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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