Abilis Finland

By Denise Nanni and Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik. In the following our interview with Marjo Heinonen of the Finnish organisation Abilis, financing projects to  help disabled people all over the world. Would like to thank Marjo for his time and his detailled answers. For ProMosaik supporting disabled people means including them in our lives and societies.
What are the main problems that you face while implementing your projects? (institutional, social..)
Abilis is donor agency, a NGO Foundation, for people with disabilities and their organizations. This means in practice that Abilis is not implementing the projects, but funding them and providing some technical assistance. The unique approach of Abilis is to reach grassroots level groups that have very little other funding sources available, very little earlier experience in project design, implementation and reporting. This means that the main problems, or challenges, Abilis faces in its core work are the following:
–       Disabled People’s Organizations (DPOs) at the grassroots level have a limited capacity to plan and implement projects, have poor knowledge of financial management and its practices such as receipts of purchased items, book keeping and audit. Even the term ‘project’ may be not well understood. This is linked with poor education level of members and leaders of the DPOs, as well as segregation and discrimination of these people from ordinary activities in society.
–       Very often DPOs want to include several activities into one project. That makes the project unrealistic and very difficult to accomplish. Abilis provides advice and expertise how to plan a more realistic project. Still it is not that easy to manage issues in due time and with planned resources.
–       Addition to this, keeping the time schedule is a challenge. Implementing organizations in developing countries are not equipped with skills of time management and clear task divisions. The mentality of people and the country culture, as well as working practices are different from the Western model. There are delays in project implementation and reporting. Delays are often not well reported to Abilis and reasons for delays particularly.
–       Many applicants and implementing organizations have difficulties to report on results (outcomes) and impacts. They can name activities that were carried out and how many benefitted. The real changes in people’s lives and sustainability of them are not well understood. However, there are great changes visible, starting from the individual level, up to national and international level, and Abilis can observe them over the years and after several projects.
What are the most effective practices that you developed throughout time and that you’d like to share? (an example of success story perhaps)
Abilis follows the Human Rights based approach (HRBA). This means in the Abilis grant making mechanism that persons with disabilities are the rights holders who need to understand their rights and responsibilities and get to know how to collaborate with duty bearers. At the same time the duty bearers must understand disability rights and services, and work for the realization of them.
As the Abilis focus is on grassroots level and among groups and people who have been neglected and segregated from basic education, vocational training, employment opportunities and other social contacts, the most important practice is to get these persons involved and participated. Participation and real inclusion provide empowerment and capacity building at the individual level, in a long run at the group/organizational and community level. More empowered people with disabilities can participate more actively, advocate, realize and promote their rights and responsibilities. Thus, participation and empowerment of persons with disabilities are the key issues of Abilis and the Abilis HRBA practices.
Abilis has beautiful success stories when persons with disabilities have been living as beggars or isolated members of their families and communities (left behind of all every day activities), but after a project activities they are working, earning income and feeding their families, based on some vocational training courses and  startup capital. The poorest of the poor have found a way how to live a meaningful life and be independent from others (in a positive way).
There are also great success stories of DPOs that have built the capacity of its management and leadership, set up essential activities for their members and stakeholders. leading to real cooperation with local governments and other funding sources. In these cases very often Abilis Foundation has been the first external donor who has trusted the capacity and commitment of the organization to work actively for necessary improvements. With limited financial and technical support the organization has taken the important steps towards better future and dialogue with line ministries, authorities and officers. DPOs have found their place among civil society actors.
Do you cooperate with the public sector? Do you think that the public sector should be more involved into assisting people with disabilities? Any suggestion for policy makers?
Yes, Abilis cooperates with the public sector, and encourages the grantee organizations to do so in their respective countries. The Abilis HRBA is the leading guideline for the practice. The roles and responsibilities of both duty bearers and rights holders are important.
Yes, the public sector must take its role seriously. It is the duty bearers’ role and contains of many tasks. Policy makers must include people with disabilities in all processes dealing with disability issues. The slogan of the Disability Movements states this as the following: “Nothing about us without us”. It is also the red line in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Any activities, services, national laws and acts, shouldn’t be prepared without the consultation and inclusion of the rights holders, Persons with Disabilities.
I’d like to have an overview about one of your project, the one on women literacy in Mozambique or the Self-Help Project in Uganda. 
The literacy project in Mozambique:
Background information:
–       There is an association of Women with Disabilities in Mozambique, with some branches in around the country. The association offers peer support and different types of activities to its members. The association branch in Chimoio prepared the project proposal and submitted it to Abilis. The entire project was also carried out by the women’s group in Chimoio.
–       Women and girls with disabilities in Mozambique (and in majority of the developing countries) are left behind in their families and communities. Girls with disabilities are not getting basic education because of their sex and disability (double discrimination). Girls are usually kept at home for housekeeping tasks and only boys are sent to school. Girls and boys with disabilities are not believed to be capable to study and learn, but girls have more difficult situation than boys with disabilities. Due to this double discrimination girls with disabilities cannot read and write even when they became women, mothers and wives.
–       Girls and women with disabilities have a high risk to be raped and/or mentally, physically and sexually harassed and utilized by men and family members. They cannot protect themselves because the lack of any means of safeguards and understanding of human rights. One key problem in this big issue is the poor literacy skills of girls and women with disabilities.
Project description in brief:
–       There were 13 women with disabilities in the Chimoio group. They wanted to learn how to read and write. They all have children, but only some of them have a husband. This means that majority of them are single mothers who are not well received by surrounding community. They suffer from multiple discrimination, being women with disabilities, having children without marriage, living under extreme poverty without salary or other type of an income.
–       The group prepared a literacy training project through which the group members were taught the basic skills. They had the ownership of the project and they carried it out with the Abilis funds, supported with some technical assistance.
–       During the project implementation these 13 women learnt to read some simple text and write their names and simple sentences. They also covered some basic maths. After the project the participants can manage at market (handling money) and in offices where they need to sign documents.
–       Addition to the great results (outcomes), the women became stronger (empowered) due to peer support and changing experiences in the group. The group decided to continue training and studying even the Abilis funded project was finalized and reported to Abilis.
–       After one year the same group applied another fund, this time to start generating income by selling second-hand clothes. The grant was approved and the group members are very committed to run the business in order to take care of their families and themselves. Today they are active, better respected by other community members and relatively satisfied with their living conditions.

Note – The photos are from the Chimoio group after the literacy training project. There are empowered group members who are grateful to Abilis Foundation and who can survive and live today much better than before the projects.