UN Conference of States Parties to the UNCRPD, June 2014 — round table discussion

14 July 2014

Our chief executive, Clare Pelham, spoke at a round table discussion on ‘financial inclusion for inclusive and sustainable development: a disability perspective’ on 13 June 2014. The video of this speech is available on the United Nations website (from 18:24). The text of the speech as delivered follows.

Thank you madam chairman, excellencies, distinguished guests, and may I even say friends. It’s a pleasure to be here, even though I scarcely recognise myself from that rather flattering description.

I would like to start by thanking DESA for organising the forum, and particularly for the title. Because I think the title is the key to some things that we need to talk about. It’s that word ‘sustainable’ in the phrase ‘inclusive and sustainable development’ that I’d be really interested to have some views on what we think it means.

I was trying to think of an analogy. So to me, sustainable development in this field, if you think of your garden: it’s not a bunch of flowers that only last a day or two. It’s not a pot plant that lasts a week or two. It’s not a flowerbed that lasts a month or two. In my imagination, it’s a forest. It’s a forest that changes the landscapes and lasts from generation to generation. That’s what I think we’re aiming for when we start to talk about sustainability.

So if I try to apply that analogy to a single person — we sometimes talk in terms of single intervention. Let’s make ATMs voice-enabled. Let’s make financial institutions physically accessible for people who use wheelchairs. And those are great and beautiful, like individual bunches of flowers. But if we want a forest, if we want to plant some trees that will change the landscape, I think we need to start thinking cradle to grave. Because financial inclusion is a process that runs, you might say, from pocket money to pension. It runs from school, to job, to investment. Everything you do, in your life as a disabled person, is touched by and meaningful to a financial process. So I think my proposition today, and I’d be really interested to have feedback on this, is that we need to plant some more trees.

And I think it’s worth just pausing a little bit about why, before we start to wholesale re-scape the landscape. I’m guessing all of us in this room care passionately about justice. There’s probably nobody here who doesn’t think that we should do this for justice, for rights, for equality, for fairness. That’s what gets us all out of bed every morning. And also if we’re thinking in terms of sustainability there’s also something around waste. Because what a waste, I mean we heard earlier a billion people, what a waste of their talents, their potential innovation, their contribution, if we were not to do it.

And I would say my third reason is around participation. The way we organise the world that we live in, most of the choices we make are financially enabled. When we got up this morning and got dressed, the clothes we chose were partly a function of the money that we have. Where we live is partly a function of a financial process. Where we work, where we go to school. And without those choices you can’t actually participate fully in the society in which you live. 

So I would say there are lots of good and positive reasons why we should be having the conversation that we are having today. Justice, doing away with waste, choice, participation. And there’s also another reason, which I don’t think is one that mostly motivates the people in this room. But I was absolutely fascinated to hear Christine Lagarde talk passionately recently about how, without the full participation of disadvantaged groups, the world will never achieve the full economic growth it needs. There is no chance, she said, in terms of GDP targets being met, if the 1 billion disabled people who are excluded are not included. That pool of talent is absolutely essential for driving the economic growth that we need to sustain the world we live in. It’s a very binary decision making process here. There’s a pool of talent or a pool of dependency. And one way leads to growth and the other way leads to stagnation. So there are lots of great and positive reasons, but there’s also an economic self-interest reason why we should be looking to solve this problem.

So where do we start when we start to think about financial inclusion? I would suggest that we start with education. At Leonard Cheshire we’ve been banging the drum, as I know many of us have, for inclusive education for a very long time now. And there’s something about the willingness and the attitudes of teachers, schools, societies and communities to welcome disabled people into the classroom. Then there’s also of course the physical enablement. Can you, even if you are welcomed here, get yourself onto the transport to school? Can you get yourself into the classroom? 

But there’s something actually much more pernicious. That, even if you had that subscription to inclusive education, and if you had physically accessible buildings, will stop us having financial inclusion if we’re not careful. And that’s a poverty of aspiration. Because I think we can all imagine a situation where there are two children in class, equally skilled, equally talented, one disabled and one non-disabled. And for one child, the teacher will talk about further education, fulfilling their potential, a wonderful career, how they are going to build their lives and fulfil their potential. 

And it’s not beyond the realms of imagination is it — and I think if you spoke to some of our Young Voices who have been around the place for a few days, they would tell you examples — that sometimes for the other child, it’s more about, well you are probably going to leave school at the earliest opportunity. You are probably going to get a basic grade sort of qualification if you get anything at all. And are you actually sure you want to work, isn’t it going to be really difficult? And if you absolutely insist, maybe there’s some dead-end job, a routine job, a job without a future, without a career path. 

And so I think we need to think of financial inclusion in terms of ambition for disabled people from the very go — to give that aspiration, that ambition to lead the full economically participative lives that everybody else is aspiring to.

So if education is the first step, I would say there’s something else that’s at the heart of financial inclusion for me, and that’s employment. Because for all of us in work, I would say how we spend most of our days, and we support our families, we certainly get a lot of pleasure and fulfilment, meet a lot of new people, is at work. Work is central to our lives, work is for many of us what gives our lives meaning and it certainly puts bread on the table.

And if you haven’t got a job, and if we can’t support disabled people into employment, we actually exclude them. It’s as simple as that. If you can’t financially support yourself and your family, for reasons of your disability, then you are not included financially in the society that you live in. And that’s why at Leonard Cheshire we’ve been working through our Access to Livelihoods programme to support disabled people into employment and into skills-related training. We’re fortunate to have worked with great employers like Vodafone and Accenture and Thomson-Reuters. And we’re fortunate to have supported tens of thousands of disabled people into employment in Asia and Africa.

But I would say that work, great though it is, is a pot plant. Because if we don’t plant the trees that make it sustainable, it will just wither and die. We’ll have an impact on a few thousand people, but we won’t have changed the world. So I think what’s much more important as a separate part of that programme is the work that goes alongside it to create an enabling environment. An environment that really supports disabled people to participate. In that work we are fortunate enough to have many many partners, many other NGOS, agencies, microfinance providers, financial institutions, all working in partnership to change the societies that they live in, to influence governments, to influence employers.

Just to give one very small example, in Lucknow in India, the Bank of India now provides zero balance bank accounts for disabled entrepreneurs starting up. It’s a tiny example, but how can you start a business without a bank account? How can you start a bank account if you have no money? You see the problem. 

So I think one of things I’d like to explore later this morning, if we can, is how we can work together to plant that forest. Because unless we embed the change that we are seeking, unless we make it run from cradle to grave, the world will never benefit from the full economic contribution of disabled people, and that’s what I know we all want. Thank you.

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