The Pitfalls of International NGOs in Disability Activism

Scott Kull
May 5, 2020 · 5 min read

December 3rd has been celebrated as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities Day since it was declared by the UN in 1992. Every year, countries release press statements about their efforts to promote disability rights in their countries and abroad, often including some sort of monetary donation to an NGO that advocates for disabled people. In 2012 Great Britain participated by promoting the charity Disability Africa, an NGO founded in Guildford, UK that focuses on promoting inclusion for disabled children (“British High Commission Commemorates World Disability Day with UK Charity ‘Disability Africa’”).

Just a few months ago I probably would have felt uplifted by such a press release and may have even considered donating to the mentioned charity. When I, like most people, see the word charity or non-profit, my first reaction is not skepticism. We are taught that supporting people in need is an entirely virtuous and even holy endeavor, and indeed, I believe our empathy towards people we will never meet is something that should be encouraged. But just good intentions alone do not result in optimal outcomes. When donating money to an NGO, we have to think foremost about the outcomes of the services or activism that the NGO provides.

It is in the effectiveness of enacting change where I can now see problems in donating to charities like Disability Africa. Especially when the purpose of a charity is to advocate for societal change on a particular issue like disability rights, I think that international NGOs are not nearly as effective as local or regional advocacy groups in making the societal and political changes needed to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

Again, I want to emphasize that I am not claiming that these charities do not have the best intentions at heart or that they are incapable of making change. The previous example that I mentioned, Disability Africa, has done good work in countries like The Gambia and Kenya in providing medical assistance for those with disabilities and promoting inclusive classrooms (“Our Projects”). However, the societal and political roots of a problem are perhaps where most of our money and charity should be directed towards, and those are better addressed by people and organizations within a country.

Oftentimes the dominance of international NGOs in a region can stifle political movements that naturally develop in a region. Hala Al-Karib discusses in her article “The Dangers of the NGO-Isation of Women’s Rights in Africa” the depoliticization of woman’s issues as a result of NGO dominance of the civil-space. Many NGOs are reluctant to get involved in the political processes of countries they are working in and try to conduct their charity and advocacy while remaining nonpartisan and apolitical. This is the case due to a lack of knowledge of the political dimensions of a foreign country and fear of jeopardizing their relationship with the political entities allowing them access into their country.

While I think these are valid reasons to not get involved in foreign political processes, disability rights need to be political to be adequately addressed. NGOs can provide all the medical assistance and inclusivity seminars they can, but without substantial legislative action for the protection of peoples with disabilities, systemic injustice will continue. Historically, it has taken activism from groups like ACTUP and ADAPT that protest and lobby and generally make politicians feel uncomfortable for legislation on the magnitude of the ADA to happen (“The Disability Rights Movement”). Therefore, I think a donation to an organization like ANDY, which focusses a lot on lobbying and protesting for better conditions of disabled children in Kenya, would be much more effective than to an international NGO that avoids the controversial, political aspect of disability activism (“Our Programs”).

Along with the legislative aspect of disability rights, societal change in how disability is negatively viewed is also needed. The website for Disability Africa even has “Ignorance and stigma often in the form of negative traditional beliefs” as the first challenge listed that their organization needs to address. Regressive ideas about disability are deeply engrained in all cultures to varying degrees, and these ideas need to be confronted for disabled people to be fully integrated into society.

The way Disability Africa and many other international NGOs try to lead this societal change is through teaching local leaders principles of inclusion as well as educating the general population more about what disability is and isn’t. Again, I am not trying to assert that this approach is invalid or ineffective. However, I think that when trying to tackle complex cultural beliefs, the change is more likely to come from institutions and people within that culture rather than from outside of it. This is because people who have grown up in a specific culture are in a much better position to understand the cultural roots of these ails and in a better position to craft a message that resounds better than a nonlocal NGO.

Imagine people from a foreign entity come to your town and start talking about how your cultural traditions are inherently wrong and ableist, and you must adopt their way of imagining disability. I would probably receive that as less of an appeal to help disabled people and more of a judgment on my beliefs. If this message of inclusion were to come from people within that tradition, I would be far less likely to view that as an attack of my cultural heritage. These local NGOs also can utilize other aspects of the culture to try and counteract the more harmful aspects of that same culture. For example, in South Africa, disability rights activists drew on the idea of Ubuntu, a world view that stressed common humanity and cooperation, to change people’s views about disability (Berghs 2). This is a widely known ideology in the South African region that savvy local activists used to evolve the culture away from certain ableist traditions. However, a disability activist from the west is very unlikely to know about this concept and couldn’t utilize it in their approach.

The purpose of this blog is not to attack international NGOs as invalid or bad for a movement. Over the years, many NGOs consistently change their policies and practices, trying their best to adapt to what works and input from people they are working with.

I just don’t think that many of us are even aware that NGOs and activist groups are already dealing with disability rights already within these countries. Without even realizing it, many, including myself, subconsciously see such disability activism as a product of the developed world, not something that existed in developing countries without our intervention. The truth is organizations fighting for the rights of the disabled are all over the world, and they need our donation to continue fighting for justice from within.

Works Cited

Al-Karib, Hala. “The Dangers of NGO-Isation of Women’s Rights in Africa.” Africa | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 13 Dec. 2018, www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/dangers-ngo-isation-women-rights-africa-181212102656547.html.

Andy. “Our Programs — This Is ANDY: Action Network for the Disabled.” This Is ANDY | Action Network for the Disabled, 27 Apr. 2020, andy.or.ke/our-programs/special-initiatives/.

Berghs, Maria. “Practices and Discourses of Ubuntu: Implications for an African Model of Disability?” African Journal of Disability, vol. 6, 2017. ProQuest, http://proxygw.wrlc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxygw.wrlc.org/docview/1865309089?accountid=11243, doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxygw.wrlc.org/10.4102/ajod.v6i0.292.

“British High Commission Commemorates World Disability Day with UK Charity ‘Disability Africa’.” AllAfrica.com, Dec 07, 2012. ProQuest, http://proxygw.wrlc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxygw.wrlc.org/docview/1237269381?accountid=11243.

“Disability History: The Disability Rights Movement (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 13 Dec. 2019, www.nps.gov/articles/disabilityhistoryrightsmovement.htm.

“Our Projects.” Disability Africa, www.disability-africa.org/our-projects.

“Our Template.” Disability Africa, www.disability-africa.org/our-template.

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