We might talk about Australian aid in dollar terms, but stories like Mourine's act as a reminder that foreign aid is personal. Each person who benefits has a name, a story, and aspirations for their future.
A few weeks ago, the majority of Australians stopped their clocks and adjusted the time back, marking the end of Daylight Savings.
Now, Australians are being encouraged to stop the clock for a very different reason – and we’re not talking about a mere hour.
We’re talking about stopping the clock on the additional $224 million scheduled to be cut from Australia’s aid budget. A cut that will put the aid budget on track to hit its lowest ever level since records began.
A cut that will see Australia slide down the rankings of generous countries, and place us at odds with such national values as mateship and a ‘fair go’ for all.
For many Australians, the aid program isn’t tangible – programs are implemented in countries that people may not have visited or even heard of before. But for people like 44-year-old Mourine, the impact of aid is real and life-changing.
In 2005, Mourine was living in Nigeria where she ran a successful hairdressing business. After falling ill with suspected malaria, Mourine went to her local community health centre for treatment. After an adverse reaction to her prescribed medication, Mourine left the hospital recovered from her illness, but having permanently lost her sight.
Mourine returned home to Cameroon to live with her family. While they supported her as best they could, her neighbours were less kind - rumours began to follow Mourine, claiming that she had joined a cult, which resulted in her sudden blindness. Isolated by her community, Mourine retreated and began to question her opportunities and her worth.
After becoming involved with a local Disabled People’s Organisation, supported by CBM Australia and the Australian aid program, Mourine soon realised that while she may have lost her sight, she hadn’t lost her entrepreneurial flair. She attended workshops on managing small businesses and keeping livestock, and was able to access a small microcredit loan. She was soon profiting from the keeping and selling of pigs, before expanding into a small palm oil business.
Mourine felt that her life had been transformed, starting from that first workshop. And there have also been changes in the community around her as attitudes to disability have changed.
"I see that a lot of change has happened," she told CBM Australia. "Before, you could hardly find a person with disability even coming out of the house, but now, they come out, they participate in social activities, they belong to groups, they are able to contribute in social life, even in politics. People with disabilities are capable of contributing and participating, they have something to offer."
Mourine isn’t alone. The numbers are huge - globally, one in seven, or one billion people have a disability, and 80 per cent live in developing countries. We see more people with disability in developing countries because poverty and disability often interact to create a cycle that’s hard to break.
In other words, poverty can cause disability through many factors, such as inadequate nutrition, lack of access to clean water and sanitation, and unsafe working conditions.
In turn, disability can contribute to and deepen poverty, as a person with disability is less likely to have access to rehabilitation services, healthcare, education and employment opportunities.
In Cameroon, Mourine and other people with disabilities are often systemically excluded from participating in their communities and reaching their full potential. Only 10 per cent of people with disabilities are able to access rehabilitation services or assistive devices. The vast majority of children with disabilities are shut out of mainstream schools, with low levels of education kick-starting a lifelong cycle of poverty and exclusion.
Thanks to Australian Aid, and the inclusion of people with disability within it, thousands in north-west Cameroon have had the opportunity to break the insistent cycle of poverty and disability. Around 64,000 people with disabilities in the region have received hospital services, and another 17,000 have been visited via outreach. Over 300 adults with disabilities have received microcredit loans like Mourine’s, with 95 per cent reporting positive improvements in not only economic stability, but community attitudes and participation. Children have also benefitted, with 14 mainstream schools having adapted their teaching methods to enable children with disabilities to participate and learn at both the primary and secondary levels.
And this is just the achievement of one program, in one country supported by the Australian aid program – that’s the power of what aid can achieve.
Australia is recognised globally as a leader in disability-inclusive development. Since 2009, successive Australian governments have supported policies which aim to include people with disability in the aid program. We have been heralded around the world for our leadership in disability-inclusive development, but for Australia to continue this global leadership, its Development for All 2015-2020 strategy needs consistent funding. The five-year disability-inclusive development strategy for the Australian Aid program was launched with an initial 12-month only commitment of $12.9 million.
We want to see a continued minimum annual commitment of $12.9 million for the life of the strategy to ensure people with disability are not left behind in Australia’s development efforts.
We might be talking in dollar terms, but Mourine is a reminder that aid is personal. Each person who benefits from that one project in Cameroon has a name, has a story, and has aspirations for their future – now imagine the many millions more that Australia’s aid is reaching.
Let’s continue to look forward, let’s continue to be global leaders, and let us join with people like Mourine to raise a collective voice to stop the clock.
Jane Edge is the CEO of CBM Australia, an international development agency working to end the cycle of poverty and disability.