We need to talk

Does the disability movement need a strategic reset?

Dear Debriefers,

A crisis at the International Disability Alliance (IDA) has sent tremors through the disability movement.

This newsletter is an exclusive look at what's just happened, and an exploration of strategic questions that come out of it.

The disability movement is at a turning point. And we need to talk.

Disability Debrief is supported on a pay-as-you can basis. Thanks to Say and Shirin for new contributions.

“Suspicions of serious inadequacies”

IDA is an alliance of global and regional organisations run for and by persons with disabilities. Originally established in 1999, it was a key player in achieving the Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities and also subsequent achievements of international disability advocacy. Among international bodies, including at the United Nations, IDA is considered, the representative voice of persons with disabilities.

In the past few months it's been going through a crisis. Sida, the Swedish Aid Agency, commissioned KPMG to do a special review of IDA's internal processes. Sida told me that the review encompassed:

“the scope and background of the costs attached to the Executive Director; IDA’s governance structure, Human Resources (HR) policies and how they are applied in the decision-making procedures; and, ethical, integrity, fiduciary and accountability aspects related to the governance, the management, and the decisions taken by the governing bodies.”

The results of the review came out at the end of January, and things moved quickly from there. Vladimir Cuk, the Executive Director of over ten years, resigned without fanfare. And last week, the IDA governing board appointed a new executive committee and announced an interim Executive Director, Jose Viera.

Sida's public statement summarises what has happened, from their perspective:

“Sida commissioned an external review of the International Disability Alliance (IDA) in November 2023, due to suspicions of serious inadequacies and unreasonable remuneration of the organization's Executive Director. The review confirmed the suspicions and the organization is now announcing a change in management and a package of measures in response to the review.” [Translation provided by Sida]

Sida had already paused its payments to IDA. And Finland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs just announced that they're also suspending payments.

As for IDA, their press release says they will work for “renewal, reinforcement and reaffirmation” but is unspecific about the reasons that they've been made:

“IDA is determined through these changes to emerge not only more resilient but also more attuned to the needs and expectations of persons with disabilities and their representative organizations.”

The spirit of transparency

When I asked him for comment, I got a bit more context from Nawaf Kabbara, the new president of the IDA board:

“The rapid growth in activities and staff has taken place before IDA developed needed regulations and policies to establish a solid governance structure and managerial practices. The KPMG report is helping us to identify these deficiencies and work needed changes to restructure the alliance to become more effective and professional based on the spirit of transparency and accountability.”

Given the lack of transparency in the last months, I pushed on that point. Nawaf told me about the reviews they are doing of governance and policies, and told me that they will “operationalize” their commitment to transparency through :

“open dialogue about organizational change, detailed reporting of board decisions, stakeholder engagement and periodic assessment of IDA governance and managerial practices.”

It's going to be a tough job. I understand that IDA is in a complicated position and can't necessarily come out all guns blazing on what happened. But we do need to know, and soon. IDA and the member organizations which govern it have a duty to share what went so wrong that they needed such radical changes.

Casting a shadow

It's scary when things go wrong. In recent years, IDA has played a key role in establishing disability on the agenda of international cooperation and particularly in the UN system. Will everything we've worked for come tumbling down?

The disability sector loves to talk, but has been uncharacteristically silent about the crisis. One of the newly elected members of the IDA executive committee told me why. Fernando Riaño, who is also First Vice President of the World Blind Union, said:

“The ramifications of these findings extend far beyond IDA, threatening to cast a shadow over other organizations within the disability community. There is a real risk that the broader sector could be unfairly tarnished, undermining the trust and support we have worked tirelessly to build with our partners, donors, and the communities we represent.”

People I speak to are worried in particular that organisations run for and by persons with disabilities will lose their standing. IDA is the global body that brings together these organisations. The risk is that if they lose credibility other folk will take over.

I, like many others in our sector, share the concerns that the big disability NGOs can easily take over decision-making, governments can push us out of the way, or folk stop investing in our movement. It's too easy for others to speak on our behalf without any mechanism for representation or meaningful leadership of disabled people.

But this fear creates a dangerous dynamic. Our need for representative organisations sometimes means we cover up their flaws. Institutions are not inherently good, and they can lose track of the purpose that they're set up for. Our reluctance to do our dirty laundry in public leads to us not doing our laundry at all.

Accountability is not just a buzzword

Fernando went on to tell me that “open, transparent dialogue within our sector is more critical now than ever”:

“Such dialogue must not shy away from the hard questions nor the necessary introspection about how organizations can better represent and serve the disabled community. Equally, it should foster a culture where accountability is not just a buzzword but a foundational principle that guides our operations, governance, and interactions within and outside our community.”

A culture where accountability isn't just a buzzword means one where accountability isn't just to the Sidas and KPMGs of the world. Too often funders get to set the terms of institutional development and processes. We need to take ownership of these, and go beyond seeing them as compliance to donor requirements.

For me, one of the things we need to revisit is the assumption that the political leadership within the disability movement are also those responsible for management questions. We need to find a way to keep an authentic leadership while getting, and not being taken over by, a management that knows how to oversee the institutions that our movement needs. If we don't get the skills to build and run organisations, then we lose control.

Do we need a strategic reset?

We're holding on to what we have because we're scared of losing it. But it's time to take a step back. Fernando's hard questions are at the heart of how we go forward. When a computer crashes, we don't throw it away, we press restart.

Thanks to a broad coalition of folk pushing together with IDA, disability is much more established on the international agenda than it was ten years ago. And the world is in a very different place too. As Fazilet Hadi explored in the UK's disability movement, both our successes and the new challenges require creativity and fresh approaches.

This is a chance for those working internationally on disability to consider a strategic reset. Should IDA continue to focus on UN processes, or put its efforts elsewhere? Could it develop a more cooperative and open-tent convening, beyond the structures of its existing membership? I'm thinking of glorious and chaotic town-halls overflowing with the diversity of our movement.

One of the most important contributions that the disability movement has made is in innovating new forms of participation and representation. Representative democracies are going through crisis, and at our best we can offer models of how people can have more control in their own lives and how they can input into policies that affect them. We need to keep innovating.

We need to talk

A guiding motivation for me in writing the Debrief is a belief in openness. As well as all the information I share, I've used interviews to go behind the scenes with leaders in our movement. Among those is an interview with Jose Viera, IDA's new interim executive director.

I understand that sometimes there's an advantage to not being open. A unified voice can be an important tool in advocating our rights. Brushing dissent under the rug can be tactically useful. But when they become habits they are fundamentally anti-democratic and do harm.

I'm aware this newsletter reproduces some of the silence at the heart of the matter. I've raised more questions than I've answered. But I write because I believe that the disability movement was born out of dialogue, and that dialogue is at the heart of how we continue to grow.

In putting my head above the parapet, I hope that it opens space for others to do the same.



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With thanks to the all those who spoke with me, and to IDA in their willingness to communicate. Particular thanks to the World Blind Union and Sida.

An important part of my practice on the Debrief is to acknowledge the support that goes into making each article. This piece was no different in being a collective effort, and much of it comes from colleagues and friends who shared their insights and time. Particular thanks to those who reviewed drafts and whose suggestions improved it.

I won't embarrass anyone else by naming them. This one is on me.

And, as ever, thanks to the support from readers and organisations that makes the Debrief possible.