Opinion: Disability-inclusive policies require disability-inclusive budgets

A handicap sign. Photo by: Steve Johnson / CC BY

This week sees the first ever Global Disability Summit in London. The summit’s Charter for Change — a pledge on disability inclusion for organizations to endorse — packs a lot of vital commitments into 460 words. But of those 460 words, two in particular grabbed our attention. Government signatories to the charter commit that they will not only make plans for disability inclusion, but also “invest in” them.

This commitment is crucial.

Of course, money isn’t everything. No amount of investment will create the inclusive world envisioned in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, if a robust underlying legal and policy framework isn’t in place — and if harmful stereotypes and prejudices against persons with disabilities don’t change from the grassroots up.

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But while investment isn’t sufficient, it’s certainly necessary. Not one of the ten commitments in the Charter for Change can be fully achieved unless it’s budgeted for. And although the challenges of budgeting for disability rights vary greatly depending on the context, human rights law is clear that even in low-income contexts, governments have fundamental obligations that they must meet.

Yet, despite some pockets of progress, budget allocations for the inclusion of persons with disabilities are all too often being neglected, curtailed or misdirected — across low-, middle-, and high-income countries alike.

Government budgets are like an X-ray of who really holds power in a society. Historically, persons with disabilities have been marginalized from power at every level — excluded from education, stigmatized in communities, and in most countries very underrepresented in politics. So it’s no surprise that when budgets are allocated, persons with disabilities tend to lose out.

A forthcoming report exposes this trend in more depth. We surveyed a diverse range of disability advocates from 23 countries across five continents about their experiences of engaging in budget processes. We drew further lessons from budget analysis work by organizations of persons with disabilities in Asia and the Pacific.

The findings make worrying reading.

The survey asked whether advocates had ever heard the government say that it could not fulfill a disability advocacy demand because of a lack of resources. Out of 38 respondents, 28 reported that they had.

Our research identified many specific challenges, including:

• In one low-income country, the government committed to allocating 10 percent of the education budget to “special needs education.” Yet, according to an analysis by one of the survey respondents, in 2017-18 the actual allocation was more like 0.2 percent.

•  In some countries, governments are diverting resources that could be spent on empowerment, and spending them instead on costly segregated services that jeopardize people’s rights to live independently and be included in the community. For instance, an organization from Argentina reported a lack of government investment in transitioning from segregated hospitals to community-based mental health care.

•  Often, spending is concentrated in one or two ministries, such as social affairs, with little to no allocation across other ministries.

While our survey focused at a country-level, it also highlighted that decisions taken in the global north, which are not explicitly disability-related — including on tax, debt, and aid — can have a huge impact on the resources available for social policy, including disability rights, in the global south. For instance, one organization from Bangladesh reported that the government did not have enough resources for fulfilling disability rights. Yet Bangladesh loses an estimated 2 million U.S. dollars each year through a tax treaty with Norway.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom.

Findings from the Pacific Disability Forum, among others, show that some governments are making efforts, albeit unsteadily. They also show the important contribution that aid can make to resources for disability rights in low-income contexts.  

In addition, our research highlighted the sheer energy and dedication of advocates across the world who are committed to ensuring that government budgets give disability rights their due — although many are battling against severe challenges in the openness of budget processes, and in their own organizations’ resources to do this work.

Clearly, much needs to change before the balance of power in budget processes becomes more equitable.

We urge the following key actions.

1. Governments worldwide need to integrate disability rights throughout the budgeting process

Governments can do this by conducting comprehensive disability-responsive human rights impact assessments on all proposed budgets, drawing on context-sensitive assessments of the costs that persons with disabilities face to participate equally in society; providing transparent, accessible, and timely data on budget allocations for disability, and enabling persons with disabilities to participate meaningfully in the budget process; and ensuring that censuses, surveys, and administrative data are disability-disaggregated to facilitate proper costing and monitoring.

2. Governments should ensure that existing expenditure fully aligns with disability rights commitments

Governments can do this by stopping allocations to segregated services that are inconsistent with human rights obligations, and making alternative, human rights-compliant provisions instead; making accessibility for persons with disabilities a requirement in all public procurement; refraining from cutting back support services that enable persons with disabilities to live independently and be included in the community.

3. Governments in the global north should pay special attention to the impact of their own policies on disability rights in the global south

Governments in the global north should review whether economic policies, such as tax, are coherent with policies on support for disability rights in the global south. They should also make “putting the furthest behind first” a priority in allocating aid, ensure that all aid-funded programs are accessible to and inclusive of persons with disabilities, and report on this in official aid statistics

4. Allies to the disability movement should step up

Allies can provide more funding and capacity support to enable organizations of persons with disabilities to engage in budget advocacy.

Those 460 words in the Charter for Change have the potential to be transformational for persons with disabilities. But the findings from our research on budgeting are a stark reminder that it’s what happens after the summit that really counts: When it comes to resourcing and realizing the rights of persons with disabilities, actions speak loudest of all.

For more coverage on creating a disability-inclusive world, visit the Development Enabled series here.

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

About the authors

  • Polly Meeks

    Polly Meeks is an independent consultant specializing in development finance and inclusive development. She previously worked at the European Network on Debt and Development, ADD International, the U.K. Parliament International Development Committee, and the U.K. National Audit Office.
  • Alexandre Cote

    Co-founder of the Centre for Inclusive Policy, Alexandre Cote has been working in the field of inclusive development for 20 years across Europe, Asia-Pacific, and Africa. He had the opportunity to actively participate in the negotiation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and ever since has been contributing to its implementation and monitoring.