Photo of Ugandan OPDs and DRF staff and donors outdoors on a lawn in Kampala.

Shifting Power: Movement-Led Technical Assistance in Action!

Blog by Christina L. Parasyn

Photo of Ugandan OPDs and DRF staff and donors outdoors on a lawn in Kampala.
DRF’s Ugandan grantees convene in Kampala in May 2022 for a learning exchange.
Photo: Rucha Chitnis

There are many ways philanthropy can integrate technical assistance (TA) into their resourcing strategies. A great first step is to shift power and resources into the hands of those with the expertise—frontline communities experiencing injustices. 

As the director of TA at the Disability Rights Fund (DRF), I have seen many changes in the disability rights and international development fora. The most powerful change is that persons with disabilities are recognizing their agency and leadership individually and collectively to create an inclusive world. This collective voice of persons with disabilities has shifted the landscape of funding, laws, policies, and, ultimately, the outcomes for the benefit of all our communities. This shared power is only getting stronger!

Villany Remengesau, a disability activist from Palau and co-chair of the Pacific Disability Forum, challenges philanthropy and international development actors to go even further in reframing our mindsets and actions.

“People without disabilities are taking our issues to global and national forums. This needs to change. We have experiences and expertise! We have resources. We need to be in the lead of these discussions,” she shared. 

We are all being called to shift our narratives and actions to recognize who actually holds the expertise and unlearn our assumptions about capacity. 

What is TA at DRF?

Our TA strategy guides our investment in the learning and growth of organisations of persons with disabilities (OPDs). We define TA as any resource that equips OPDs with knowledge, skills, experiences, partnerships and tools to advance their rights advocacy goals. 

In practice, this means we:

  • Trust the leadership of grassroots activists: We recognize that deep expertise is embedded in communities and yields the most sustainable results. DRF’s participatory, strengths-based, and contextual approach allows OPDs to decide, plan, and budget for the support that would be most useful to advance their work. 
  • Invest in local disability expertise: In partnership with OPDs, we discuss strategies for localizing capabilities by expanding and drawing upon local expertise from within the disability movement. Where useful, we facilitate connections between OPDs and local, regional, or global networks to support their work in sustainable ways. Grant funds guided by OPD priorities ensure we invest in tailored opportunities for learning and growth, which are relevant to the people and contexts where grantees operate.
  • Resource OPD agendas: One of our core values is participation, which means that grantees define their own learning and growth outcomes. We know that when OPDs take the lead, the outcomes are aligned with their visions for inclusion and are therefore more sustainable. 

“Technical assistance from DRF has helped She Writes Woman formulate and implement several policies that form the basis of our organization’s operations. From guidelines for strategic advocacy regarding disability rights to workshops on creating alternative reports to treaty committees, DRF’s network of contacts and partners have proven to be indispensable in connecting us with key stakeholders to advance our legislative advocacy efforts,” shared Hauwa Ojeifo, Executive Director of She Writes Woman, Nigeria.

A zoom video screenshot of Indonesian OPDs participating in TA exchange.
Indonesian grantees gather for a virtual exchange during COVID-19.

Our TA has Evolved: OPDs Lead Online

OPDs have long advocated to have a seat at decision-making tables so their voices are heard. In 2022, DRF held consultations with OPDs to understand how our TA strategies could better support their rights advocacy goals. Over 200 OPD representatives from 15 target countries attended consultations, both, virtually and in person. We also received 70 written submissions from grantees across 13 target countries. We learned about their achievements, visions for the future, their expertise, and areas where DRF can improve its TA strategies.  

Needless to say, our listening, learning, and unlearning is evolving our range of TA strategies!

A common request from grantees during the TA consultation was to resource spaces where the disability movement could connect, share experiences, learn from each other, strategize, and build coalitions for action. OPDs shared that DRF funded in-person grantee convenings were still their preferred mechanism for collaborative learning and collective action, but the global pandemic put a pause on these gatherings. So, we shifted gears and worked with OPDs to evolve a movement-led virtual peer learning exchange mechanism.

Faaolo Utumapu-Utailesolo, DRF program officer for the Pacific shared that virtual spaces were challenging for Pacific OPDs but important during COVID. “The TA support through the Talanoa [learning exchange] is doing more than facilitating partnership and expertise sharing. It is allowing grantees to progressively transition to using other options to tap into each other’s expertise to advance their work,” she shared. 

Here are three examples of OPDs leading and participating in online spaces:

  • Centering Cultural Frameworks: In the Pacific Talanoa with OPDs, Indigenous frameworks for dialogues were embracedTalanoa is a term shared by Tongans, Samoans, and Fijians, which means to talk and share stories, issues, and ambitions. Understanding the diversity within the movement was a top priority for the disability movement in the Pacific. Women with Disabilities Association in Papua New Guinea (PNG) facilitated a Talanoa about advancing the rights of women with disabilities. Disability Pride Hub, Fiji, shared their experiences as persons with disabilities of diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sexual characteristics. Deaf Association Samoa discussed their advocacy strategies to increase inclusion of deaf persons in humanitarian action and national development. Kevin Akike, Technical Advisor for the National Capital Disability Association PNG said: “The zoom sessions/discussions are a great way of maintaining the consultative and collaborative advocacy dialogues between the OPD grantees of DRF/DRAF that enables OPDs to learn from each other, share challenges and successes with each other and have that spirit of unity as advocates for disability rights.”   
  • Connecting at a Time of Social Isolation: Recognizing the significant hardship and exclusion experienced by persons with disabilities in Indonesia during the global pandemic, Yayasan Sentra Advokasi Perempuan Difabel Dan Anak facilitated a five-session learning exchange focused on personal wellbeing during COVID-19. Sessions included trauma healing and relaxation techniques, improving immunity, First Psychological Aid for colleagues who are experiencing stress, and ways to support persons with disabilities in the vaccine roll out. “During the sessions, I came to know others are feeling the same during the pandemic, and it makes me stronger as a person and as an advocate for persons with disabilities,” shared Junia Rendi of Perkumpulan Penyandang Disabilitas Indonesia Central Kalimantan.
  • Sharing OPD Expertise: A new grantee in Malawi, Mzuzu Disability Organization (MZUDO), capitalized on existing expertise and expanded networks across the country. MZUDO received its first grant from DRF in 2022 to advocate for the inclusion of women in development and social protection programs in North Malawi. Listening to their request to deepen knowledge on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), Chrissy Zimba, DRF program officer for Malawi, connected the group with the Federation of Disability Organizations of Malawi (FEDOMA), to facilitate an introductory virtual learning exchange on CRPD advocacy. “Upholding the CRPD is one of the ways of respecting the rights of persons with disabilities in Malawi. Having knowledge of how the CRPD works gave us the power to continue doing our advocacy work using this legal instrument,” said Joyce Sichali, Executive Director for MZUDO.

It is clear that OPDs are holders of critical expertise on disability rights and inclusion. When we invest in spaces where the disability movement can unite, connection, collaboration, and collective action are ignited for a more inclusive, safe, and just world. It’s time for philanthropy to shift the power and be led by a global movement’s agenda for inclusion.