One in every six people on the planet lives with a disability. Eighty percent of people with disabilities live in developing countries, so that means at least 700 million are our neighbours here in the Indo-Pacific region.

People with disabilities are among the poorest and most marginalised across all communities. The World Bank estimates that 20 percent of the world’s poorest people live with disability. As a result, they are often the people who feel the effects of adversity most harshly and are least likely to be included and supported in any setting from health care to education to livelihoods.

Despite this, at the halfway mark, people with disabilities are the group left furthest behind in progress made so far toward Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. The COVID-19 pandemic has been described as ‘a catastrophic global failure to protect the rights of persons with disabilities’. The growing climate crisis and ongoing economic upheaval will further compound this failure and its very real impacts on the lives of people with disabilities in our region and beyond.  

Australia has been a global leader in disability inclusive development for more than a decade. Our leadership has supported people with disabilities to be included in society and development efforts directly. It’s also resulted in many other countries and development actors improving their own approach to disability inclusive development.  

However, Australia’s leadership in this space has been hollowing out over recent years with gaps in implementation from strategy to program level and stagnant funding. 

In 2021-22, just 2.5 per cent of Australia’s official development assistance was attributable as disability inclusive. The central disability allocation within the aid budget has languished at $12.9M since at least 2014-15. It was briefly cut to $9.6m in 2021-22 before being restored to $12.9m in the October 2022 budget. Welcome as that restoration may be, the allocation has lost more than $5M in real-term value since 2014-15.

Colleagues in the disability movement have reflected that, while Australia’s intentions on disability inclusive development are good, there is not enough resourcing to translate these commitments into sustained, on-the-ground impact. 

Isireli from Tailevu South Disability Organisation is a powerful disability advocate within his community. Credit: CBM Australia 2023

The disability movement, with strong leadership from the Pacific, is driving a shift in language from ‘disability inclusion’ toward ‘disability equity’. ‘Disability inclusion’ in development is where development programs are designed to include people living with disabilities. Whereas ‘disability equity’ is the process of ensuring that people with disabilities are able to fully engage, participate and lead on an equal basis with others from the outset. This shift has risen from a fundamental questioning of whether the efforts on inclusion over the last decade and more have led to systematic, meaningful participation and realisation of rights for people with disabilities. And the answer, devastatingly, is that they have not. In this context,the disability movement is clear that the focus needs to be on the goal – disability equity – and not one part of the process towards that goal – disability inclusion. 

As the needs of people with disabilities increase, and the move toward equity over tick box inclusion grows, we must go beyond commitments and pockets of good practice to unlock the potential of the world’s largest minority. We must resource ambitious approaches in line with the disability movement’s priorities that will result in significant and lasting change in the lives of people with disabilities.

The Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) will imminently embark on the development of the third strategy to guide disability in Australia’s development program. It is encouraging that this strategy will be called the ‘Disability Equity and Rights Strategy’.

The name for the new strategy signals that the government has listened to the shift taking place in the disability movement. The strategy provides an important opportunity for Australia to boost its ambition and delivery toward disability equity across development efforts.

The Australian Disability and Development Consortium (ADDC) together with the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) is calling for the new Disability Equity and Rights strategy to be:

  •         Ambitious: Set a 2030 target of 10 per cent of ODA being allocated to initiatives with disability equity as a principal objective, according to the OECD Development Assistance Committee Disability policy marker.  
  •         Accountable: Require that all in-country programs over $3m have a disability objective, and that 80 per cent of programs effectively address disability equity  
  •         Resourced: Increase the central disability allocation to $20m per annum with annual increases thereafter in line with overall budget increases. 

CBM Australia supports this call.

 The ADDC is a membership organisation that is free to join for both organisations and individuals. I encourage AIDN members to consider becoming a member. ADDC and ACFID are coordinating groups across the Australian development sector to collaborate and support submissions. I also encourage AIDN members to look out for the consultation when it formally launches in the coming weeks and consider making a]their own submissions.

 In the face of the needs of people with disabilities in developing countries in our region; in light of the escalating climate crisis and the impact it’s already having; and in response to the clear calls of the disability movement, there has never been a more important time for Australia to step up our efforts and help shift the dial on disability equity and rights.


Jane Edge, CEO, CBM Australia
Jane draws on over 25 years’ experience in high impact roles focused on social change and sustainable development. Jane has held the position of Chief Executive of CBM since July 2015 following three years as Chief Operating Officer.  As CEO, Jane exemplifies a passion for making a lasting, positive difference by enabling others to be agents of change. 

CBM Australia is part of a Christian international development organisation devoted to improving the lives of people with disabilities in the poorest places on earth. Poverty and disability go hand in hand, creating a cycle of inequality, isolation and exclusion that leads to the most extreme forms of poverty. Throughout their 115-year history and over 45 years in Australia, they have developed proven community-based programs that help millions of people benefit from real, lasting change.

*Feature image details: Suprihatin (middle) runs a self-help group for people with psychosocial disabilities in Indonesia, they are waving to the camera. Credit: CBM Australia 2023.