Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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Disability and the Development Aid Game : Dutch and Flemish Regrouping

By M. Miles (m99miles@hotmail.com)

The Dutch Coalition on Disability & Development (DCDD) was launched in June 2000, with some inspiration from the example of its Flemish counterpart PHOS (Platform Disability & Development Cooperation, email: phos@village.uunet.be) which started in Belgium in 1994. PHOS recently invited overseas disabled partners for a seminar on Poverty and Disability, while DCDD has a new website under development at http://www.dcdd.nl/and is planning an international conference for September 2001. What is the rationale behind these efforts? Is there really a need for new organisations or coalitions in this field?

Relations between European development agencies, disability service providers, disabled people's organisations, and their counterparts in developing countries, have gone through a good deal of mutual wariness and uneasy dance steps during the past 20 years. European disabled people's organisations were aware that big money went overseas during the Disability Decade 1983-1992, with little or no chance for them to contribute their insights or join the fun. Organisations with many years' experience of running centre-based disability services in developing countries were sceptical that euro-trends towards educational integration, community based services and adult independent living could readily or usefully be imported from countries with significantly different social and educational philosophies.

During the period when disability was sexy, development agencies were willing to see proposals but doubted that countries with struggling economies, heavy unemployment of able-bodied people and weak enrolment in primary education would be seriously motivated either to develop and sustain new services for disabled people or to pack more of them into existing flawed and overloaded provisions for education, employment, health and welfare. The end result was that some heads were patted benevolently across the world and legal ordinances were enacted, providing senior government figures with photo-ops and a warm feeling without the need for follow-through in budgeting and compliance monitoring. The development momentum peaked in the early 1990s, by which time more disabled people's organisations in developing and transitional countries had had time to get their act together and to feel their own anger at the way the Decade came and went with little apparent change to their situation.

From the European viewpoint, attempts to comprehend the development issues have run up against the notable fragmentation of the field. "Disability & Development" has been carved up between organisations working on disparate geographical or language targets (e.g. Africa, or Asia, or Commonwealth, or francophone, etc), or age bases (e.g. Save the Children, Kindernothilfe, Radda Barnen, and more recently aid to elderly disabled people), or disability-specific targets (e.g. Christoffel BlindenMission, Lebenshilfe, Handicap International, Cheshire), or war- and crisis- orientation (e.g. Red Cross, ICRC) often with a strong health link, and some general development agencies or personnel providers (e.g. Oxfam, Voluntary Service Overseas, and missionary societies), as well as innumerable church-linked 'partnership projects', secular campaign groups, and smaller scale links.

Each of these types has had its own approaches and predilections. Some earlier attempts at coordination were made as single-category service organisations realised the improbability of being able to embrace a comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation approach. These mostly came unstuck as large, well-entrenched organisations found it problematic to match their tissues or get into split-level beds together across divides of European languages, tribal cultures and philosophies. Some loose-knit regional consortia have survived, such as the International Disability and Development Consortium http://www.iddc.org.uk , with the rather informal objectives that are perhaps inevitable in disparate multinational bodies whose members are working in very different ways and targeting many different countries.

The PHOS Platform and the new Dutch Coalition both attempt to provide sufficient structure for meetings of diverse partners and viewpoints, with disabled people much more prominently represented but without getting into heavy personal and organisational politics. In both Belgium and the Netherlands there is a perception that the complex and multi-faceted issues of disability in third world development have little impact on their governments' aid agenda. Bringing in more voices will not make the issues any less complex, but there seems to be little prospect of progress without facing the complexities and helping more people to broaden their perspectives.

PHOS Seminar Debates
In November 2000, PHOS organisers Anja de Greve, Caroo Torfs and co-workers brought together partners with disabilities from the Philippines, India, Angola, South Africa and Honduras, with members of various Belgian organisations, for three days of consultation and debate at Deinze and Brussels, with first translation between Flemish and English, and secondary translations to Spanish, Portuguese and Sign. These meetings enlarged on earlier PHOS initiatives to draw public attention to the straitened circumstances in which the majority of disabled people live in most of the countries with weaker economies.

From Angola's Agostinho Neto University, Antonio Varandas brought a sociological perspective differentiating Absolute, Relative and Subjective Poverty, and recounting his experiences of disability as an individual and as a member of LARDEF (League for the Reintegration of People with Disabilities). The struggle for education was echoed from the Philippines by Carmen Reyes-Zubiaga, who overcame the usual combination of pointless obstacles, prejudices and design bar riers to become a leader and facilitator of community based rehabilitation and positive thinking in her region.

Debate among the overseas participants was by no means restricted to currently "western-approved" developments. Peter Raj from AID India, in a presentation concerned with successful micro-economic facilitation for disabled people in rural villages, noted nonetheless that it might be necessary to provide a home "in which the disabled who are hated by the parents/guardians, the mentally retarded, the aged disabled and the deserted disabled are to be accommodated." A detailed and well-researched paper by Mzolisi Ka Toni, secretary general of Disabled People South Africa noted, in passing, one of the paradoxes of 'modern welfare support' in a context of widespread economic poverty. Near Pretoria, young disabled women "who have an almost guaranteed lifelong access to a monthly disability grant", were in consequence highly marketable properties for their families "who are able to obtain a substantial 'lobola' (dowry) for their disabled daughters". During discussions, participants were challenged to recognise the difference between disability being very often 'associated with poverty', and disability being actually 'caused by poverty'. In fact, disabled people belong to all economic strata of society, though it is reasonable to ssume that the adverse consequences of disability fall most heavily on the economically weakest sections.

DCDD conference plan
September 2001 is targeted for DCDD's gathering of 100-150 participants from six continents representing disabled people's organisations, development agencies, service providers, and government policy-makers, to pursue further the debate on disability and poverty, and the facilitation of empowerment of disabled people in the vastly disparate urban and rural situations of developing countries. One conference ambition is to exploit internet possibilities for some measure of real-time distance-participation, bridging the gap between 'attenders-in-person' and colleagues 'back home' who will have taken part in preparatory discussions both on the ground and by e-list. DCDD Chairman Bas Treffers is fully aware of the need to "stimulate the development of strong organisations in developing countries", and to confront the real obstacles of understanding between people from very different historical-cultural situations.

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