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The Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) was launched in 2010 to fund innovative technological ideas to improve responses in humanitarian crises. Its grants have included  low-cost wheelchair provision in crisis situations. This is thoroughly commendable as most donors still ignore disability-inclusive measures in their work. However, the fact that an innovation fund is supporting these basic measures is an indication of broader negative attitudes sector-wide. They should be a routine part of humanitarian responses.
SciDev.Net’s recent coverage of HIF shows the organisation sees itself as funding risky projects. Manager Kim Scriven said HIF is “pushing against a culture of risk aversion in the system where there is not a fantastic tradition of talking about failure”. Grants to the NGOs Motivation and Handicap International for producing and distributing low-cost wheelchairs in the Philippines and for disaster preparedness in Nepal are reported as examples of this.
But these excellent measures are not inherently risky. They are a small part of the comprehensive measures needed to enable disabled people’s access to humanitarian responses.
People with impairments suffer disproportionately when a humanitarian disaster strikes. There is a long history of disabled people being excluded from humanitarian crisis responses — confirmed by rare research studies after the 2004/5 Tsunami crisis and by reviews of data from other disasters in the past decade. [1] Additionally, many people become newly impaired in humanitarian crises, especially natural disasters and war. [2]
Providing access to humanitarian response for disabled people shouldn’t be classified as ‘taking risks’. It is fulfilling their rights. This is increasingly endorsed by governments across the world through their ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This first human rights treaty of the twenty-first century came into force in 2008 and has been ratified by 141 countries so far. It consists of 50 user-friendly ‘articles’ outlining specific rights people with impairments have. Articles 9 and 11 specifically address accessibility and humanitarian response obligations. Article 32 obliges all ratifying countries to ensure that their international aid is disability-inclusive.
HIF has so far focused on supporting physically impaired people who would benefit from wheelchair access. This is a good initial intervention and an excellent development. But the needs of people of all impairments should be accounted for in responses. People with visual, hearing, intellectual, complex and multiple impairments also have rights to access distribution points, reconstructed facilities and information. These aspects are often ignored.
My hope is disability inclusion will be seen as a regular part of all humanitarian response in future, will be recognised by all donors, and extended across all impairment groups.

Sue Coe has worked in international development for 25 years across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Now a development and disability inclusion consultant, she previously worked for World Vision, Practical Action (formerly ITDG), VSO and Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID). Sue can be contacted at [email protected]


[1] Maria Kett and others Disability in conflict and emergency situations: focus on tsunami affected areas. Report to the KaR Disability Programme, Overseas Development Group, University of East Anglia.  (International Disability and Development Consortium, June 2005)
[2] Maria Kett and John Twigg in World disaster report 2007: focus on discrimination (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies 2007)