“How much aid money goes to disability-inclusive projects?” With global disability prevalence estimated at more than 15%, and with known links between disability and poverty, it’s an obvious question – all the more so in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDG) pledge to leave no one behind. On the surface, it’s a very simple question too.
But when I put this question to a major development agency a few years ago, I was surprised to see how laborious it was to piece the information together, project by project, from across the agency’s £4 billion bilateral aid programme. Although the agency gathered a wealth of transparency metrics, the information on disability just wasn’t there.
This isn’t an isolated challenge: Concluding Observations from the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have also pointed to a lack of data on the inclusion of persons with disabilities in development programming – for example in Germany (in May 2015) and the European Union (in October 2015).
But luckily, in the case of donor governments under the auspices of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC), the challenge could have a neat solution. The OECD’s database on official development assistance (ODA) – the Creditor Reporting System (CRS) – includes ‘markers’ that flag aid flows for particular policy objectives such as gender equality. If the system also included a marker for disability equality, that development agency would have had the tools to respond to my question in a matter of minutes.
Bringing information on disability-inclusive aid flows to the fingertips of policymakers is critical to starting a conversation on whether aid allocations are living up to the global commitment to leave no one behind. The limited available data suggests that such a conversation is urgently needed. For example, in 2015, US academics painstakingly examined documents from some 2,500 World Bank projects. They concluded that just 2% were inclusive of persons with disabilities.
Of course, the past 18 months have already seen some major commitments on disability data – such as on data disaggregation in the SDG indicator framework, and new plans at individual agencies such as the UK Department for International Development (DFID). If more development actors get on board, these commitments could be game-changing, and at first sight, you might ask why another layer of data was needed too.
But existing data commitments focus on outputs and outcomes (for example, numbers of people reached): and while such data is vital, the missing piece of the puzzle is to understand how these outputs and outcomes relate to development finance inputs.
The added value of OECD DAC markers is that they are clearly input-focused. They report spending commitments, which means that they can provide an early warning if donor allocations are at risk of leaving some people behind – potentially years before this starts to show up in output and outcome data. And the more it is possible to marry up input and outcome data on disability (combined with relevant qualitative information), the more development actors will be able to make informed decisions on the relative value for money of different approaches to disability-inclusive programming.
What is more, the OECD DAC CRS also offers the potential to record more granular data on disability. For example, it includes a code to track allocations for institutions and organisations working for women’s rights. Introducing a similar code could, for instance, highlight the work of organisations of persons with disabilities, which our experience at ADD International shows can play a critical role in reversing misconceptions and discrimination.
And because the OECD DAC markers are used by other data systems, successful introduction of a disability marker would have benefits beyond the CRS. In particular, organisations publishing data to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Standard would be able to use the disability marker, and those interested in analysing data on disability-related activities would be able to use tools like d-portal to extract this information from IATI data. But the results from this tool are only as good as the underlying data on which they are based – and until the data includes a systematic marker of disability inclusion, we will only ever get part of the picture.
To be sure, markers are no silver bullet. They involve some subjectivity, and they only work if donors are prepared to use them. That’s why it’s so important for staff right across development agencies to be part of the process, and for work on data to go hand-in-hand with work on policy and awareness raising. This is what’s begun to happen among many agencies that use the gender marker, and – although challenges remain – analysis by Development Initiatives shows that uptake has steadily increased over time, and is now relatively high, around 89% for bilateral donors.
Last summer, the OECD DAC proposed that the CRS could be updated to align more closely with the SDGs. This is a very welcome first step, and it couldn’t have come at a better time, coinciding with a groundswell of interest in disability from a widening community of donors. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has introduced a marker system in its aid spending, and DFID is actively championing the introduction of a marker in the OECD DAC.
Time will tell whether the OECD DAC can capitalise on this recent momentum, or whether some members will block progress. But for persons with disabilities, who for so long were invisible on the global development agenda, there’s very little time to lose. The SDGs’ vision of a world where no one is left behind is too important to fall at the first hurdle through a lack of basic aid data.
Polly Meeks is Deputy Director of Policy and Influencing at ADD International, a disability rights organisation supporting disability activists in Africa and Asia to bring social change. Polly previously worked at the National Audit Office, and on secondment at the House of Commons International Development Committee.
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Image credit: CARITAS Takeo Eye Hospital