The disability and development sector like the development space itself, has seen its own lexica of funky words over the past decade or so. From the early days of ‘disability mainstreaming’ and ‘twin-tracking’ to more recent emphases on ‘inclusive development’ and now the latest buzzword ‘disability inclusive development’, it is more than apparent that:
- The need to include disability in international development continues to be perceived as a priority by those lobbying for disability inclusive development
- Development, it seems, must include (read ‘assimilate’) disability, but not necessarily change its ways
In the process, some problematic assumptions are made:
- Including disability in development is indisputably ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’ for disabled people because ‘development’, it would appear, is necessarily ‘developed’ and ‘developing’
- International development is willing and committed to include disability
To be clear, development does need to be inclusive, and this article does not contest this. Instead, it probes the assumptions that are made as words are too easily and unreflectively thrown around in what looks more and more like a game of bullshit bingo.
Assumptions are generally borne from uncritical thinking, lack of questioning, or as may be the case here, opportunism or plain wishful thinking. You take your pick. International NGOs, including disability specific ones form part of this narrative too, and more often than not follow not only fads and fashions, but funding in particular.
But good intentions too often sell short. For some of us who are in the field, and who sometimes ponder the various contradictions and issues when faced with the realities far away from board rooms, conference halls and meetings in urban circles/circuses of privilege, life on the ground, far from obstinate conviction is far more different, complex, heterogeneous…challenging:
- The development sector is nowhere next to recognising disability as a genuine development concern. Otherwise there would be no need to utter the words ‘disability inclusive development’ at every corner. International development continues to flagrantly bypass disability in the core content of development courses at universities, in research, policy and practice, including programmes in theory targeting the needs of marginalised and oppressed populations in the global South. Most development practitioners, lack any formation whatsoever on disability, not to mention interest and training. Gender, childhood, governance on the other hand… a different story.
- The lobbying itself emerges from and is maintained by those working on the fringes of or outside the development sector, generally disability activists. Development is yet to see and recognise why and how disabled people are legitimate development ‘subjects’ at all.
- Pass the buck: when pushed to address disability in their work, the same old excuses emerge in development: not a priority area in their head offices and not within their remit; no funding; no training on the subject and so on. Disability is too often seen as a specialised theme and sector to be handled by ‘someone else’- charities, disability-specific organisations, churches, you name it. Disability is complex, including disabled people is a chore and too costly, and the funds are too limited to include everyone.
- Working with disability means change may not be so immediately evident, projects may need a long, very long time, and ‘results’ and ‘outcomes’ are unlikely to be evidenced over the short term, and much less enumerated and captured. It is far easier to document the building of a school or the paving of a road than the psycho-emotional impacts of genuine inclusive education or the long term effects of livelihoods programmes on people with intellectual disabilities. Donors dictate- implementing organisations obey.
- One-off time-bound investments have limited and time-bound results: disability is there to stay. It also impacts families, what I like to call ‘disabled families’ who too need support. And this support needs to be continuous, for the long haul and informed. The hit and run development approach, is not only unlikely to achieve much, it will most probably exclude families who in contexts of extreme poverty are the only lifeline for disabled people.
- Development has its own demons in the closet: from its colonial foundations to its neoliberal ideology and modus operandi, cost-cutting and economic growth too often take precedence over dignity, equality and equity, sociality, well-being and universal social protection, and protection of rights.
- The dominant paradigm of a neoliberal market economy continues to commodify basic things, including food, health care and medication. It also prioritises and promotes able-bodiedness, the power to be self-sufficient- strong healthy bodies and minds that can fend for themselves, that can unburden governments as well as development aid. Disabled people are constantly pushed down the rungs of productivity, of independence, of functional humanity, recast as a burden.
- Poverty reduction is good, but so is the elimination of inequality, too often discounted or ignored in aggregate figures. Those who too often slip out of the net, who fail to reap the benefits of so-called economic growth are those weakly positioned to participate in the market economy- the bulk of the poor depending on informal economies, poor subsistence level agricultural labourers. On the ground, policies and talk are not worth the paper they are written on. Poor people have better things to think about, like surviving.
- The Sustainable Development Goals are a positive step forward, but let’s face it, they may translate into little in practice for disabled people. The failings of the glorified Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are still very fresh in our collective memory, and women have much to say about this.
- The UNCRPD in spaces of normalised rights violations, of broad based poverty and misery, of suffering, of weak or no means of redress, of no political will or financial commitment, has limited force, reach and even currency for poor people. Printing more leaflets and booklets about the Convention will certain not do much.
So why don’t we change our discourse and approach?
- Change means shifting ideologies and discourse but also disrupting power centres: this applies to both the development and the international disability sectors. Poor people on the ground see and know what is going wrong (including in development programmes), and very often have viable and localised solutions to address problems. Yet, poor people are rarely in a position to even speak for or represent themselves, rendered powerless by a system that privileges outside so-called ‘expert’ knowledge and strategies, and in most cases, if it ain’t broke (read funding still filters through) don’t fix it.
- People make a good living out of parroting to and from the echo chamber: consultants prosper, research institutes get funding for research that will likely have little local relevance, use (most will never even be read) or impact, and the plethora of global North ‘experts’ continue to pave the way for neocolonising power tendencies.
- Subjugating the discourse of a weakened other (typically poor disabled people in the global South) reasserts the authority of power centres in the global North and privileged urban partners in the global South.
- Admitting failure or problems is not part of the dominant organisational culture and discourse: reflection and reflexivity are made out to be a problem. Pull your socks up, look on and move forward, even if the problems remain there, even if we know the approach does not work. Many are so concerned that challenging may open a can of worms, that even when things are going wrong, they are too fearful to open their mouths…and the wheel keeps on spinning.
To conclude, opening debates on these thorny issues should not be perceived as a problem. The real problem is fixity and the belief that simply spinning and echoing industry discourse will somehow change the situation for poor disabled people on the ground. At best, it is obstinate self-conviction that enough is being done. At worst, people may be harmed by disabling and unlearning discourse and practices. Poor people know too well the disappointments that come, even with good intentions. They also know too well that they are ultimately on their own, and that they have to find solutions to their daily concerns- and they do. For the rest of us, listening is the starting point, and questioning and challenging what is fed to us second, if we are to err not on the side of ‘right’, but on the side of sensitive and responsive partnership.
Shaun Grech is Director of The Critical Institute, Malta