Senate debates

Tuesday, 27 February 2007


Disability and Overseas Development

8:19 pm

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

First of all, I would like to briefly mention that I am also thrilled by the response which I have seen today from the government on the issue of gynaecological cancer. I hope to be able to return to speak more about that issue on Thursday this week, but I associate myself with the remarks Senator Moore and Senator Adams have made in the course of the adjournment debate this evening.

Tonight, though, I want to rise to mention two other issues—disability and overseas development. These issues tend to be somewhat on the edge of the political horizon for many members of parliament, but they are two very important issues. When they intersect in the form of discussions around Australia’s programs for overseas aid and the promotion of services and the rights of people with disabilities then it is clear how important it is that these issues be well understood and that greater effort be made to address their intersection.

This week in Canberra a new organisation called the Australian Disability and Development Consortium was established. It is an alliance of a number of organisations that deal either with disability or with provision of services and aid overseas. The consortium is an opportunity to raise awareness about the role Australian aid agencies can play and are playing not only in improving the lives of people in developing countries but also in specifically addressing problems associated with disability in those countries. This is a very important issue which I think needs to be returned to in a very constructive way.

In conjunction with the formation of the consortium, an exhibition has been opened in the exhibition area close to the post office in Parliament House. It is a very positive exploration of the issue of disability in overseas development. It portrays a lot of very positive things which Australian aid agencies have been doing to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities are not overlooked when it comes to aid programs.

The fact cannot be escaped that being both disabled and poor in a developing country is a particularly bleak prospect. If disability in Australia can be said to mean travelling some paces behind other citizens in terms of quality of life, opportunity to contribute and social inclusion, that phenomenon is even more marked in developing countries.

Let us consider these facts. The mortality rate for children born with disabilities can be as high as 80 per cent in some developing countries not only because of threats posed to their health by their disability but also by virtue of social attitudes towards their disability. Only one to two per cent of disabled people in low-income communities receive the rehabilitation services that they need, even when equivalent services in places such as Australia are relatively cheap and accessible. Ninety-eight per cent of disabled children in developing countries get no education whatsoever. Women and girls with disability are at least twice as likely to be victims of physical or sexual abuse.

In many developing countries, there are a wide variety of responses to disability. Children born with disabilities can sometimes be viewed as having some sort of blessing. Unfortunately, the more common attitude is that they are in some way cursed; certainly, they are often social outcasts and their families can be the subject of great social stigma and rejection. Those affected by disability later in life, who acquire a disability through, for example, landmines, AIDS or war, very often fare little better.

The role of aid agencies and development programs in offsetting this disadvantage is potentially enormous. It is important we do not undersell the power that we have to alter outcomes and counter the effects of poverty and disability simultaneously. Relatively small amounts of money translate into a lot of buying power in developing countries and the capacity to turn a person’s life around, particularly if they have a disability, is not dependent necessarily on cancelling their impoverishment so much as on creating or restoring the tools they need to participate socially and economically in their communities.

The exhibition that I spoke about demonstrates how effective non-government aid agencies, especially Australian ones, can be and have been in this area. They deserve to be supported because they are packing a punch, they make a difference, they are well respected in the countries in which they operate and they also incidentally buy precious goodwill towards Australia and the role of Australians in our region and beyond.

The underlying message here is that, if aid is about redressing disadvantage, serious focus has to be placed at the same time on aid’s function in addressing the added layer of disability. That focus is appropriate and timely, but it does carry some risks. Aid is generally welcome in developing countries, but aid directed towards levelling the playing field between disabled and able-bodied people might in some cases be a source of resentment or be seen as an attempt to change or confront the values of some societies. The fact that that is so does not mean that we should not proceed to act in this area, but it is a reason to move with sensitivity—an approach, I am pleased to say, which is taken by aid agencies based in Australia.

Australia has never been in a better position to generously address these burning issues, especially in our region. I believe that the issues addressed in AusAID’s white paper, which was released last year, show encouraging signs of how well we can do in this area—but, frankly, we need to do better. We do need to lift our capacity to address that very powerful disadvantage in our region simply because we have the means to do so.

Not only are non-government agencies doing a very good job in this context but the Australian government’s own aid activities, principally through AusAID, deserve to be mentioned in this context. A few examples of what the Australian government is doing with respect to addressing disability in regional and other areas include the contribution of $112,000 to the Mithra Foundation in India in July 2006 to help to provide accommodation, physiotherapy and rehabilitation for 130 students with mental and physical disabilities.

In Cambodia, Australia has established a landmine victim assistance fund supporting Cambodian non-government organisations that help in the rehabilitation and reintegration of landmine survivors. The government has also provided assistance, through the Australian Army, to rebuild a mental hospital in Banda Aceh that was flattened by the December 2004 tsunami. It sent a mental health specialist to help ensure that the hospital provides appropriate services for people in that part of Indonesia.

In 1998, AusAID, the Marist Mission Centre and the Marist Brothers of Australia established a school for physically disabled children in Phnom Penh. Their disabilities are mainly the result of polio, which has been eradicated in this country but is still a very serious problem in other parts of the world. Participants in the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development Program, launched in 1998, have helped overseas people with disabilities. For example, Andrew Yong worked as a Disability Sports Development Officer in Cambodia and Christina Parasyn, an occupational therapist, promoted the rights of people with disabilities in the Maldives. They are only two of many who have taken the opportunity to go and work as young people in other countries and provide assistance in development. It is important to note the Australian government’s activities in issues to do with funding of landmine clearance, vaccines for conditions such as polio and improving inadequate health systems and infrastructure, which are conditions where diseases thrive.

AusAID operates under 11 aid themes including economic growth, water, health, human rights and gender. Possibly, disability should be added there. I am hopeful that the target of $4 billion in aid by 2010 as foreshadowed by the white paper can be reached. I am very pleased that target is being looked at seriously. I want to close by commending the people who have been involved in the Australian Disability and Development Consortium: Paul Callaghan from ACID, Paul Deany from Christian Blind Mission and Ken Baker from ACROD.