Making Business Better for Persons with Disabilities

How can we promote employment of persons with disabilities in low and middle-income countries? This is a big focus of what I’ve been working on recently, especially last year. There’s a very difficult context –

To begin with it seems almost impossible. First off, many employers might not believe disabled people can do the jobs at all, let alone well. Even if you know this not to be the case, the context of social exclusion and inaccessibility makes it hard for disabled people to find work.

But there are a number of things that can be done. Over at Zero Project, Stefan Tromel and I wrote an editorial on Making Business Better for Persons with Disabilities.

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“I never thought I’d work in a factory” – disabled people in Bangladesh’s garments sector

From outside Bangladesh, the garments sector there is probably best known for low wages, poor working conditions and some horrific industrial accidents. But inside the country it’s driven industrial growth and social change. Over 4 million people work in the garments sector, and it has transformed the position of women in Bangladeshi society for better and worse. And it’s also changing the place of disabled people and their prospects for work.

When we looked for employers of persons with disabilities in Bangladesh, we found that garments factories were often the most significant. International buyers played a role in starting this, but since then many factories have taken their own initiatives.

The German PSES project and Bangladeshi NGO CDD have done a nice job of making videos to show us what it looks like. See how employers’ perspectives are totally changed, and disabled people are getting a place in their families, community and the workplace.

We probably wouldn’t have expected to find examples of disability inclusion in a low-wage setting in a low-income setting. But these are examples we can all learn from, both within and outside Bangladesh.

I particularly like how the first video shows people using sign-language over video messages.

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Next steps: arriving in Egypt

One week ago I arrived in Cairo. I’m here to take a few months of an Arabic language course, and then look for work in the region on disability and international development.

Sunset over the Nile, with two pyramids visible in the background.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet brilliant people already, including Helm, an NGO working on disabilty. They hosted a great event on Monday to launch work they’ve done, based on over 300 accessibility audits. During the event they awarded organizations that have been taking on the recommendations. It was fantastic to see a whole range of people in the room, including persons with disabilities, companies, and UN colleagues too.

Oh, and Arabic. I’m learning Egyptian Arabic. It’s hard – this week I did 15 hours of lessons. I am exhilarated and exhausted.

arabic text-book on top of exercise book with arabic words and english translations

Before I arrived, this series of posts on learning Arabic was useful. Based on the recommendation there, I did about 15 hours of study using an audio course from Pimsleur. That helped me with pronounciation and recognising a whole bunch of words. I couldn’t say much without further help, but I recommend the Pimsleur method for getting a head-start before you go somewhere.

There’s plenty more to do and see. I’d love further introductions to nice people, or anyone working on disability or international development here. Please get in touch if you’re here or know people that are!

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My time in Geneva: troubling comforts

Last year there was a big silence on the blogging-front, and other areas of my life, as I got caught up in all the people and pleasures and things to learn from my first posting in Geneva. I had a wonderful time, and look forward to being back soon. But it’s also great to be out of the bubble.

I wrote about the troubling comfort of aid work in Geneva over at WhyDev.

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Lessons from mainstreaming disability in poverty reduction in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, one of the projects I worked on was a project dedicated to supporting poor people in towns and cities across Bangladesh. UPPR was dedicated to supporting three million poor people, and my work was to make sure that that include persons with disabilities. We asked poor disabled people what they needed, looked at changes needed in each area of work, made a strategy document and started some pilot projects. I then left, and was rather guessing that the strategy had been put in a drawer and forgotten.

Going back last year to look at what happened, it was a very pleasant surprise to see the extent that work on disability had been taken up. UPPR has done a range of studies on its impact, and I did one on the extent that disabled people had been included in its efforts for poverty reduction. From communities, field staff and higher levels, there were initiatives for inclusion of disabled people. Over a 1,000 disabled people were supported directly and there were a range of partnerships, including in partnerships directly with disabled people’s organisations. So it turns out that this was an important example of a programme worth over a 100 million USD having a go at mainstreaming disability.

The whole process went through several years, and for many of these I was not involved. After watching from afar and then coming to review at the end, I had a few reflections. We talk about “mainstreaming disability issues”, as if there were a way to just adjust and tweak so that processes become “disability-friendly”. I wonder now whether this was the right goal. It’s super ambitious, and in this case it was one that was received positively, but didn’t have a significant follow-up from management, implementing partners, or the donor. And it left out other factors that seriously affected how much disabled people could or could not benefit from the project initiatives.

There were issues in the project design, implementation and monitoring that affected the way it could respond to all vulnerable groups within its population, not just disabled people. It targeted interventions at the household level – meaning that it couldn’t see so well internal dynamics, like those of gender, or what happens when members of the family have disabilities. A centralised administration was set-up to control & avoid fraud, but this limited the way that communities and staff could respond to localised or differentiated needs. And there was a strong culture of targets that drove implementation but often lost subtlety and attention to process.

I say all of this not to criticise a project that was successful in reaching people all over Bangladesh and delivering a very high volume of support, including to persons with disabilities. I say this as a lesson for people working on disability and vulnerable groups: it’s not just a matter of tweaking disability sensitivity after everything else has been set-up, but really addressing in core processes how it can be dealt with.

The lesson on disability-specific issues are much as one would expect. Information and data is a huge challenge. This means you can’t respond so well to the needs of disabled people, but it also means that even when there is work on disability then it might not come out unless you go looking for it. There’re needs for more explicit targets on disability, resource allocations for them, and awareness and capacity to deal with them throughout implementing organisations. The technical capacity on disability and where that will come from is a big question, as the key UN organizations and donors and government don’t currently have that expertise in Bangladesh. And it will be necessary to implement the new Global Goals, which strongly include disability.

It was nice in this review to see big opportunities for the future. In Bangladesh there is increasing expertise on disability and extreme poverty. You can see another example of the mainstreaming process in Bangladesh at LFTW’s Inclusion Works publication. There’s plenty more to be done, but we’ve got a lot to build on.

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Filed under Bangladesh, Mainstreaming, Social Protection

What are difficulties in cash transfers for persons with disabilities? Nepal edition.

Kristie Drucza did important research in Nepal on social protection, including on the grants given to persons with disabilities.

Despite the government’s good intentions in funding the disability allowance in Nepal, it remains a problematic cash transfer that can be seen to perpetuate injustices for those with disabilities. If the government chooses to give a disability allowance, even with the limited resources it has, then it should be transparent, equitable and accountable. Weak governance along with Nepal’s politics and discrimination has rendered Nepal’s disability allowance a token charity gesture.

Fault in the System“, The Kathmandu Post, September 2015

Drucza’s work is great at showing the range of difficulties in the allowance for disabled people, that ends up perpetuating injustices. Read the article for full details. Here I’ve taken the liberty of summarizing the challenges identified:

  1. It’s not enough money – currently they’re only a few dollars a month.
  2. There are fixed number of allowances, and it isn’t related to the number of persons with disabilities.
  3. Less than 10% of persons with disabilities get these grants.
  4. Getting the allowance is difficult and expensive. You need to travel and register in various places, and this could cost the equivalent of several months’ allowance.
  5. You’re only eligible depending on what certification of disability you have, and people aren’t made fully aware of this.
  6. If you know the right people then the decision might be different.
  7. Some of the decisions are arbitrary, and officials haven’t been trained in how to identify disability.
  8. The government doesn’t use numbers of disabled people registered to guide policy or planning.

Many of these points could be made in neighbouring contexts, such as Bangladesh or India. The Bangladesh disability allowance seems to have similar problems, but has been growing in both the amount of the grant and the number of people that receive it.

And even once all those problems are sorted out there are more later! It’s really hard to make a grant like this effective in empowering people to participate more. In many countries it turns out that disability allowances discourage people looking for work.

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Reflections on 4+ years living and working in Bangladesh

It’s hard to describe Bangladesh because some of the first things that come to mind are the things that you don’t like. It’s poor, dirty, unfair, horribly horribly unfair, and inconvenient. I’ll probably tell you about the inconvenience first, the traffic jams, oh, the things that should happen and don’t. “Everything is possible in Bangladesh” is what you’ll be told when something previously impossible has just happened in front of you. Sure. But where everything is possible, the thing you need or expect is not very likely to happen. Things are not where they should be, and things are not as they seem. And there is a wonderful new world to be found in that and in changing your expectations.

আমার সোনার বাংলা আমি তমায় ভালবাসি… সোনার বাংলা আবার কয়? দেখি জ্যামজট, পাই গন্ধ, কাদা, load-sharing, হারতাল। এটা রবীন্দ্রনাথের বাংলা নয়, এটা ঢাকা সিটি. এটা ঈদের chaos এবং ঈদের আনন্দ। ঝগড়া এবং ভালবাসা। যে ভাবে আছ, ষে ভাবে আমি তমায় ভালবাসি আমার নোংরার বাংলা।

Traffic jam in Dhaka. Background with industrial buildings, buses, people sitting on top of buses. Foreground cars, all stopped, and someone walking between them.

In Dhaka, so many of us are trying to get places that we sometimes don’t get very far at all.

Alongside the Bangladesh you see is the Bangladesh you feel. You are pulled and pulled into the urgency and intensity of personal relationships that are so overwhelming here. “What country? How much money do you earn?” these are the opening steps in the dance – but the real character of the dance is found later on in the intimacy of “what are you doing?”, “will you miss me?”, “have you forgotten us?”. I told someone I was leaving and spontaneously, directly and with all sincerity he said that he will remember me for the rest of his life.

You can get used to the unfair and the inconvenient. Bangladeshis and foreigners alike, we are all struggling with it in Bangladesh. We are all getting used to it one way or another, and plenty of us, Bangladeshis and foreigners alike, are leaving or looking to leave. In the face of uncertainty, injustice, a political space with no room for people to express themselves, and extreme social and economic constraints, there is infinite room for one more thing – feelings. In a space where you have no room for movement, but everything is changeable, love, hate, kindness, and tyranny all flourish. ভালবাসাটা বেশি, মনে করি আমি।

It’s the love that’s still overwhelming. I’m not even sure of the name of the person who said he will remember me for the rest of his life. There are so many, so many relationships and people here that people have given love so intensely. I have only been able to return it in a small way. I have been lucky to be brought into a family, “adopted”, and with that to have gained a Baba (remember him in your prayers), a Ma, two brothers and a sister, their families, and cousins and aunts and uncles and in-laws. It fills me with joy when I am sitting next to Ma, someone asks who I am, and she replies “my son” without any explanation, except sometimes to add that I am the “younger” son. Understand what you will.

মা, আমি বাংলা বলি যেন তুমি বুঝতে পার। যখন তোমার পাশে বসি আর কেউ প্রশ্ন করে, “সে কে?”, তখন তুমি বল “আমার ছেলে”, আর আমি খুব গর্ব বধ করি। আমাদের ভালবাসা এবং পরিচয়ের বর্ণনা করার জন্য আমি শব্দ পাচ্ছি না। যে ভাবে আমি বাসা আসতাম, যে ভাবে আমি তোমাদের সাথে ঈদ পালন করতাম… একসাথে আমরা অনেক আনন্দ করছি, আর একসাথে আমরা কিছু দুখও পেলাম। আস্তে আস্তে আমাদের পরিচয় আপন হয়ে গেছে। মা, আমি জানি যে প্রতিদিন তুমি আমার কথা মনে রাখ। মা, আমি আশা করি তুমিও জানো যে আমার মনের মধ্যে তোমাকে নিয়ে যাব।

Lady sitting with shawl over her head, with a man, woman and man standing behind, smiling..

My Bangladeshi Ma, Boro Bhai, Boro Apu and Shaitan.

I haven’t found, yet, the way that I would like to live in Bangladesh. I wanted at first to become Bangladeshi, to absorb as much as I could. I learned how to say আমি বাংলা হতে চাই, I want to be Bengali, the same day I bought my first lungi. I searched and searched for the authentic and then I stopped searching. Some of the reason I stopped searching is my work that puts me in an English-speaking, air-conditioned office; some of it is my comfort that makes it easier to have an apartment and a driver and etc; some of it is my disability, that limits the way I roam the fields and the lanes, that keeps me in the places with the western toilet, that limits me in roaming the streets of Dhaka. Some of it is simply that I am who I am and there’s a limit to how much one person can explore, and I don’t have the drive for it that I did before. Some of it is that I have found the authentic, and nurture relationships across Bangladesh with all sorts of people. It’s not quite the life I would like, yet – a social life that’s full at the same time as being so lacking, a life that’s constrained at the same time as comfortable, a life full of discoveries as one cuts oneself off from different parts of the world. Or discoveries about different parts of the world as one cuts oneself off from Bangladesh.

I got my first job in Bangladesh. Not long after starting my Baba said to me that ah, you are just one of the foreigners taking the poor people’s money, Britishers give money to Bangladesh and then British people come and take it in salaries and cars before it gets to the Bangladeshis. And leaving this time, I met with some “beneficiaries” of a project I was part of, and they had a similar line – সবাই খাইসে, শুধু আমরা খাই নি, everyone got money, except them, the people who it was supposedly for. In my first year here I was at a “social protection” conference in a fancy hotel. We were discussing the benefits the government gives, which are in the range of a few dollars a month. The lunch buffet was worth 5-10 of these monthly allowances.

খাইসে, খাইসে। সবাই খাইসে। আমিও খাইসি।

And now my career is closer and closer to that conference. When you get flown about between places you don’t know what’s going on the country, you lose the sense of the absurd luxury that you are in compared to local standards. You just compare it to your allowance, and your allowance is too high. The main information you get about the country is from your colleagues, the ones that speak English. It’s a one-dimensional view. I am on my way to Geneva, where people will say I was in the “field office”. I was not in the field. I was in the posh part of the capital city, tapping away at my laptop, complaining about traffic jams and comparing the new restaurants that opened.

an open laptop on a cafe table with other tables in the background

A lot of my work in Bangladesh looked like this.

বাইরে গিয়ে, আমি কার সাথে বাংলা বলব? এখুন আমার কথা বুঝবে কে? আমি বাংলা ভাষা শিখে অনেক মজা পেয়েছি। এমনি ভাষাটা সুন্দর, এমনি বাংলা নিয়ে thinking করা একটা মজা আছে। কিন্তু আমার সবচে বড় পাওয়া ছিল যে বাংলা শিখে আমি এত নতুন দৃষ্টিবঙ্গি পেয়েছি। সবাইয়ের সাথে কথা বলতে পারলে আমি শুনতে পেরেছি বিভিন্ন ইতিহাস আর জীবনের গল্প যে আমার নিজের ইতিহাস আর জীবন থেকে একেবারে আলাদাহ হয়। বাংলা শিখে অনেক জানেলা খুলা হয়েছে আমার মনের মধ্যে। এই জন্য আমি বাংলাদেশ থাকতে এত পছন্দ করি, এই জন্য আমি বার বার আসি, বার বার আসব।

I am happy with the Bengali I have learned and the understanding it has given me of the country and culture. I don’t know how colleagues can come here and not learn it. How can they understand what’s going on? Why don’t they get frustrated by all that’s getting lost in translation? I realised, slowly, we all have different talents and different ways of communicating and it is not for everyone to come in the way that I have. But I also realise that being able not just to speak Bangla but to understand other people’s points of views has deeply enriched the way that I work. Both the way that I interact with colleagues and in the way I can make suggestions. People often say the thing they like most about working with me is that I speak Bangla – I like to think it’s not just the language, but the way I engage and try to share and try to understand what their situation is, not just what their situation should be.

Here in Bangladesh I can work more honestly than I can work in other countries. I can check in with colleagues a couple of years after we’ve tried something to see how it turned out. I can go back and visit people. I can do projects in my spare time. I can be part of a movement of friends and colleagues that are struggling to do things, inside or outside of their professional work, whether we are paid for it or not.

From living and working here I have learned how fake and how useless “development aid” can be. I have been extremely frustrated not with the outside systems – Bangladesh is corrupt, yes, sure, that’s why we’re here – but rather with the systems within the offices where we work, where we don’t practice what we preach, where we let problems continue, where we reproduce the hierarchies and inequalities we are meant to be challenging.

At the same time, from my work and from my friends, I have learned what real social change looks like. I have friends with disabilities who have lived through change in their lifetimes, from being isolated to being important members in their communities. I have seen the many ways you can wheedle and encourage and try and try again to get people in power to make changes and to achieve a fairer world. I know from this more about the person that I want to be and the role I want to have in the world. My time in Bangladesh has shown me what purpose might look like, and what you have to do to achieve it.

প্রতিবন্ধী ভাই বনরা, আমি তোমাদের কাছ থেকে অনেক কিছু শিখলাম। তোমরা অনেকে জান কি বাংলাদেশের আসার আগে আমি এই ভাবে প্রতিবন্ধীটা বিষয় নিয়ে কাজ করি নি। আমি তোমাদের কাছ থেকে শিখলাম আন্দোলন করা মানে কি। আমি তোমাদের কাছ থেকে শিখলাম লেগে থাকা মানে কি। তোমাদের কাছ থেকে আমি শিখলাম লড়াই করা মানে কি।

7 people sitting around a table in a small room, looking at the camera.

Sitting with friends with whom I have discovered myself and the world.

যখন অন্য দেশের অবস্থা দেখি, তারা সব কিছু টাকা দিয়ে সমাধান করতে চায়। বাংলদেশে আমাদের টাকা নাই, আর এই জন্য আমরা অন্য উপায় পাচ্ছি কাজ করার জন্য আর আমাদের অধিকার পাওয়ার জন্য।

I don’t yet know how to balance the two. My career has been a story of learning to accept things I was previously frustrated with. I realised, during a contract negotiation, that I had “sold myself”, that I was just doing it for money. So I left. I was back a few months later. Since coming back I’ve learned to sell myself for more money. I’ve also learned what the possibilities are to do things closer to what I believe in, both inside and outside of my professional work. And (fortunately? unfortunately?) I’ve learned how to accept and reproduce the parts I don’t believe in. I’m not sure which way lies in the future.

Leaving Bangladesh now I am happy that I was able to influence people and make some things happen in the same way people have influenced me. I am proudest of the personal relationships I built with colleagues and friends, where, at their best, what we have shared has changed the way both of us have done things. To some extent I have been a positive example.

To some extent I have failed in my work. Well let’s not put it like that, because on my CV I’m putting them as successes. There are things I worked on that I am disappointed by. We didn’t support people as much as we should have or as much as we promised we would, or as much as the people needed. I’ve done a lot of talking and written a lot of documents and been in a lot of meetings, and it’s not always easy to see how, outside of the artificial world of projects and deadlines and indicators, it has led to anything useful. …

In theory, it’s been fascinating living in Dhaka and Bangladesh at this time. We will be able to say afterwards that we lived through a process of rapid social change and didn’t notice a damn thing. In Bangladesh you can never be sure whether your plan for tomorrow will come through, so you lose sight of the bigger picture. Bangladesh is a young country, born in so much pain in 1971. The original “bread basket”, Bangladesh has since then doubled in population. But even though its GDP per-capita is less than India or Pakistan, in many social indicators it’s doing better than its neighbours. Bangladeshis have better life expectancy than Indians or Pakistanis. Lower infant mortality. Fewer child deaths. Fewer maternal deaths. Higher immunisation of children. Higher female literacy. Even though Bangladesh is a desperately unfair society, in many ways we are doing better, with fewer resources, than our neighbours. People from India and Pakistan are often quite rude about Bangladesh, but unfortunately for them, these statistics speak louder than their words ever can.

A water-soaked field in Bangladesh, with trees in the background and shrubs in fore-ground.

I should also add that Bangladesh, outside of Dhaka, is beautiful.

আমি এই বাংলা সাহস করে লিখছি। আসলে আমার বাংলা লেখার অভ্যাস নাই। মনে হয়েছে কি একজন শিক্ষকের কাছ এই লেখার চেক করে নিব। তারপরে মনে হল কি, ভুল থাকলে ভুল থাকুক। ভুল তো আমারই। আমি যদি ভাল করে শিখতে পারি নি, দোষ তোমাদের। আমাকে শিখাও নি কেন?

I am leaving Bangladesh feeling that there’s so much I’ve learned, but also that there’s so much left to learn. My Bangla is fluent but there are so many ways it could be better, and there are still plenty of conversations I can’t follow, even of people close to me. There are so many things about life and culture and the country that are entirely unknown to me. Each of us takes our own way to explore a country, whether it is our own or not. In making Bangladesh my own it is also clear how many parts of it I don’t know and maybe never will. In making Bangladesh my own, my understanding of the world and how to relate to people has changed.

প্রিয় বন্ধুরা, তোমাদের সাথে আমি বড় হয়েছি। কোন ভুল থাকলে আমাকে ক্ষমা করে দাও। আমি ফিরে আসব।

I will come back. There are people here that will be part of my life forever, and we will explore the future together. There is plenty of work here to be done, some that I can get paid for, some that I believe in, some that’s both. On leaving, the most interesting questions are ahead. What has my time in Bangladesh turned me into, and what will I do with that? My connections with this place, its people, the Bangladeshi diaspora and Bangladesh-lovers across the world – what will these turn into? The restless uncertainty and striving of life in Bangladesh, কালকে কি হবে, is one that I take forward. যা হবে, তাই হবে। আমরা একসাথে আছি।

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A summary of what we know about disability and poverty reduction in Bangladesh

I’m excited to be able to share with you recommendations on including persons with disabilities in poverty reduction based on field experience in Bangladesh. After discussions and a couple of rounds of drafting, we’ve been able to produce a summary of the existing situation and opportunities for future work.

It’s based on practical experience here in Bangladesh, and some of the background information has already gone into the Government of Bangladesh’s planning for the 7th Five Year Plan.

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Disability is part of who I am and why I’m great at my job

Following on from a series of posts on disability in aid-work on WhyDev I wrote a response. In it I affirm positively the place my own disability has had in my work, and then, beyond this, try to explain why we shouldn’t see disability or disabled people as separate. Disability is a normal part of all our lives, and a common – albeit underestimated – experience for all of us working in international development.

See the full post: There are more Aid Workers with Disabilities than you think.

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In the UK, are attitudes towards disabled people getting worse?

Jenny Morris, one of the stalwarts of the disability rights movements in the UK, has written an important post on the difference in attitudes towards disabled people in 1992 and 2015. Both of these are election years, and Morris compares the changes. Unfortunately, a lot of ground that the social understanding of disability gained in the 80s and 90s seems to be being lost:

In 1992, public debate was about whether disabled people were to be pitied as the objects of charity and needed to be ‘looked after’, or whether we should have equal rights to access education, employment, independent living. Today, public debate is about whether we are avoiding our responsibilities to seek employment and need conditions and sanctions to get us ‘off benefits’, or whether we are ‘vulnerable’. Instead of recognising the additional support, and the removal of barriers, which are required in order for us to access the same opportunities as others, we are – in order to avoid being labelled as ‘scroungers’ – once again forced into the role of tragic victims, where the legitimacy of our requirements is to be measured by how ‘vulnerable’, ill and/or impaired we are.

The Conservative party, which passed the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act and introduced the original Disability Living Allowance is now making cuts. Particularly important is Morris’ description of how “vulnerability” of disabled people is contributed to by removing benefits or threatening to remove support. For example, see the Access to Work programme that stops disabled people working.

Changes in the UK serve as a warning for our work on disability inclusion in other countries. When we are working in countries that have fewer resources, we can only dream of securing the kind of support that the UK government provides for disabled people. The Bangladesh government recently increased the disability allowance from a monthly 300Tk (less than £3) to 500Tk (less than £5) – and this is still only for a few hundred thousand people, in a country where we think that there are over 20 million people with disabilities.

When we work in international development, we argue that increasing government support is the sustainable option – that it will lead to permanent gains for disabled people. Unfortunately the last twenty years in the UK have shown two ways this isn’t the case. First, that government supports can be taken away, even by the same party that put them there to start with. Even the threat of these being taken away leads to considerable worry and discomfort. Secondly, that the system of government support creates this debate around disabled people as either “deserving” or “undeserving”: creating a conversation where either the disabled person is a “scrounger” taking benefits they shouldn’t be, or they are a tragic victim that needs these benefits to survive.

The rest of the world has learned so much from the UK in terms of working towards equal rights for people with disabilities. Maybe it’s time that the UK learned it back.

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