Why Davos should be talking about Disability
Can markets include and benefit some of the most marginalized people on earth, such as persons with disabilities? The leaders of government, business and third sector organizations gathered in Davos this week should be asking themselves that question – for economic reasons, because those facing extreme marginalisation represent a substantial pool of human potential; for reasons of social cohesion and stability; and primarily for equity reasons, in line with the global commitment to ‘leave no one behind’.
A group of us at IDS, the Coady International Institute and ADD International have spent the last 18 months trying to answer this question – speaking with dozens of initiatives, identifying 22 promising examples of market-based approaches and collaborating with peer researchers in Uganda. By peer researchers, we mean persons with disabilities who have been gathering and analyzing the life stories of other persons with disabilities. Here’s what we have learned:
1, The most marginalised face both extreme poverty – part of the 800 million living on less than $1.90 per day – plus social isolation due to disability, as well as gender, caste, ethnicity and other factors that leave individuals or groups in positions of low status and power. They are at the bottom of the economic pyramid where incomes are low and insecure, they have only very basic assets (e.g. less than 0.5 ha of land) and skills (e.g. primary education), and face prejudice and discrimination. The most excluded survive outside the economy, through subsistence livelihoods, precarious informal activities like begging and/or reliance on family members.
2. Excluded groups and those supporting them are finding different ways to overcome economic exclusion. Our typology identifies four entry points that offer ‘ladders’ for marginalized people to climb the economic pyramid or lower the barriers to entry: making the most of existing skills or assets, organising collectively amongst the most marginalised, coordinating with others in the market, and engaging employers and others to remove physical and attitudinal barriers in the workplace. A fifth entry point, which we called ‘a leg up’, reflects that for some, social protection and livelihood development support is needed to first get a foot on the ladder before they can pursue opportunities.
3. Economic exclusion is not the only challenge. Often extremely marginalized people cannot access these economic ladders and entry points —let alone climb them – due to social circumstances and discrimination. These can mean, for example, that people with disability are excluded from the benefits of collective action through member-based organisations, due to physical and communication barriers, as well as cultural norms and biases.
These multiple dimensions of marginalization came across very strongly in the 102 life stories and livelihoods mapping conducted as part of our field work with persons with disabilities in Uganda. While, in the absence of required support systems, the nature and extent of impairment affected how people were able to make a living, discrimination due to their disability significantly amplified that marginalization. For example, access to finance was a challenge for persons with disabilities not necessarily due to their impairment, but because they were perceived as ‘high risk’, even in community-based models such as the village savings and loans associations (VSLAs). As a consequence, persons with disabilities were mostly engaged in low-risk, micro-scale activities in the informal sector, resulting in a vicious cycle of low return and low investments.
The analysis of our 22 examples revealed how people overcome such exclusion, emphasizing elements which go beyond hard or tangible factors like assets and skills, training, inputs, finance, or laws, rules and standards. These ‘softer’ elements include strong family and friendship bonds that give people self-esteem and confidence, as well as social or community support networks and integration in cooperatives or self-help groups.
4. Marginalised people have limited resources to cope with shocks such as illness and deaths in the family, extreme weather and food scarcity. They hedge their bets by investing time in diverse and often non-market livelihood strategies: building social capital in family networks, carrying out unpaid work, and gathering and subsistence food production, which are as or more important than markets. While better incomes can build coping capacity, they also increase exposure to risk if loans are taken, scarce assets invested or diversity of livelihoods is reduced.
Minimising risk and building resilience are therefore important pre-conditions to opening up market opportunities to very marginalised people, and preventing them from subsequently falling back into poverty. In addition to social protection, the market-based approaches we identified focused on diversifying livelihoods, including a mix of subsistence and market activities, diversified markets to lower dependence, and asset accumulation through self-help groups or village savings and loans associations.
5. Commercial enterprises have not been at the forefront of these approaches, which have largely been the province of member-based organizations (MBOs), social enterprises, NGOs and government or donor programmes. However, a key message from our ground level panel in Uganda – consisting of peer researchers, private sector, government and civil society organisations – was that solutions need actions from a broad range of stakeholders. These include marginalized people who succeed despite these obstacles, as well as community networks and organisations of persons with disabilities, government agencies which provide health and education services and assistive devices, and business people who make decisions about market facilities and can help change attitudes and overcome stigma. By their actions, government, business and third sector leaders and their organizations can shape markets to remove barriers to entry, and create circumstances that support those facing extreme marginalization to reach and benefit from them.