Campaigns Manager Dan Jones reports from the Parliamentary International Development Committee’s inquiry on Disability and Development

Lynne Featherstone MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, gives evidence to the International Development Committee
Lynne Featherstone MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, gives evidence to the International Development Committee

Last week, I attended the final ‘oral evidence’ session for the International Development Committee’s inquiry on disability and development, in which the Committee quizzed Amina Mohammed, the UN’s point-person on Post-2015 development, and then Lynne Featherstone MP, the DFID Minister. This was a high profile end to an exciting few weeks in parliament examining issues that RESULTS and our grassroots have advocated for for so long.

And, typically for Committee chairman (and now Lib Dem Deputy Leader) Sir Malcolm Bruce MP, he hit the nail on the head by kicking off the questioning of Lynne Featherstone MP with a crucial question. He welcomed her personal leadership and recent commitments on disability but followed up with “Ministers do come and go, and you need to have continuity. I suppose what I am saying is: what do you think you could do to make sure that, as and when and if you are not there, the commitment on disability continues?” A key question, particularly as the government, MPs and the media begin to turn their attention to next year’s General Election.

He’s right, Ms Featherstone has indeed been a great champion on this issue, announcing in recent months that DFID will ensure all schools built with direct UK support in developing countries will be accessible to disabled children; that they will begin to “disaggregate” their programme results to show how many disabled people they are reaching; and that they will continue their funding to Disabled People’s Organisations in the global south to advocate for their rights. But those important beginnings of a focus on disability could be worth little if the focus vanishes the moment Lynne Featherstone steps out of the door. It’s time to make sure high level pledges are made systematic and turned into action and implementation by DFID – it’s time for them to show the rest of the world that they are determined to end poverty by reaching and supporting those who are amongst the most marginalised people in our world today.

I know I may sound geeky, but it really has been exciting to see these issues at the top of the parliamentary agenda after so long campaigning. We heard from the Committee this week that this disability inquiry has generated more written evidence than pretty much any other – about 75 written submissions from across the world, including from RESULTS UK and coalitions we work with like the Global Campaign for Education and the Bond Disability & Development Group.

Over the last month, the Committee have questioned 16 expert witnesses. In the first formal session, they heard from disabled activists with experience in Kenya, India and the Middle East about the barriers faced by disabled people and the role the UK and DFID could play. Next up, a panel including former Australian development minister Bob McMullan talked about AusAid’s disability strategy and whether DFID should aim to replicate that. The same session also had Dr Susie Miles, Senior Lecturer in Inclusive Education at Manchester University, talking about the important role DFID could play in promoting an inclusive education approach that benefits all children, not just those with disabilities.

A week later, the Committee heard from the Chief Executives of NGOs Action on Disability & Development, Wateraid and Handicap International about their work supporting disabled people, including in humanitarian emergencies, and about recommendations for what DFID should be doing. Then a second panel talked about the challenging lack of good data on disability (one reason why disabled people have been too often “invisible” from development efforts). Dr Tom Shakespeare, formerly at the World Health Organisation, made clear that great progress is being made to improve data, and “it’s too complicated” should no longer be an excuse for delaying making aid and development inclusive of disabled people.

Amina Mohammed from the UN gave probably my favourite quote of the inquiry so far last week – “disability is a cross-cutting issue, it shouldn’t be put in a silo, and it’s not an add-on”. Wise words, and Ms Mohammed was equally clear that she agreed that Post-2015 development goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals had to be inclusive of disabled people to succeed. She also commented that the UK had been in front of other countries in making this argument, and she saw a strong role that DFID could play in building capacity at the national level working with developing country governments to ensure basic services like education and healthcare were inclusive of disabled people.

And finally, Lynne Featherstone MP, who made clear that her number one priority is making sure that the new Post-2015 development goals are inclusive, with progress against goals disaggregated by disability, and a commitment that targets should only be considered met if they have been reached for all social groups, including disabled people.

She also talked about work under way to influence multilateral organisations like UN agencies to step up with DFID to do more on disability. She talked about the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) as a key partner, and how they are working closely with GPE to ensure more developing country partners implement inclusive education approaches, with specific focus on disabled children. Great news.

And then it all got a bit cagey… She said “we are working with a range of multilaterals towards something that I cannot tell you about”. “Intriguing”, responded Committee member Michael McCann MP, “this is like The 39 Steps”. The Minister was unwilling to say more, but it was “something big”.

“Something big” is absolutely what is needed to help deliver a turning point for the 1 billion disabled people in the world, 80% of whom live in developing countries and many millions of whom are excluded from basic services like education.

Our recommendations have been that the UK Government, a world-leader in overseas aid, should become a world leader in disability-inclusive development. They are right to prioritise embedding disability within the Post-MDGs, but that means DFID should move now, not wait until 2015, to position themselves at the forefront of this revolution. We urge them to make a bold, public pledge to make their aid inclusive, and begin immediately to implement that pledge by embedding inclusion throughout their strategic thinking and processes. We’re not unrealistic – we know things won’t change overnight. Nor should they. DFID should implement inclusive aid in a sensible, phased approach, learning lessons and developing best practice. But action, not words, are essential.

As Sir Malcolm Bruce MP commented, “If DFID picks up this ball, it can be transformational in its achievements, because of the scale of what DFID does and the impact it has”.