Creating conditions for life-long support of the most vulnerable

Creating conditions for life-long support of the most vulnerable Hirwa Christian Mugisha, seven, is seen by ophthalmic clinical officer Elisa Hategekimana at an outreach at Kigeme Health Centre in Nyamagabe, Rwanda. Photo: CBM/Hayduk.
Legacy Supplement
Sustainable, local solutions for people with disabilities and their families are the key to CBM’s work in a precarious global landscape, writes Jason Osborne

Between the ongoing aftereffects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the dire impact the war in Ukraine has had food-wise on the most vulnerable around the world, threats continue to raise their heads when it comes to providing aid to those most in need.

Christian Blind Mission (CBM) continues its work undeterred, though, with CEO Sarah O’Toole telling The Irish Catholic that they managed to weather the Covid-storm particularly well thanks to their community-based partners on the ground.

“Even though we couldn’t travel [during the pandemic], our partners on the ground were able to respond in reaching out to people with disabilities during Covid, so a big part of it was actually just really awareness raising, supporting where we could with information about all the restrictions that were in place because people with disabilities were oftentimes just completely left out of that situation.

“It was a struggle for two years, but we felt then 2022 we were really in a good place, but then with the war in Ukraine, we’ve seen a direct impact, particularly around the Horn of Africa where we have ongoing droughts and now a lack of supply of food. Ukraine would have supplied a huge amount of grain and foodstuffs to that region,” Ms O’Toole explains.


Very active in Kenya, which has been heavily impacted by the fall in grain exports from Ukraine for much of 2022, CBM has an “emergency response programme in place there at the moment trying to ensure people get access to the basic needs of food baskets, and even supporting them just to continue any livelihood they have”.

23 million people in the region face extreme hunger, with 3.5 million in Kenya alone. “Quite a lot of those people are people with disabilities,” Ms O’Toole says.

“We know that one in seven people worldwide have disabilities, but 80% of those people are living in poverty. So it can be really hard in times of drought when you have a reliance on a small livelihood, you might have some livestock, and if you’re a person with a disability, it’s like your only way to earn money or feed your family, and your livestock are just dying. It is quite stark, the reality of what’s happening there and it’s being exasperated by what’s happening in Ukraine.”

CBM is an international Christian development organisation, which is committed to “improving the quality of life of persons with disabilities in the poorest countries of the world”, and has been doing so for over 100 years. It works to address poverty as a cause and consequence of disability, and works in partnership to create an inclusive society for those who are often marginalised as a result of disability.

With this in mind, Ms O’Toole explains the work they’re doing on the ground in Kenya with partners, to not only provide immediate aid in the face of famine and starvation, but to enact change at a societal level.

“We’re partnered with the Kenyan Red Cross at the moment, in an area called Turkana, which is in northern Kenya. One of the first things we do is we do an assessment to find out where people with disabilities are and what services they need, and we also work with other cluster groups….If there’s an emergency on the ground, a number of organisations are operating, they have these cluster meetings and so we would be involved in those, ensuring that any emergency response is inclusive of people with disabilities,” Ms O’Toole says.

Essential services

Working with local partners to provide food, healthcare support and awareness events about essential services for those with disabilities and their families, CBM are working to close the marginalisation gap that had opened up during Covid, between those who were able to get out and avail of what they needed and those who weren’t.

A key project at the moment is what Ms O’Toole calls their “inclusive communities”.

“Our approach to that is called ‘Community Based Inclusive Development’. We call it CBID, that’s the technical side of it, but what it’s about, it’s about programmes that will strengthen the voices of people with disabilities at the grassroots level. We’re providing community based services like rehabilitation, access to healthcare, access to schools where we would make sure that the local school is accessible.

“So if you have a child in a wheelchair, a simple thing is putting a ramp at the school, but then also working with the communities. We would have had programmes where families of people with disabilities would gather to talk about their experience and talk to the teachers where children with disabilities are learning alongside children who don’t have a disability. So having those kinds of workshops to battle that stigma,” Ms O’Toole says.

Another “key part” is embedding that change within the social services of the country CBM is operating in so as to enact longer-term change.

“We would work with the bureau of social affairs, the government, to ensure that they’re starting to take on responsibility for this, so it’s not just about charity aid going in to solve these issues…So we had a very successful three-year project in Ethiopia that finished for us in 2018 but it was then carried on by the bureau. It’s about that long-term work, so there must be a point where we step back and the systemic change has happened so that it continues on as part of normal life.”


Ms O’Toole describes legacy donations as “life-changing” gifts, because they allow CBM to plan ahead and undertake long-term projects that change the lives of people with disabilities and their families in some of the most impoverished countries on earth.

“When we get a legacy here, we are just so amazed that someone would take time to give, we call them ‘life-changing’ gifts. It’s like a life-long legacy. It’s a lasting gift. We are just always so touched by them, that someone takes that time to do it,” she says.

“Our donors are obviously very important to us, we have many donors giving to us for 15-20 years, and we believe we have a great relationship with them. To give beyond that is just to continue your legacy of giving. It’s so important because it enables us to really plan ahead, especially in times of emergency, that we can react very, very quickly when we have those legacy donations there. We can really build long-term programmes.”