Day 1 – A Legacy of Leadership

A Legacy of Leadership – a conversation with bob mcmullan

2019 marks ten years since Australia’s—and the world’s—first strategy for disability-inclusive development came into effect. Under the direction of 2009’s Development for All: Towards a disability-inclusive Australian aid program 2009-2014 and continued by 2015’s Development for All 2015-2020: Strategy for strengthening disability-inclusive development in Australia’s aid program, Australia has shown commendable global leadership in putting disability rights at the forefront of its international development approach.

As the strategies mark ten years in implementation, and as the Australian aid program begins to consider the introduction of a third Development for All strategy, the Australian Disability and Development Consortium (ADDC) and CBM Australia sat down with former Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, Bob McMullan, to reflect on his leadership and legacy in disability-inclusive development.

As Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, you took a strong personal interest in the inclusion of people with disabilities. What led you to recognise and embed disability-inclusive development as a priority issue for Australia’s aid program?

As always, success has a number of fathers—or parents, one should say. There are a number of factors that were involved, but the trigger was our commitment to do something about avoidable blindness ahead of the election. Once I started looking at what underpinned the problems that people with vision loss had, I started seeing all the information about people with other disabilities.

At one level, of course everyone knows that people with disabilities have significant disadvantages. 

But the data was so compelling, clearly showing that people with disabilities in developing countries are the poorest of the poor.

Once that information gets hold of you, it never lets go. You just have to respond.

Once I got that in my head, I understood that if Australia actually wants to, it can lead the world. It can’t lead the world in everything; we are not big enough. But if we choose some areas where we have either special expertise or special interest, we can lead the world.

Strategies are valuable, but development impact is vital. Reflecting on the implementation of the first Development for All strategy, what are you most proud of? 

It is hard to break things out because they’re part of an integrated whole. But the three things that I remember, I remember vividly.

One was a meeting of Pacific ministers where we brought people with disabilities from all the countries in the Pacific, including Australia, to the meeting. They met with the ministers, and with Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes at the time. With our support and our strategy facilitating those people being there and meeting directly with the ministers, it was a very significant event for emphasising a focus on disability-inclusive development for Australia’s role in the Pacific.

The second thing was the support for landmine victims. In Cambodia, I saw the wonderful work that Australia and others were doing in making artificial limbs for people.

This wasn’t a disability-specific initiative, but the Development for All strategy ensured this inclusion approach in a parallel program to clear landmines.

The assistance to the victims of landmines was a very emotional thing. There were some tiny limbs made for small children who had lost their legs to landmines. That visual is still in my head.

The third thing was not so dramatic, but I really think it was important. Our support for the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund supported it to become an even stronger voice supporting disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) around the developing world. I saw the impact of DPO funding when I went to Bangladesh and met some people who were working with people with disabilities in Chittagong, at the ship breaking yard. They only wanted a small amount of money, but this small amount allowed those people to advocate on behalf of those being adversely affected by poor work practices. That really stuck in my mind, showing what a tiny amount of money can do DPOs in developing countries to enable them to become advocates in their own cause.

Ten years on, and despite a volatile recent history for Australian aid, Australia has maintained a bipartisan commitment to disability-inclusive development. What do you think has underpinned this ongoing commitment?

Very early in her term as Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop made a speech about disability-inclusive development. I was very encouraged by that. Investment in disability-inclusive development always continued in the aid program in the face of some big cuts, and I was really very pleased about that.

Two other factors were the Sustainable Development Goals and their ‘no one left behind’ agenda.

If you are talking about anybody being left behind, it has to include people with disabilities.

The SDGs and their emphasis on disaggregated data sound obscure, but now you find people everywhere working to get disaggregated data so that they can measure their performance in reaching the poorest of the poor.

The SDGs and the data make the case, but they needed their advocate. The Minister was that advocate. Those two things worked together.

The context of international development has changed dramatically over the past decade. As practitioners think more about geopolitical shifts, the emergence of new donors and new models of financing, and the integration of development with other foreign policy objectives, what do you see as the key challenges and opportunities in keeping disability-inclusive development on the agenda?

I think the key challenge—but also the key opportunity—is in maintaining a poverty alleviation focus for development assistance. If we do this, it should clearly drive a focus on disability-inclusive development. As we generate more disaggregated data we will better understand who is being left behind, in deeper poverty.

If you look at the rhetoric here in Australia and what’s happening on the surface in response to an increased Chinese aid presence, particularly in the Pacific, it leads to a lot of emphasis on infrastructure investment.

That’s not necessarily inconsistent with a focus on disability-inclusive development; it just depends on what the infrastructure is and how it’s done.

Good infrastructure assessment can contribute to disability-inclusive development. It’s not enough on its own, but it can be an important part of it.

But I think there is a chance that a global competition will shift focus away from fighting poverty, and I was very pleased to see what Penny Wong had to say recently about the focus of the aid program. I believe that if we argue for this poverty focus, disability-inclusive development will remain high up on our agenda.

The current Development for All strategy is due to expire in 2020. What do you see as Australia’s strategic priorities in disability-inclusive development going forward?

Two aspects of continuity I think are very important; we need to maintain our emphasis on activities in the Pacific, and we need to focus our activities on global advocacy.

But the new aspect, the new area that’s always going to be the most difficult, is the issue of mental health and people with intellectual disabilities. In Australia, with all our resources, that combination of circumstances can be difficult. But in a developing context, it’s very difficult to get properly assessed, let alone treated or provided with necessary assistance.

That, I think, is the next frontier we need to look at: how do we help people with mental illness and intellectual disability, as we’ve done with people with other types of disabilities? I think we need to lift this as a priority.

The conversation was edited for clarity.

Sign up to receive the daily campaign article:

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

By signing up you will receive a daily email from the 10 days for 10 years campaign between 29 April to 10 May 2019.

10 days for 10 years

In partnership with CBM Australia and other ADDC partner organisations, the 10 days for 10 years campaign runs from 29 April to 10 May 2019. The campaign is celebrating the achievements in disability-inclusive development (DID) within the Australian aid sector, particularly those led or made possible by Australian aid under the first and second Development for All strategies. Articles will be released daily here on the ADDC website.

Follow the campaign via the hashtag #10daysfor10years and follow @ADDCnews on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn.