The past few years have seen substantial progress on inclusion of persons with disabilities in humanitarian action. The World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in 2016 was a key point in recognising that persons with disabilities face a double jeopardy in humanitarian emergencies in that they are both disproportionately impacted by conflicts, disasters and other emergencies, and also face barriers to accessing life-saving humanitarian assistance. These challenges, now widely documented and acknowledged at the most senior levels of the humanitarian system, resulted in the establishment of an Interagency Standing Committee (IASC) Task Team, with the responsibility for drafting guidelines on inclusion of persons with disabilities in humanitarian action.

The IASC Guidelines on inclusion of persons with disabilities in humanitarian action were officially launched in November 2019, marking another important milestone in the promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities affected by humanitarian emergencies. This article explores the question of ‘what now’ for disability-inclusive humanitarian action – what is needed for the Guidelines to be translated into concrete change for persons with disabilities in countries most impacted by humanitarian emergencies.

Developing the guidelines

The process of developing the guidelines was arguably as important as the product itself, as it brought organisations of persons with disabilities (OPDs) to the table alongside humanitarian actors. The guidelines were developed through a highly participatory process, which, through regional consultations, ensured that OPDs from across the world were at the centre of defining standards for disability-inclusive humanitarian action. The expertise of OPDs was essential to understanding the key challenges to be addressed in the guidelines, and for developing rights-based approaches to addressing the risks persons with disabilities face in humanitarian crises.

Issues and challenges

While OPDs were central to the development of the guidelines, there remains a substantial gap in their engagement in humanitarian action at field level. For the guidelines to be implemented and disability-inclusive humanitarian action strengthened, a number of issues will need to be tackled.

The first involves a shift in thinking to recognising persons with disabilities, not only as beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance, but also as key actors in the response. Such a shift is in line with the broader priority of accountability to affected populations, which emphasises partnership with people affected by humanitarian emergencies, rather than a top-down approach, providing aid to passive populations. It also requires an understanding by humanitarian actors of the knowledge and experience of OPDs as essential to the delivery of an inclusive humanitarian response that is better for all. On a more practical level, there is a need for capacity-building of OPDs, both building knowledge of the humanitarian system and enabling access to the financial resources required to engage meaningfully as an actor in the response. This in turn is linked closely to the localisation agenda, and efforts to strengthen localisation therefore must be fully inclusive of persons with disabilities.

The second key development needed in order to promote implementation of the Guidelines and strengthen disability-inclusive humanitarian action is capacity-building of humanitarian actors at field level. The humanitarian system is demonstrating a strong commitment to the rights of persons with disabilities. Humanitarian Needs Overviews (HNOs) and Humanitarian Response Plans (HRPs) for 2020 are evidence of the increasing recognition of the vulnerability of persons with disabilities in humanitarian emergencies, and the need to do more to ensure their inclusion in humanitarian response. However, what those HNOs and HRPs also demonstrate is a gap in understanding of the specific factors that place persons with disabilities at heightened risk, and the concrete actions needed to make humanitarian response more inclusive. Following the launch of the guidelines, there is a need now for attention to shift from global frameworks to operational support at field level, to ensure that humanitarian actors are equipped, not only with the knowledge of ‘what’ disability inclusion entails, but also the resources to address the ‘how’.

The third key development is to more systematically integrate disability inclusion into key global agendas and ensure that it does not remain a separate stand-alone work stream. It is increasingly being recognised that disability inclusion is a central component of a number of key priorities in the humanitarian system, including improving accountability to affected populations, protection mainstreaming and strengthening localisation. Further, disability inclusion is closely interlinked with gender equality, age-sensitive programming and mainstreaming of mental health and psychosocial support. A more coordinated approach is needed in the humanitarian system, where these multiple agendas are not seen as competing but rather as linked, with common objectives around ensuring that humanitarian action is effective in reaching the most marginalised people and engaging them as equal partners.

Reference Group on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action

With the launch of the IASC Guidelines in November the mandate of the Task Team responsible for developing them ended. While specifically focused on development of the guidelines, the Task Team, also provided an important forum for bringing together OPDs, NGOs and UN entities. The end of its mandate therefore also left a gap in terms of mechanisms for engagement between OPDs and humanitarian actors at a global level, at a time when this engagement is particularly important in order to support implementation of the Guidelines and maintain the momentum that had been built around this agenda. In February 2020, at the Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HNPW), this gap was addressed through the launch of the Reference Group on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action. The Reference Group, co-led by an OPD, NGO and UN entity (currently the International Disability Alliance, CBM and UNICEF), aims to provide a forum for coordination on strengthening disability-inclusive humanitarian action, including to support implementation of the guidelines.

The work plan for the Reference Group for 2020–2022 reflects the three key challenges identified above, with separate work streams established for operational support, mainstreaming into global processes and support to OPD engagement. These three work streams will be advanced through coordination between OPDs, NGOs and UN agencies, and through engaging with other key humanitarian coordination mechanisms, including IASC results groups and associated entities, as well as the cluster system and other inter-agency processes. It is hoped that this work will further advance the gains made on inclusion of persons with disabilities in humanitarian action, especially translating these to field level, to reach persons with disabilities affected by humanitarian emergencies.

For more information or to engage with the Reference Group on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action, contact the co-chairs (Elham Youssefian, IDA; Christian Modino Hok, CBM; and Kirstin Lange, UNICEF) at

Kirstin Lange is a Disability Inclusive Humanitarian Action Programme Specialist at UNICEF and Co-Chair of the Reference Group on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action.

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