The equality watchdog is examining claims that the government has discriminated against UK disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) by excluding them from the delivery of a new £29 million international development programme.
The Department for International Development (DFID) has awarded the contract to a consortium of charities and other organisations led by the UK-based disability charity Sightsavers, in a process that DPOs in England and Wales believe has breached the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
The consortium includes the International Disability Alliance (IDA), an international DPO based in the US and Switzerland, and several UK-based international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), but no UK DPOs.
The contract with Sightsavers is worth £29 million over the six years of the programme, while there will be a separate contract for a research programme valued at £7 million which is currently out for tender.
The award of the contract is just the latest in a series of government snubs for the UK’s disabled people’s movement, and its latest apparent breach of the convention.
DPOs have been trying since last year to persuade DFID to change its approach to awarding the contract for the Disability Inclusive Development (DID) programme, which aims to support achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and improve access to areas such as education, jobs, healthcare and address discrimination for disabled people in the global south.
But the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA) – which represents a number of English DPOs – is arguing that DPOs in the UK did not have the resources to bid successfully to be part of the programme and were not supported by DFID to do so.
ROFA believes the criteria for awarding the contract should have included the need to include UK DPOs in the winning consortium.
Following ROFA’s complaints, it believes DFID’s only concession so far has been to promise that DPOs will be part of the programme’s independent advisory group.
DFID is led by international development secretary Penny Mordaunt, a former minister for disabled people.
ROFA has been forced to complain to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which has already criticised DFID for its approach to disability in development in a report published in May.
Mark Harrison, from ROFA, said: “They have a disability inclusion project with no UK DPOs involved in the delivery. It’s obscene.”
He said they had had support for their concerns from DPOs in the global south.
He said: “DPOs in the south want to work with UK DPOs. They don’t want to work with disability charities because the relationship is unequal and exploitative.”
In an email to DFID earlier this year, ROFA accused the department of being “institutionally disablist”, adding: “The proposals relegate disabled people and DPOs to an ‘advisory role’ to charities FOR disabled people, INGOs [international non-governmental organisations]and the private sector who will receive the funding to deliver the programme.
“This would be like giving all the funding for a women’s equality programme to an organisation run and delivered by men and asking women to sit on the advisory group.”
Disability Wales (DW) has added its voice to the concerns.
Miranda Evans, DW’s policy and programmes manager, said: “I’m completely amazed that Disability Wales and other DPOs across the UK were not involved in the planning and design of such a significant programme aimed at tackling disabled people’s inequality internationally.
“So much for ‘nothing about us, without us’…
“It is extremely concerning that our organisations were not made aware of this important initiative and of the potential opportunity to bid for the contract ourselves in partnership with sister DPOs – organisations run and controlled by disabled people across the UK.”
An EHRC spokeswoman said: “We have received a complaint from Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance and are considering it to see what, if any, action is needed.”
She declined to comment further.
DFID’s failure to act comes just weeks after Mordaunt encouraged other countries at a global disability conference in London (pictured) to sign a new Charter for Change, which said countries should “strive for real change” by implementing the UN disability convention.
But the convention repeatedly stresses the importance of countries working with their own DPOs on disability rights issues.
Mordaunt also told international delegates to the disability conference: “When disabled people are included, great things happen.”
DFID’s failure to include UK DPOs also comes after a coalition of DPOs criticised the minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, for refusing to meet them to discuss the UK’s progress in implementing the convention.
ROFA also says that DFID has failed to act since the Commons international development committee called on DFID in April 2014 to “step up its support for disabled people’s organisations” and “ensure disabled people participate fully in the design and delivery of DFID’s own programmes”.
ROFA has written to the committee to raise its concerns, warning that the programme was “flawed in design, excludes disabled people-led organisation in the UK from participating and does not represent good value for money”.
A DFID spokeswoman said: “DFID’s priority is to ensure that we deliver the best results for people with disabilities and the best value for money for DFID’s spend – and we believe that to achieve this goal we must partner with organisations that have demonstrated the greatest expertise, experience, and effectiveness in programme delivery for people with disabilities.
“Therefore, we had an open invitation to tender in line with UK and EU procurement practices, open to all organizations inclusive of both UK and international DPOs.
“We assessed tenders against the criteria of meaningful engagement with people with disabilities.
“People with disabilities will be at the heart of the DID programme.”
She added: “IDA is a global organisation that brings together over 1,100 organisations of persons with disabilities.
“They are the most authoritative representation of persons with disabilities and will ensure people with disabilities are central to the planning and delivery of the programme.
“We believe that the winning consortium will successfully implement the DID programme, and have a meaningful and long-lasting positive impact on the lives people with disabilities in developing countries.”
She said DFID did not accept that it had breached the UN convention and said this suggestion was “not a fair or accurate reflection of the tender process”.
She said the programme had not yet been designed but that DFID was “working with Sightsavers closely to ensure that meaningful participation of people with disabilities and their representative organisations is central to the design, delivery and governance of the programme”.
She said DFID would ensure that the independent advisory group would include “representation from people with disabilities and DPOs”, while DFID would also engage with DPOs in the countries where the programme was expected to operate.
She said that DPOs from countries selected for funding would “play a critical role in the design and delivery of the programme, with IDA managing a stream of work running throughout the programme specifically focused on DPO engagement”.
And the DFID spokeswoman insisted that the department had “stepped up its support” for disabled people and DPOs since the international development committee’s report in 2014.
In addition to DID, she said, its Disability Catalyst Programme provided small grants and technical advice to support disabled people and DPOs to “advocate for changes in policies, legislation and programmes”, while a new small charities challenge fund aimed to address some of the issues small organisations faced in accessing funding.
She said: “We hope DPOs will consider applying where they believe they can deliver development impact.”
Picture of Mordaunt: DFID
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