DFID disability leadership must not be diluted in merger

Sophie Morgan


Disability rights activist Sophie Morgan talks about the future of DFID and UK Aid projects on the two year anniversary of the Global Disability Summit.

Sophie Morgan talking to a school girl who's wearing prosthetic legs

Two years ago today, I presented the UK’s first Global Disability Summit.

The event in London brought together more than 1,000 delegates from governments, donors, private sector organisations, charities, and organisations of persons with disabilities.

The summit saw the optimistic hashtag #nowisthetime and a Charter for Change. Over 300 governments and organisations signed this. The event offered a platform for progress, with the UK government pivotal in ongoing disability development.

What the Global Disability Summit 2018 agreed

Alongside me on stage was then Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt. She called on all those engaged in development to ‘step-up’ efforts to focus on improving the lives of people with disabilities. In December 2018, Department for International Aid (DFID) published its first-ever Disability Inclusion Strategy

A total of 968 individual commitments were made around four central themes: 

  • Ensuring dignity and respect for all, inclusive education, 
  • Routes to economic empowerment,
  • Harnessing technology,
  • Innovation. 

Work is reported to be underway on 74% of these, and 10% reported as already completed. These outcomes contribute to an improved and increased visibility of disability inclusion within international development.

The merging of DFID and FCO

The Global Disability Summit was a landmark event and displayed real leadership from the UK. But the government’s recent announcement on the merger of the DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has cast a shadow over this progress. There’s a mixture of disappointment and bafflement within the international development community. 

It was undoubtedly curious timing, in the midst of an economic downturn and a staggering death toll from coronavirus. Sir Keir Starmer even spoke of “tactics of pure distraction” in the wake of the announcement.

I hope that it was not a diversionary tactic. Although the decision also contradicted the advice of the cross-party International Development Committee.

Impact of UK Aid

There are disabled people across the world benefitting from the UK’s strategic aid. This must not get jeopardised by political posturing. Especially since the real effects of the global pandemic are not yet known. We also must remember that DFID has led the way in ensuring the inclusion of disabled people in international development.

I have seen for myself in Kenya, where Leonard Cheshire’s DFID-funded Girl’s Education Challenge offers hope to thousands of disabled kids. I met people like Vanessa Achieng from Kisumu town, who is now starting secondary school. I also met Vilda Ayieno, who is studying at Masinde Muliro University, to become a social worker.

I would find it deeply upsetting if such projects were compromised. I feared the worst after Boris Johnson dismissed overseas aid as “a giant cashpoint in the sky, that arrives without any reference to UK interests”. But, I am encouraged to hear that work on girls’ education is going to be protected.

Where does UK policy stand concerning people with disabilities?

As a disabled person, I’m not alone in being at odds with existing government policy. You only have to look at the United Nations' damning verdict on how policies of austerity have affected the lives of people with disabilities in the UK.

It naturally makes you doubt that sentiments expressed at the 2018 summit in London still fit in 2020. Or whether we’ll continue to exhibit strong leadership that outlines synergies with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the broader 2030 Agenda.

But the merger is now a political reality. We are looking for assurances that DFID’s expertise, not to mention their ongoing projects, will not just disappear in the larger organisation.

Let's hope trade does not eclipse aid

We should be proud of the fact that under David Cameron, the UK became the only G7 nation to follow through on the commitment to ringfence 0.7% of GDP for international aid. Cameron was also one of three prime ministers to criticise the merger.

There are many questions to be answered. I hope the International Development Act of 2002 and its golden thread of poverty reduction still means something. I hope they will always be perceived as being in the national interest and trade does not completely eclipse aid.