Building an inclusive world is a formidable task but it'll be well worth it

On a recent field trip to Zambia and Kenya our thoughts about Inclusion were challenged.

At Disability Africa we care about Inclusion. We think it’s a good thing. In fact, the more we think about it, the better it seems to be.

We have written articles previously which demonstrate how, depending on the extent of inclusive attitudes within communities, disabled children will live or die. And, I guess few would argue that is a good enough reason to promote inclusion. 

But even beyond the obvious need for communities to support their most vulnerable members, Inclusive Community Development has much to say.

Regular readers of our blogs will know that we think the words we use are important. They reflect our values, our attitudes and ultimately the actions we end up taking, and this can be crucial for our project partners – especially if we carelessly bandy words which perpetuate unhelpful or negative attitudes and practices. So let’s start by being clear about why what inclusion means is pretty important. 

Recent events worldwide inspire us to point out that inclusion is evolutionary and its opposite is not! Historically, societies that were more inclusive tended to thrive collectively and on the level of the individual, whereas by contrast ‘exclusive’ societies have a tendency to be brutal, comparatively short-lived and end violently. It should be self-evident (but in these days, maybe not) to say that inclusion is evolutionary because it is based on life-supporting principles; compassion, care, generosity, equity, tolerance and peaceful co-existence. But how do these principles pan out in practice?

On a recent field trip to Zambia and Kenya our thoughts about inclusion were challenged.
It all started in Zambia; we were visiting a rural community near Lusaka where we hope to establish a project for the 1,300 or so disabled children who live there. We were visiting with our local project partners with whom we were hoping to develop a strategy. One of our first visits was to meet Loveness Mukalamba (pictured below). She is mum to a child with complex learning difficulties who lives in Jere Compound. It is hard to imagine, and impossible to truly understand the difficulties Loveness must face on a daily basis. She has to try and manage a child with learning difficulties while keeping them safe in this unforgiving environment of open charcoal cooking fires, only the most basic sanitation arrangements and little support from family or neighbours.

I would invite the reader to look at the picture and my comments above and make a short list of the things which you feel Loveless might need most.

Done it? 

Hands up anyone who wrote, “Two days training on the United Nations Charter on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Zambian Persons with Disabilities Act”? 

What? No-one? Not one of you?!

Well to be honest, that wasn’t on my list either but it was the serious suggestion of one of our Zambian project partners. (Don’t get me started on how donors have trained and funded people to deliver wildly inappropriate outputs with no valuable or measurable development outcomes!)

This is my next point about inclusion – Inclusive Community Development has to include the views and aspirations of the local people. It must be something we do with people – not something we do to them! We should consult not just the parents and young disabled people themselves but people like Pearson Manthali, a local police officer in Jere who told us that the children that are lost, and subsequently found by the local police are often disabled children, particularly those with intellectual impairments. “It is hard to take care of them at the police station.” he said, “There is no institution to take them to. Children that are abandoned by their families have nowhere to go. The social welfare process is very long and very slow.” – A cry for a simple, effective community solution if ever I heard one!

Inherent in the idea of inclusion, of course, is that it should mean everyone – an inclusive project must not exclude a person on the basis of the severity of their impairment or their level of poverty or any other criterion. An inclusive project does not get to say, “I’m sorry, that’s too difficult.” Rather, we should take the attitude, “If not us, then who?”  I’m not saying we can always have the skills, or the resources to fix everything, I’m just saying we should, as a principle never say “we only do the easy stuff”.

Which brings us to Kenya. There are many challenges to establishing a project to support disabled young people in less well-developed parts of the world. Fancy doing another list? Let me save you the bother; poverty; lack of infrastructure – power, clean water, sanitation, telecommunications; poor health; low levels of education etc. etc. But what struck us most forcibly when we went to visit a Self-help group of disabled people and parents of disabled children in the isolated community at Malanga was the problems which WE were creating. 

You see, usually, it comes down to this. Local development means finding a delivery partner (ideally a registered local organisation of some sort) who has a genuine passion for the project. A partner whom you can trust to take money, spend it on the outputs as agreed and deliver regular reports on progress and outcomes (ideally including pictures) to prove that everything is going as it should. It’s hard to argue that a responsible NGO would do anything less, but what if your community partners don’t have a bank account and they lack the education to deliver even a basic balanced bank reconciliation? What if they honestly aspire to send reports but lack the education to write anything but the simplest of sentences? What if they are miles from the nearest wi-fi and sending text, let alone images is impractical. As we sat and discussed the situation for disabled young people with the Self-help group at Malanga these were some of the challenges that were emerging. The sincerity of their desire to work with us and their hope that at last something really beneficial might be possible was hard to miss. 

It is within this context that Inclusive Community Development must also mean accepting and taking risks. We either say that the 1,100 disabled children of Malanga are just too unfortunate, too isolated, too poor to be helped. Or, we accept that inclusion also requires us to develop a template of action which works as the interface between generous donors with rigid reporting requirements and a community group with no means to meet those requirements.

It will be an interesting journey involving lots of discussion, sharing ideas, training, support, smart phones, and bags of trust and good will on all sides! And if it fails – if the money evaporates and the project dissolves, then inclusion also means having the will to learn the lessons and try again. Because the children are still waiting.