Seven-year-old Samina and her friends before the lockdown in Pakistan

Seven-year-old Samina and her friends before the lockdown in Pakistan

Leaving no one behind in humanitarian action
Persons with disabilities are particularly at risk in humanitarian crises. The UN and partners are working to make humanitarian action more inclusive
1 Dec 2021

Seven-year-old Samina is not able to walk or use her hands for tasks such as bathing, combing her hair, or holding objects. A few months before the pandemic, she had begun participating in organised activities and rehabilitation exercises, and this was making a real difference in her life. However, due to COVID-19 Pakistan went on lockdown, and so did children’s activities.

Like Samina, about one billion people (15 percent of the world’s population, out of which 80 percent live in developing countries) have a disability. Life in humanitarian settings can be particularly challenging for them, leading to increased mortality, lack of access to relief, health and education services, greater risk of gender-based violence, discrimination, and exclusion.

Humanitarian needs soared in 2020, propelled by conflict, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, which combined to transform the humanitarian operating landscape, compounding risks and exacerbating inequalities and vulnerability. The 2022 Global Humanitarian Overview, the world’s most comprehensive and authoritative analysis of the current state and future trends, requires $41 billion for the UN and partner organizations to assist 183 million of the most vulnerable people in 63 countries who face hunger, conflict, displacement, the impacts of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

From a medical to a human rights approach

A major turning point for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in humanitarian action dates from May 2016, when the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul called us to move away from a “one size fits all” approach to humanitarian action, and to ensure that we are better at serving everybody’s needs. Existing documents show that, before, disability inclusion in humanitarian response was tackled largely from an outdated medical approach that does not recognise the rights of persons with disabilities.

It was also five years ago that 70 representatives from the UN, donor countries and civil society, including organisations of persons with disabilities, together drafted the first-ever Charter on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action. The document was launched in the presence of the UN Secretary-General at the WHS and has helped to keep up the momentum.

In late 2019, one of the most important commitments made at the summit was fulfilled with the launch of inter-agency Guidelines on the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action, the first global guidance developed jointly by humanitarians and organisations of persons with disabilities. Its implementation is now supported by a voluntary Reference Group on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action (DRG), established in 2020.

Policy discussions, strategies and initiatives are taking place within and among humanitarian entities with the aim of making humanitarian action more inclusive. For example, in July 2018 at the Global Disability Summit in London, 35 governments and multilateral organisations made commitments relating to inclusive humanitarian action. Several more such commitments emerged from the 2019 Global Refugee Forum. The 2019 United Nations Disability Strategy (UNDIS) is another important roadmap, as was the first report in 2020 on the challenges faced by more than 6.8 million persons with disabilities in displacement.

In OCHA, we have worked with global and country-based partners over the past three years to enhance in-country coordination and decision-making mechanisms. We improved the planning and monitoring through disability-specific and disaggregated data and analysis. This work has resulted in increased engagement, a better understanding of the risk, barriers, and coping strategies of persons with disabilities in humanitarian crises, and more inclusive strategic response plans. Efforts are also being made, together with a group of external disability experts, to shape the way disability inclusion is addressed in OCHA-managed humanitarian funds.

More is required

However, much more remains to be done, as evidenced by a study on inclusion and exclusion published last year by the British thinktank ODI, which argues that siloed approaches to vulnerability have encouraged a fragmentation of inclusion. Failing to reach marginalised and excluded individuals goes against the principle of impartiality, which is at the heart of the humanitarian mission.

Persons with disabilities are less likely to be left behind in humanitarian action when they are included and participate in communities before an emergency strikes. We cannot, of course, do this alone. Article 11 of the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities calls upon States to do their part for the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk. The pandemic has presented an opportunity to truly commit to an inclusive approach. The forthcoming Global Disability Summit in February 2022 in Norway will be another chance to renew our commitments to make humanitarian action truly inclusive of persons with disabilities.

* Isabelle de Muyser was instrumental in including disability issues on the World Humanitarian Summit agenda and has since then been championing disability in OCHA.
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