The Grand Challenge of Disability and Development

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people….We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” John F. Kennedy announced at Rice University on September 12th, 1962. And we did- America landed on the moon that same decade on July 20th, 1969. That is the original “moonshot thinking”, or the idea that we must tackle ambitious, impossible projects in order to create change.

“Grand Challenges” encapsulates moonshot thinking, although the term itself is credited to David Hilbert, who laid out 23 mathematical questions at the International Mathematical Congress in Paris in 1900.  Those original Grand Challenges detailed “technically complex societal problems that have stubbornly defied solution” (as defined by Lewis Branscomb) and challenged a cross-section of experts to work together on solutions.  While traditionally focusing on science and technology, Branscomb and others instead favor larger societally-focused projects. Their vision of the Grand Challenges conceptual framework has been embraced by USAID, the White House, and the UN. Examples of programs oriented on the Grand Challenges framework include the USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s partnership on Ensuring Effective Health Supply Chain as well as other USAID projects like Scaling Off Grid Energy, Combating Zika and Future Threats, and All Children Reading.

The Grand Challenge is Sustainable Development Goals and its preceding Millennium Development Goals. The Sustainable Development Goals are a 15 year plan to tackle Grand Challenges across 17 different issue areas established in 2015. This look at systemic challenges worldwide creates an alternative mindset to development. In fact, they have become key in defining how we think about program effectiveness by giving targets and indicators to meet. These goals provide a unifying framework for state and nonstate actors worldwide to enact progress.

The SDGs made the UN framework more inclusive by including the grand challenge of disability and development with eleven explicit references to persons with disabilities. This is important because it will guide behavior by states. This has been furthered by high level work such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2006 that shifted conceptual thinking from disabilities as a medical condition to a human right, which creates opportunities and higher equity for the traditionally marginalized 15% of every country’s population. This is an important step towards to true equality. While public policy focused on the inclusion of disabled persons may not spark the same initial general interest level as landing on the moon, it is surely a moonshot idea to radically shift how we think, talk, and create policy for this excluded group. This opens a window for a population whose potential contributions to society have been dismissed.

Development and The Poverty Trap

“Why Nation’s Fail” discusses mechanisms of “inclusive economic institutions” that allow developed countries to continue to be wealthy. Acemoglu and Robinson state these wealthy, western world countries create incentives for citizens to be innovative, provide secure education and strong infrastructure, and create laws that benefit the entirety of the population. These facets parallel the ideas within Sen’s, “Development of Freedom,” chapters of discussing democracy, famine, and women and social change. In contrast, all authors talk about undeveloped countries and the ways in which they struggle to achieve development and westernized ideals. Although I agree that many underdeveloped countries want democracy, less political upheaval, and famine, it is paramount to understand the ways in which these countries have fallen into the vicious cycle of exclusion.

Sen’s chapter on famine and other crises strongly reminds me of the nutritional poverty trap that many under developing countries face in the wake of development. Sen explains that famine and malnourishment is due to the working of the state’s economy and society as a whole, and thus the ability to acquire food has to be earned. The nutritional poverty trap states that because the poor are too malnourished, they are unable to work productively, which results in scarcity in income and production. In turn, this lack of production works to continue the malnourishment within these populations. Ordinarily, calories are too cheap within nations for causal of poverty. But famines, natural disasters and lack of proper waste management can yield to nutritional poverty. This has long-standing impacts on one’s health, causing for an overall economy to weaken, making it even more difficult to fight famines.

Acemoglu and Robinson explain that issues of politics and economics influence a countries development. Continuing with various poverty trap theories, the geographical poverty trap explains the ways in which the environment can hinder a country’s ability to develop. Geographic characteristics are unchangeable and thus heavily influence available resources for production, technology, income and overall poverty. Even with proper investments, geographic can hinder households ability to increase wages and growth. Furthermore, geographical locations can hinder strong infrastructure. Environments that are prone to drought, floods, and natural disasters are unable to provide a continuous strong infrastructure that will enable societies to be innovative. One could argue mass migration from these high-risk areas, however, within underdeveloped countries the movement to urbanized, developed cities lead to the creation of the periphery in areas. Informal settlements, slums, and improper housing forms, ultimately sustain and create poverty in new areas.

Although underdeveloped countries desire development and innovation within their states, they face several setbacks that perpetuate their poverty and underdevelopment. I believe that poverty trap theories give valuable insight into the ways in which these countries fall into vicious cycles.

Including Slums in Inclusive Cities: What ADB Got Right

While slums are often not thought of when people talk about cities, they are growing in size and population especially as more and more populations move from rural to urban environments. Some slum populations in India have grown so large that they can influence elections. Sustainable Development Goal 11 focuses on “Making cities inclusive, resilient, safe, and sustainable” and if we are to implement goal 11, then slums must be included and thought of as well. Including slums in sustainable development is often met with many barriers. Local governments do not want to acknowledge slums or provide them with services because they want the slums to disappear and think providing benefits such as water and sanitation will encourage the slum-dwellers to stay. Slums are also illegal settlements so there are other barriers to providing them with services such as schools and health clinics because they are technically not supposed to exist.

The habitat III conference’s new urban agenda commits itself to trying to end stigma surrounding slum-dwellers, making informal settlements more resilient, and upgradings slums. This is certainly a step in the right direction but I was more impressed with the concrete examples of slum rehabilitation the Asian Development Bank described in their document Inclusive Cities. Slum rehabilitation often doesn’t work out as planned because the project leaders don’t ask the residents what their needs are and don’t understand the attachment residents have to their homes, or interrupt their livelihoods. The phrase “Nothing about us without us” is credited to the disabled community but the ADB took that mindset to heart when constructing their slum rehabilitation programs. The ADB provided surveys and asked residents what their needs were. These surveys informed project developers what residents wanted and with this information they were able to provide some low cost sanitation, women’s support groups, schools, and clinics. The ADB was able to work with local governments and encourage them to recognize the slums and see them as a boon for the local economy. The reason ADB’s programs were successful was that they took into consideration what the residents wanted and the systemic problems that were preventing them from achieving their needs.

Including slum-dwellers in the conversation about inclusive cities is a concrete way of advancing SDG 11 because they are able to offer a more direct perspective of what would make their settlements inclusive, sustainable, and equitable.

New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda is pushing the idea that sustainable development and urbanization go hand in hand. There are many parts of development and urbanization that The New Urban Agenda focuses on which attain both of these simultaneously while promoting social agendas as well. Through poverty alleviation, inclusive economies, and environmental sustainability initiatives, The New Urban Agenda pushes for many benefits from cities themselves. Those listed include

  1. Adequate housing with accessible food, water, sanitation, and jobs
  2. Participatory communities in order to meet all needs
  3. Gender equality by ensuring numbers 1 and 2
  4. Meet social challenges in a way that is sustainable and inclusive
  5. Act as a center for the development at hand with administrative services
  6. Plan for age and gender mobility obstacles to link this population with people, places, goods, services, and economic opportunities
  7. Implement a disaster risk reduction and relief program as well as mitigate and adapt to climate change
  8. “Protect, conserve, restore, and promote” the environment within and around the city in order to minimize environmental impact and make a move to responsible production and production methods

All eight of these are included in the Outcome document of Habitat III as the vision of future cities. While these are all things every city should strive for, it is still a non-binding agreement with minimal accountability. As shown in the indicators under Sustainable Development Goal 11, the goals and indicators are clearly stated but do not mention clear measurements to strive for.

For example, 11.A aims to “support positive economic, social, and environmental links between urban, per-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning.” The indicator for this is 11.A.1, stated as “proportion of population living in cities that implement urban and regional development plans integrating population projections and resource needs, by size of city.” There are two large issues with this: a lack of measurement and not accounting for measures taken outside of cities. First, the lack of measurement relates back to the issues seen with the Millennium Development Goals. Without a set goal, these could be achieved in a minor way but have minimal impact. Second, while the goal is for urbanization, there will undoubtedly be interaction between rural and urban areas. Whether this is merely a trade of goods or includes people traveling regularly between the two, many of the urban plans should be applied to rural areas as well in order to have a fuller impact.

Inclusive Cities and Inclusive Governance

According to the World Bank, in 2016 54% of the world population lived in cities. The urban population is expected to grow at the rate of 1.84% per year between 2015 and 2020. Persons with disabilities, which take up about 15% of world population, are also part of the growing urban population. This is why many international policy initiatives are starting to include access to cities for persons with disabilities in their development agenda. For example, in Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals, there are direct references to “persons with disabilities” in terms of access to public spaces and transport systems. These policy initiatives that include persons with disabilities are indeed a sign of progress for the field of international development. But not all policy initiatives have made the same progress. For example, in “Inclusive Cities” published by the Asian Development Bank in 2011, although it states that one of the goals is to improve “urban environmental infrastructure development… to serve the poor and the vulnerable,” persons with disabilities are not directly included in “the vulnerable.” “Slums” seem to be the keyword connected to “the vulnerable” and not “persons of disabilities”. It is important that we reflect on why there are such differences between policy initiatives and how we can ensure inclusion of persons with disabilities in future initiatives.

One important factor that leads to omission of persons with disabilities in policy initiatives is that persons with disabilities don’t have access to the discussion table. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are able to have direct references to persons with disabilities because those who are affected by the goals participated in the process of policy-making and made an impact on the final document. Inclusion of major groups and other stakeholders should be regarded as a requirement for future international convention. Some may argue that there are too many physical and logistical difficulties to try to include diverse groups, especially persons with disabilities whose ability to travel is limited. Luckily, there are some tools invented to solve these issues. The Disability Inclusive Development (DID) Policy Collaboratory developed by the Institute on Disability and Public Policy is a tool that will allow persons with disabilities to participated in governance processes at all levels virtually. Governance institutions at different levels can only build truly inclusive cities by including representatives of all urban dwellers. With technological advances, persons of disabilities will have more and more opportunities to voice their opinions and make an impact on policies that will affect them.

Three Concepts

When considering a development project, the way in which things are measured and worded has a large effect on the project mechanisms and outcomes. The three concepts outlined by Andy Sumner and Michael Tribe in International Development Studies: Theories and Methods in Research and Practice are Development as a long term process of structural societal transformation, Development as a short-to-medium term outcome of desirable targets, and Development as a dominant discourse of western modernity. All three of these are presented as separate entities with different processes and outcomes. Despite this, one would hope that all three could be used in a way to make a cohesive form of development.

Development as a long term process has been attributed to academia as it is not practiced as often as it is spoken about. While the rhetoric of development has a clear impact on the way people think and how they wish to act through it, it is true that the idealistic ways in which long term development is projected does not easily lend itself to implementation.

Development as a short-to-medium term process is more measured than the long term processes desired by academics. There are performance goals and indicators that allow for this measurement to be documented within the development community and understood by funding groups and International Organizations. While this approach is able to tangibly accomplish more than long term processes, it typically only scratches the surface of the issue and has the ability to leave an even larger issue than before.

Development as a dominant discourse of Western modernity is a concept that criticizes the two aforementioned concepts. As a whole, it argues that the development being done may not benefit the communities reached in the correct ways. For example, a development scheme may detract from a community’s ability to engage in a cultural event. Considering the development community takes Western models and applies them elsewhere, this has some validity. It creates a superiority complex that continues to drive down those in receipt of development. Even with this, there are not many solutions offered that have been taken seriously.

Because all three of these have their positives and their drawbacks, they can play of each other to learn new techniques and measurement methods. Along with the third concept of development, the people being benefited can have input and truly benefit from the projects being implemented.

Molehills into Mountains: How smaller issues compound into Grand Challenges

When people discuss “grand challenges” facing our world today, defined often as “technically complex societal problems that have stubbornly defied solution” (Branscomb). While organizations such as USAID have several “grand challenges” which define their organizational priorities, global climate change is seen as the quintessential “Grand Challenge”; other environmental issues such as urbanization and deforestation also often take the fore. But just as the solutions for grand challenges require a vast and complex network, the challenges themselves also possess a network of further causes and effects, which can magnify understood problems into issues equally deserving of the moniker “Grand Challenge”.

To give an example, urban flooding has been extensively studied and understood; cities would plan for a variable amount of rain which would need to be drained away in quick order. Yet, as we have seen most recently in the Houston, Texas urban area, climate change and increasing urbanization have both exacerbated the potential of flooding events. Increasing sea-level temperatures, particularly within the Gulf of Mexico, strengthen hurricanes, elevating the frequency of exceptional weather events to form a new statistical norm.

The alarming frequency of “hundred-year” storms is not the only factor in worsening floods. The devastation of coastal cities multiplies as cities in flood-prone areas develop over lakes, parks, and other natural formations which might absorb some floodwater. Without these natural drains, more neighborhoods become inundated by higher levels of flooding, worsening the issue even beyond what the increased intensity of storms would do alone.

The use of “grand challenge” in numerous fields is a fairly recent development, designed to evoke ideas of heroism and struggle in what might otherwise be mundane or overtly technical tasks. The factors surrounding grand challenges are not a simple knot which can be undone with a singular “silver bullet” solution, but a Gordian knot which can only be untangled with great effort and knowledge. Even as one challenge’s solution is sought, however, we cannot lose sight of other challenges woven into the same rope.