Much international aid is directed, quite rightly, at the alleviation of poverty. But we, at Disability Africa, observe a tendency to ‘mainstream’ this practice to the exclusion of more thoughtful approaches. We see this working to the detriment of some marginalised groups, especially disabled children.
We believe, when it comes to addressing the extreme disadvantage that disabled children in Africa experience, the focus should be on Inclusion and the elimination of stigma rather than the alleviation of poverty.
Let us be clear, disabled children are poor – however you define that word - and it is increasingly understood that poverty is a complex concept which manifests in many different ways. Nonetheless, the abiding concept around poverty centres on the lack of wealth.
The Oxford English Dictionary has: “Poverty - The state of being extremely poor.” And so: “Poor - Lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society.”
Another typical definition says, “Poverty - People living in poverty do not have enough money for basic necessities such as food and shelter. Poverty is the state of being poor, having little money or being in need of a specific quality. An example of poverty is the state a person is in when he is homeless and has no money or assets.”
To focus on the poverty of disabled people in LMICs is not only to miss the target it also plays into a pervasive and unhelpful mindset whereby we invoke pity. It is not an accident that the most common expression of pity is, “Ah, you poor thing!”
When we focus on the poverty of disabled children, we miss the point that they are being deprived. Their state of poverty, in all its manifestations, is imposed upon them. Stigma leads to exclusion which leads to comprehensive deprivation. If we really want to think of this in terms of poverty, we could say “exclusion leads to multi-dimensional poverty”, but, for the sake of clarity, can we agree to call a spade a spade?
To make this more concrete, consider the following: In our attempts to eliminate slavery, we would not focus on the poverty of slaves in order to address the fundamental issue. Certainly slaves are poor but the obvious issue is that their poverty is imposed upon them. We would not usually think that the solution to slavery was the alleviation of a slave’s poverty. We understand that slavery is something that is being done to people. We need to call it what it is; people in slavery are being deprived and by calling it deprivation, the attention of those who would address the issue, is focussed in the right place. Slaves are poor because they are deprived of their liberty; deprived of self-determination; deprived of payment for labour; deprived of education and healthcare and, of course, deprived of the right to life itself.
In very much the same way, to focus on the poverty of people with impairments, particularly in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), is to miss the fundamental point. It is perhaps shocking to hear that the stigma and consequential exclusion of disabled people around the world (but most acutely in LMICs) deprives people with impairments of education, healthcare, opportunities for meaningful employment, self-determination and, yes, even liberty and the right to life*.
Disabled children are not just “unfortunately poor” they are being deprived and we use this word because it indicates that this is something that is being done to them. Our language reflects that we are not alleviating poverty in the way in which it is commonly understood (although this is also a direct effect of our programmes) we are fighting the exclusion which is the cause of their comprehensive deprivation which, in turn, leads to poverty.
We can go further and say that a person with impairments is disabled to the extent that they are deprived and the severity of that deprivation is directly proportional to the extent that they are excluded.
So, Disability Africa is concerned with opposing exclusion or to put it more positively, we energetically promote Inclusion. Our focus is Inclusive Community Development.
So let us focus where the fundamental solution to disability is to be found – not in attempts to alleviate poverty but in strategies to promote inclusion.
Let’s take a minute to be clear that this is not just an argument about semantics - we are not just ‘splitting hairs’. This is important. We recently put a number of questions to the Department for International Development (DFID) under two freedom of information requests. We asked them for information they held regarding the number of programmes which specifically targeted disabled people in LMICs and the numbers of disabled people who had benefited from their programmes. DFID was unable to provide us with a single statistic which demonstrated that disabled people were beneficiaries of their international aid efforts. Their assumption is that disabled people benefit, but the evidence shows otherwise.
Evidence shows that in middle-income countries (MICs) that show a decline in poverty as a result of ‘development assistance’, disabled people still have not benefited. We see that the gap in economic well-being between disabled and non-disabled people in these MICs is often even greater than in low-income countries. The gap in employment between non-disabled and disabled people is also greater in middle-income countries. In other words, ‘traditional’ development strategies which focus on alleviation of poverty, fail disabled people - they are still being left behind.
We contend that if the focus of development was on Inclusion rather than the more superficial idea of ‘poverty’ we would see a real fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals’ aspiration to “Leave no one behind.” As it is, the thinking is not profound enough and the systems produced are still failing the most marginalised people on earth.
This is why we say that inclusion of the most marginalised ensures benefits to everyone.
To focus on poverty can (and does) cause us to miss the point that the plight of poor people is not the result of an unfortunate accident of geography or circumstance – not for the last four hundred years anyway. Poverty is imposed; it is something that is done to people. It is the result of a failure to include and nowhere do we see this more acutely demonstrated than in the lives of disabled children in LMICs. Contrary to popular myth, poverty is almost never caused by natural disaster or failure of the rains. It is nearly always exclusion from political, economic and technological opportunities otherwise afforded to people in countries with high incomes. You may find this idea difficult because it goes against a lot of what you have been told by aid workers and charity fundraisers – but it’s true. If we are to be true to our commitment to leave no one behind, our first and most fundamental principle must be to develop ideas and strategies which are truly inclusive.
And if you still can’t shake yourself free of the idea that poverty has nothing to do with exclusion. If you still think it’s just an accidental by-product of the misfortunes of history and geography; take a skiing holiday in Dubai.
*We recently participated in a conference, “Autism The Pan-African Experience” in Freetown, Sierra Leone, at which speaker after speaker from a wide range of African countries came to the podium and spoke about the ostracization, physical confinement and infanticide of disabled children because they were seen as ‘devils’ or ‘animal spirits’.