Blind woman in colorful clothes walking with a stick and smiling

Published on: Dec 3, 2020

Despite skewed power relations, the global south has played an important role in the history of international disability policy. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which the Netherlands ratified as one of the last countries in the world, also challenges us to finally take action and make development cooperation more inclusive, write Lieke Scheewe (Dutch Coalition on Disability and Development) and Paul van Trigt (Leiden University) in their article for Vice Versa Online.

By Lieke Scheewe and Paul van Trigt

“Rights for others”: this is how Barbara Oomen, sociologist of law, describes Dutch human rights policy. [1] The Dutch like to point out human rights violations across the border but tend to look less critically at themselves. Where is the enthusiasm for the rights of others when it comes to the UNCRPD? The most recent human rights treaty, ratified by the Netherlands in 2016, contains a special article on international cooperation.[2] Yet, it has not been given a clear place in human rights policy and less than 2% of the development budget is appropriated to inclusive projects.[3]

The little attention disability get in foreign policy cannot be due to the magnitude and impact of disabilities. Worldwide, there are one billion people with disabilities[4]: ​​one in seven people has to deal with barriers that hinder their participation in society. Think of barriers such as inaccessible infrastructure or communication without braille and sign language. In many cases, this exclusion leads to poverty: not only for people with disabilities themselves, but for entire households.[5] Is it the fear of a raised finger that prevents the Netherlands from applying the latest UN treaty? History teaches us that this fear is unfounded.

Call from the South – 1981

At the initiative of Libya, the United Nations proclaimed 1981 the “International Year of the Disabled”. It was no coincidence that the idea of ​​giving attention to people with disabilities, after international years for women and children, came from the global south. The situation of people with disabilities in low-income countries received increasing attention from the 1970s onwards. A new impetus was given to this with an international year.

That’s how it was understood in the Netherlands as well. “Solidarity with the Third World” is quickly named here as one of the useful spear points of the year. When Princess Juliana was allowed to address the UN at the end of 1981, she pointed out the responsibility of “developed countries” towards “developing countries”.[6]

New perspective on disability?

The international year was an important catalyst for the (inter) national self-organization of people with disabilities. They demanded their place in an increasingly coordinated and self-confident manner. From 1981 therefore, a cautious change in thinking about disability arose. Away from the medical perspective in which a disability was seen solely as an individual problem, with only a medical solution, towards the perspective of human rights.

However, those who follow the policy and practice of the UN in the 1980s and 1990s notices that disability was still mainly approached on the basis of individual support needs without paying attention to structural system change. A policy direction that should mainly be attributed to the global north. [7]

The Call Gets Stronger – 2006

The human rights perspective did break through in the new millennium. Because the inclusion of people with disabilities had not been included in the Millennium Development Goals, Mexico started lobbying for a special UN treaty. [8] And with success: negotiations started in 2002. Activists feared that the treaty would become a new form of social development policy and not a real human rights treaty. [9]

Broadly smiling man with spinning wheel and crutches
copyright picture: Habtamu Abayneh, Ethiopia – Light for the World

Lastly, in 2006, the negotiations resulted in, as the UN Secretary-General summarized, “a human rights instrument with an explicit social development dimension“.[10] Disability was thus no longer a marginalized subject within the social development policy of the UN. Meanwhile, in 2002 a disability advisor had also been appointed to the World Bank, with the task of ensuring inclusion in mainstream development programs. And in the Netherlands, the Dutch Coalition on Disability and Development (DCDD) was founded in 2000, with a lot of interest from the entire sector.

In the history of international policy on disability, the global south has played an important role in spite of skewed power relations in world politics. For this article, we spoke with Monsur Ahmed Choudhuri, a blind activist from Bangladesh, initially active only at the local level. As with many activists, his international involvement began in 1981 when he attended the founding conference of Disabled People International, the first international organization to be run by people with various disabilities.

Monsur was also the first person with a disability to be included in the diplomatic delegation of Ban-gladesh and actively participated in the negotiations for the UNCRPD. And he was not alone: ​​the involvement of advocates from all over the world made the negotiations on this convention unique in the history of international law.

What does the Netherlands hear?

A good reason to work on this in Dutch development policy. Yet, the Netherlands did not adjust its development policy on the basis of the treaty: why not? In response to an initiative note that asked for disability mainstreaming, the then minister Van Ardenne stated in the parliamentary debate of October 2006[11]: “the Dutch government does not want to focus so much on small themes of small groups of vulnerable people.” The target group policy had been abolished to make way for sectoral policy and “influencing change processes in developing countries”. The question of how the Netherlands would ensure that barriers to equal participation of people with disabilities would be removed within its sector’s programs remained unanswered.

In doing so, the Netherlands ignored not only the previously outlined history, but also developments at the local level. Monsur told us how happy activists in Bangladesh were when the Bangladeshi government ratified the UNCRPD. With this instrument in hand, they were able to enforce the transformation of an outdated welfare law into the Disability Rights and Protection Act at home. Organizations such as the Center for Disability and Development (1996) in Bangladesh and the Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (2005) were also founded by advocates in the south. They urged Western and local NGOs to consider accessibility for people with disabilities in development programs in all areas: from emergency relief, to education, water and sanitation, and sexual and reproductive health.

But the image of people with a disability as a small and separate target group turned out to be persistent. Many NGOs continued to work from an individual medical perspective. When health programs were phased out from 2011, attention to disability disappeared almost entirely from the development agenda in the Netherlands, both at the ministry and among NGOs. Priorities shifted, health care program workers with expertise on disability were phased out and many mainstream NGOs withdrew from the DCDD network.

Inclusion Movement – 2015

The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 sparked a broader inclusion movement in the development sector. Internationally, the disability movement, together with other forgotten groups, ensured an anchoring of the principle of leave no one behind. In addition, people with a disability were explicitly mentioned in 5 of the 17 development goals. [12] A year later, the Netherlands was one of the last countries to ratify the UNCRPD. With that, the provisions of the convention, such as “ensuring that development programs are accessible to people with disabilities and that no one is excluded” [13] became a legal obligation.

Was the call for inclusive development cooperation heard now? In 2015, the Voice fund was created. It is aimed at small-scale empowerment projects of marginalized groups, including people with disabilities. Since 2020, slowly but surely steps are being taken towards more inclusion in emergency aid, education and strengthening civil society. However, the Ministry remains reluctant to impose disability inclusion as an obligation, for example as a criterion in program proposals or reports.

Time for large-scale action

Inclusion should not be optional. But it would also be a shame to see the UNCRPD only as the greatest obligation or inclusion checkbox. Anyone who delves into the Convention will see the diversity of those involved in the text. Thanks to the involvement of activists from the north and south, the treaty has a clear eye for the complex interplay of disability with gender, age, ethnicity and class. As such, it fits perfectly with the inclusion agenda of the SDGs.

The treaty challenges us to look at the world in a different way and to do justice to people’s fundamental diversity. Then you see the treaty for what it is: the result of a worldwide movement that has been fighting for respect, equal opportunities and system change for a long time. A movement that calls on everyone in the development sector: move! As Nidhi Goyal, “disabled feminist” from India, puts it, “We’ve waited long enough. It is now time for action, joint action.”

This article was written for the 20th anniversary of the Dutch Coalition on Disability and Development (DCDD). Co-authors: Paul van Trigt is a historian at Leiden University. Within the research project “Rethinking Disability” he conducts postdoctoral research into the impact of 1981 and the emergence of the UNCRPD. Lieke Scheewe is coordinator and policy advisor of DCDD, the platform in which Dutch organizations and experts jointly learn and lobby for the inclusion of people with disabilities in development cooperation.

Copyright featured image: Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation, Tanzania

[1] Oomen, Barbara (2014) Rights for others : the slow home-coming of human rights in the Netherlands, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Rijksoverheid (2016) VN-Verdrag inzake de Rechten van Personen met een Handicap, artikel 32.

[3] The Broker (2019) An Untapped Potential: How disability inclusive is the Dutch development sector? Steps taken since the ratification of UN CRPD.

[4] WHO (2011) World Report on Disability.

[5] Scheewe, Lieke (2017) Economische voor(oor)delen van inclusie, Vice Versa.

[6] Trigt, Paul van (2019) “Inequality in Global Disability Policies since the 1970s”, in Histories of Global Inequality. New Perspectives, ed. Christian O. Christiansen and Steven L.B. Jensen, (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan), 187-206.

[7] Moyn, Samuel (2018) Not Enough. Human Rights in an Unequal World, Cambridge, MA/

London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[8] Heyer, Katharina (2015) Rights Enabled. The Disability Revolution, From the US, to Germany and Japan, to the United Nations, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

[9] Degener, Theresia and Andrew Begg (2017) “From Invisible Citizens to Agents of Change: A Short History of the Struggle for the Recognition of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the United Nations.” In The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: A Commentary, edited by Valentina Della Fina, Rachele Cera, Giuseppe Palmisano, 1-39. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

[10] Tromel, Stefan (2009) “A Personal Perspective on the Drafting History of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”, European Year Book of Disability Law 1, 115-138: 117.

[11] Kamerstuk 30540, nr.4, Verslag van notaoverleg: Recht op een fatsoenlijk bestaan. Gehandicapten en ontwikkelingssamenwerking, 25 oktober 2006.

[12] UN (2018) Sustainable Development Goals and Disability.

[13] Rijksoverheid (2016) VN-Verdrag inzake de Rechten van Personen met een Handicap.