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Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock remarks at the Annual General Meeting of the Global Action on Disability

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Thank you, Penny, Kari, Vladimir, for this invitation.

I am particularly pleased to be here today, Vladimir, because it gives me an opportunity to say how much I have admired and learned from the work you have personally done as President of the International Disability Alliance while I have been in this role.

We have tried to get more attention to the needs and rights of everyone with disabilities in humanitarian crises over the last four years, and I have often met men, women and children with disabilities when I have travelled, not least in Africa and the Middle East but elsewhere too, including in Haiti and the DPRK, North Korea.

We have a long way to go, but the progress we have made, Vladimir, owes much to you, and I pay tribute to you.

The Global Action on Disability Network has been tenacious in fighting for the rights of persons with disabilities.

The pandemic has made the last year hard for everyone, but particularly for those with disabilities.

Last week I was lucky to share a platform with Nujeen Mustafa. As a sixteen-year-old she made a 3,500-mile journey from Syria to Germany in her steel wheelchair. Nujeen was born with cerebral palsy and spent much of her life confined to her apartment in Aleppo where she taught herself English watching shows on TV.

She is now a youth refugee and disability rights advocate. She is charismatic, courageous and committed, and she captures the attention and the hearts of everyone lucky enough to listen to her.

Nujeen is testament to the fact that we face an uphill battle. According to the World Health Organization, in July last year, 22 countries reported a drop of more than 25 per cent in the coverage of disability support services since the onset of the pandemic. The pandemic has brought the richest countries to their knees. The impact in some low-income countries has been much worse.

And it’s not over. It will be quite a while before most people in low-income countries receive vaccines to protect them from COVID-19.

Our biggest humanitarian response plan ever – the Global Humanitarian Response Plan to COVID-19 – launched by the Secretary-General last March tried to prioritize the needs of people most at risk, including those with disabilities, and it underlined the need to identify them in order to make it possible to provide meaningful support.

Just over a year ago, with Vladimir’s help, we launched the IASC guidelines on inclusion of persons with disabilities in humanitarian action. That is one of our most important systematic attempts to get the needs of everyone with disabilities more consistently attended to in crises. Vladimir came himself to talk to the heads of all the major humanitarian agencies in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee when we were developing the guidelines to explain what was needed.

To address needs better, we said five things need to happen.

First, we need to develop a better common understanding of people like those with disabilities who are left behind.

Second, we have to make our actions inclusive.

Third, we should join up efforts with development actors to reduce vulnerability.

Fourth, we need to provide more space - and money - to civil society, and finally we must become more accountable to the affected people: that means listening better to what they say they need and then giving it to them.

The Guidelines were a first in that they were developed with and by people with disabilities for persons with disabilities. They are helping us deliver better in our planning, and in the monitoring and evaluation of our actions.

Disability inclusion remains on the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s agenda through the work of the Results Group on Accountability and Inclusion, which works closely with the Reference Group on inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action to ensure its work is accessible and inclusive of all diversities.

Last year, OCHA improved its planning and coordination tools to better analyse and prioritize the diverse needs, risks and vulnerabilities of groups, such as those linked to gender, age and disability. These actions are part of our Humanitarian Programme Cycle. With UNICEF, we held several workshops to familiarize country staff from UN agencies and our partners on the new approach. It seems to be working.

For example, in South Sudan, the International Organization for Migration consulted persons with disabilities in internally displaced and host community settings to design a more disability-inclusive approach, such as taking their needs into account when managing camps for displaced people.

In 2019, I asked the teams running the Central Emergency Response Fund, and the 18 country funds my office runs, to allocate more money to the issues that are consistently underfunded in humanitarian crises – including in particular the needs of people with disabilities.

In November, I allocated money from the Central Emergency Response Fund to six of the most food insecure countries. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the World Food Programme is using some of these funds to distribute cash to around 5,000 individuals with disabilities.

They are specifically selected on the basis of their physical or mental disabilities, which prevent them from participating in economic activities. Cash assistance is considered a flexible and dignified way to provide them with support - allowing them to retain agency on how to spend the resources.

In Lebanon, children who drop out of school are at risk of violence, abuse and exploitation. For children with disabilities, being out of school also often results in isolation – being forced to stay at home with no interaction with their peers, and without prospects to build skills for their future.

It is estimated that only 38 per cent of children with disabilities between the ages of 12 and 14 are enrolled in school. Using CERF funding, UNICEF implemented a project to prevent school dropout of 500 children with disabilities. As part of this, UNICEF organized specific, tailored support services such as speech therapy, special needs devices, psychology sessions, and classes taught by educators trained on inclusive education.

Last July 2020, CERF provided money before flooding hit hundreds of thousands of people along the Brahmaputra river in Bangladesh. This was part of a shift from reactive to anticipatory humanitarian action. As part of this allocation, UN agencies and their partners specifically went door-to-door to reach more than 5,000 persons with disabilities in their homes, providing a range of support, from feed for livestock, to cash assistance, to female hygiene items for women and girls.

So, we are making progress but not yet enough and not fast enough.

A few weeks ago, we set up a Contact Group, made up of disability experts from within and outside the UN, to make sure the Funds OCHA manages are accessible to representative organizations of those with disabilities.

It is important to make clear that governments have the major responsibility in this area.

The 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities calls upon States to do their part for the protection and safety of affected people when they are in situations of risk.

We also rely on governments to address disability rights in their national policies. Persons with disabilities are less likely to be left behind in humanitarian action if they are an integral part of society outside of emergencies.

We must also strengthen further cooperation with the representative organizations of those with disabilities.

So, nothing about us without us must be a description of what actually happens not an aspirational slogan.

Thank you for your attention.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.