicly shared in DFAT’s ‘Performance of Australian Aid’ report. Major reviews on disability-inclusive development in the aid program, including a midterm review and final evaluation of the strategy, will be made available online when completed,” DFAT said.

But releasing information at a high level misses the opportunity for Australia to share its knowledge and experience with nongovernmental organizations, the private sector and international aid agencies.

“It is pleasing to see that the strategy will be reviewed and evaluated,” Plumridge said. “However, data and monitoring of all mainstream development programs is necessary to understand how investments are including people with disability.”

Converting a strategy into results

The release of the updated strategy, according to Plumridge, reinforces the notion that including people with disabilities in Australia’s aid program is essential to overcome poverty and address inequalities. The strategy, she noted, provides a good opportunity to continue investing in building the capacity of DFAT and the wider sector on disability-inclusive development.

“What’s encouraging is that we are moving away from asking why we should be including people with disability to how,” she told Devex.

And while the promised ambassador for disability-inclusive development never materialized — Canberra announced in 2013 that it will be appointing the world’s first such ambassador — DFAT explained that “all Australian Ambassadors, high commissioners and diplomatic officers have a role in promoting disability-inclusive development as a policy priority for Australia’s international engagement.”

The Australian government considers its role in advocating for people with disabilities in developing countries critical and will continue to sharing knowledge on the world forum.

“DFAT will engage internationally to share our experiences and advocate for greater attention to be given to disability issues by governments, donors, the private sector and multilateral organizations,” DFAT said.

This includes promoting the new strategy at the Conference of State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in June.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a freelance data journalist based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through news.com.au. Lisa has recently been awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.