Including people with disabilities after disasters – putting commitments into action

Kirsty Smith.
Author:Kirsty Smith
Posted on: Thursday, 18th May, 2017

Kirsty Smith, Chief Executive of CBM UK, on meeting people with disabilities affected by Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, and the need to include them in disaster response.

René, who is blind, with a CBM aid worker visiting the remains of his house, destroyed in the hurricane.

In the hills of southern Haiti, the destruction caused by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 is still plain to see.  Concrete pillars lie on the ground, ripped from their foundations by the devastating category 4 hurricane.  More than 1000 people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands are still living in temporary accommodation or on family members' floors.  And as always when disasters strike, people with disabilities were among those most affected, and the last to receive help.

At the back of the queue

Last month, I was in Haiti to see CBM’s emergency response programmes and meet disabled people’s organisations.  I heard harrowing tales of the hurricane and its aftermath.  Of a desperate scramble to access emergency food distribution, leaving people with disabilities empty-handed – they couldn’t even get close.  Of an on-going day-to-day struggle to get basic support, rebuild homes and re-plant crops.

William had no support from the Government or NGOs until CBM arrived in his village in Haiti  William, a visually impaired farmer lost his home, his livestock and crops in the storm. Living in a rural community an hour from the city of  Les Cayes, he’d had no support from the Government or NGOs until CBM arrived in his village. 

When it comes to humanitarian crises women and children with disabilities aren’t just at the back of the queue for support – they’re often not in the queue at all. Although 1 in 7 people worldwide live with some form of disability, their needs are often forgotten in humanitarian response.  While specialist organisations like CBM focus specifically on ensuring that people with disabilities are not overlooked, our efforts alone will never be enough: ultimately all organisations delivering humanitarian aid need to provide a more inclusive response, which ensures not only that the needs of people with disabilities but all vulnerable groups are taken into account, so that  no-one is left behind.

That’s why CBM warmly welcomed the Charter on the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action, launched by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last May at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. The Charter has been endorsed by over 140 stakeholders  including several States, the European Commission, UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and many NGOs and organisations of persons with disabilities.

A positive first step

The introduction of the Charter was a hugely positive step. Not only because it recognises that more needs to be done to ensure that people with disabilities are included in humanitarian responses – but also because, as Ban Ki-moon put it, the charter “places people with disabilities at the heart of humanitarian decision-making.” CBM’s experience has shown that much more can be achieved when people with disabilities themselves are included in planning and delivering humanitarian aid, and in rebuilding communities.  I’ve seen for myself how supporting disabled people’s organisations to much more at the forefront in relief and reconstruction has helped ensure that the needs of people with disabilities – and also elderly people and other vulnerable groups – are met. 

Kirsty meets with representatives of Haitian Disabled People’s Organisations – involving people with disabilities in planning and delivering humanitarian response is crucialIn Nepal, the National Federation for Disabled People network introduced SMS messaging to the range of ways that the Government was sending out information and seeking feedback from communities affected by the 2015 earthquake. In Haiti, disabled people's organisations have been providing guidance to the Regional Government in the south of the country, which was severely affected by Hurricane Matthew, on how to ensure that people with disability from all impairment groups, including deaf and blind and those with learning disabilities, are included in rehabilitation planning.

But while the Charter, which has now been endorsed by over 150 stakeholders, was a really positive move, by itself it will not bring about any change for people like William in Haiti. We now need to turn the commitments made into concrete action.

From commitment to concrete action

For CBM, that means using our experience of delivering disability-inclusive emergency response to convince, train and support other humanitarian agencies to ensure that their work is more inclusive, whether through face-to-face training or through innovative technology, such as our mobile app for humanitarian workers, the Humanitarian Hands-on Tool. HHOT provides a clear and straightforward series of tips, advice and guidelines for field workers at the coalface on how to make their work more inclusive.  It also means doing our bit to promote the Charter and make sure that the commitments that were made last year are not forgotten – for example through our event this week jointly organised with Handicap International and in partnership with the UK Department for International Development (DFID), which takes stock of progress against the Charter commitments and encourages new signatories.  We are delighted that Beverley Warmington, Director of DFID’s Conflict Humanitarian and Security Department agreed to chair the session, reflecting the recent Government commitment to make the UK the “global leader” on disability inclusion.

We hope this event marks another positive step forward in ensuring that humanitarian response doesn’t exclude the most vulnerable and that people with disabilities are actively involved in responding to emergencies and rebuilding communities.  For too long, people with disabilities have been the forgotten people in humanitarian response, so it’s time to put the welcome commitments made by Charter signatories into action.

Kirsty Smith is speaking at an event to mark the first anniversary of the Charter on the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, hosted by Handicap International UK and CBM UK in partnership with DFID, on Thursday 18th May at Westminster University, London.

Images (top to bottom)
René, who is blind, with a CBM aid worker visiting the remains of his house, destroyed in the hurricane. © CBM / Abraham
William lost his home, crops and livestock and received no support from government or NGOs until CBM workers arrived in his village and provided seed to replant crops for food and to sell. 
Kirsty meets with representatives of Haitian Disabled People’s Organisations – involving people with disabilities in planning and delivering humanitarian response is crucial.

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