Q&A: Lessons from Australian aid's disability inclusion program

Bethesda agriculture studies teacher Thelma Awasi supervises weeding in the specially designed wheelchair accessible garden beds in the Solomon Islands. Photo by: Irene Scott / DFAT / CC BY

CANBERRA — Since implementing its first Development for All Strategy in 2009, the Australian aid program has been a leader in the field of disability-inclusive development. Lessons learned along the way have given the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade an evidence base to share with like-minded donors and organizations.

Devex’s Development Enabled series

Development Enabled explores the daily challenges of people with disabilities while looking at solutions on how to support a disability-inclusive world.

Cate Rogers, assistant secretary of the development policy and education branch at DFAT, sat down with Devex to discuss the learnings as part of the Development Enabled series.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

For the Australian aid program, including its focus on the Indo-Pacific, how important is being disability-inclusive to the success of your development assistance?

It’s incredibly important because the objective of the Australian aid program is to reduce poverty, including in the Indo-Pacific. We can’t reduce poverty if we don’t take an inclusive approach and with 15 percent of the global population living with a disability — often amongst the poorest of the poor — it becomes incredibly important to achieving the objective of reducing poverty to take a disability-inclusive approach to development.

Within the Indo-Pacific, we have challenges around data. We don’t have sufficient data as to the kinds of disabilities people are living with and the impact of those disabilities. We are trying to address [these challenges] through our work to support the Washington Group to collect data as well as through specific initiatives, including a study we are currently supporting to look at deafness in the Pacific.

“You can’t focus on disability-inclusive development if you don’t have an inclusive organization.”

— Cate Rogers, assistant secretary of the development policy and education branch, DFAT

We need to get a firmer grip around the extent of disability in the region so that we can address that through specific programming. I’m not sure that that problem exists to this extent in other parts of the world.

We need the evidence base to determine the best way to create support through our aid program.

What do you see as the major successes of disability inclusion in the Australian aid program?

We’ve stuck with this for a very long time. We were the first donor to have a specific disability inclusion strategy. And that was launched in 2009.

We’ve also been very good at advocating internationally and we’ve managed to affect some good changes at the international level. That comes from the long-term commitment and knowing that we’re actually credible in this space and do really care about it.

We’ve also adopted — very deliberately — a strategy of working closely with disabled persons organizations, and that’s really critical. No one can understand this space as much as people who are living with disability. And also when you’re looking to affect change at the country level, no one really understands the political economy of that country unless they have in-country expertise.

You actually do need to be committed to disability inclusion generally, and that is another important aspect of how we’ve approached this. In our Foreign Policy White Paper, disability inclusion was very prominent. It was also very prominent as a theme in our [United Nations] Human Rights Council participation.

The Office of Development Effectiveness review of Australian aid’s disability inclusion strategy noted that promotion from management within DFAT was important. What are the ways management has shown support and has there been any difficulty in maintaining a focus on disability?

You can’t focus on disability-inclusive development if you don’t have an inclusive organization. It’s critical to have high-level management support and management support throughout the organization.

There’s been a lot of work in the department to make it more inclusive — not just to people living with disability but also for other diversity groups as well.

We’ve had strong support from the secretary down to make DFAT a more inclusive employer. We have a champion for disability inclusion who is focused primarily on disability inclusion within DFAT. We have a network for people living with disabilities who work at DFAT.

That’s a really fantastic way for people to share lessons, but also for people to identify problems that you might not see in isolation. That group has a direct line to senior management and can affect change quickly, in a way that individuals can’t.

We have a strategy for disability inclusion within the organization. And we last year launched a portal on our intranet for access to information on disability inclusion issues.

Those broader elements around management make a big difference to disability inclusion here, and that helps us affect that through our aid program.

In terms of the challenges, the main one is staff turnover. You have new people coming into positions and it requires a level of patience to go over the same ground again to train your people up. It is a slow build, but it requires maintenance. That’s the key aspect of this.

The review found that the most inclusive programs were likely to have started small and scaled over time, with disability a focus early on. Can you discuss how one of these programs has helped people with disability in the community?

It gets down to the longevity of commitment. From my perspective — since starting in this job — it takes a little bit of time if someone is unfamiliar with an issue to become comfortable in that space and take it on board. It is important when dealing with any of these issues associated with inclusion to understand that and to warm people up to a topic they may not have much personal experience of.

The idea that you start small is compatible with that approach.

One example is in our Indonesian program. They were an early adopter — or champion — of our first Development for All strategy launched in 2009. They started small, and they focused on building an evidence base and trying to develop lessons.

That allows people the time to familiarize themselves with the sector, they develop the links with the DPOs that really understand the context, and it helps them to better negotiate how they want to take that work forward.

The team in Jakarta kept working on this and established a working group within the embassy on disability which I think is a great example of how important this is for everyone to take on board with their work.

“That is what we want to do with aid — use it as a catalyst to help people in countries make their own change.”

They’ve integrated this through several of their larger programs, and have been able to facilitate work of local DPOs to try to influence the government of Indonesia. They have been able to influence Indonesia’s social protection policies to make them more disability-inclusive.

I use that example because it [the Jakarta disability program] has been going for a long time and the region has been evolving at the same time. If you have that long-term engagement, small and large interventions, are gathering lessons learned and evidence as well as supporting DPOs, when those opportunities open, DPOs can really get in there and influence a broader agenda.

That can impact positively on the entire population with a disability. That is what we want to do with aid — use it as a catalyst to help people in countries make their own change.

What are the key lessons and messages you would like to share with other organizations to help them become more disability-inclusive?

The first one is the clear articulation that it [disability inclusion] is a priority at the most senior level. Strong political and management support for disability inclusion is critical. I don’t think you can affect cultural change without that kind of commitment.

Underneath that, you need to think about putting the structures in place to support that commitment. We have our champion for disability and we have reporting in disability inclusion.

To address the lack of representation of people with disabilities at certain levels — more senior levels — we have recently had a recruitment round with a component for people living with disability. I believe we were the first [Australian] government department to do that at the SES [senior executive service] level. That is a really powerful signal.

For organizations looking into moving into disability-inclusive development within their aid program, I think the message is clear — and that is to work closely with DPOs and focus strategically to pick up on investments that will make a difference. Often those investments are around influencing international systems.

And patience, reiteration of the importance of disability [inclusion], and the provision of ongoing training and assistance [are] important. We have an effective helpdesk with CBM, so it’s not a problem for any of our program staff to get technical help when they need it.

It is critical to remove any barrier for people seeking assistance when they don’t have that expertise themselves.

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

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. 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 additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.