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Inclusive and sustainable economic empowerment: how to reach the tipping point?

Economic empowerment is the capacity of women and men to participate in, contribute to and benefit from growth processes in ways that recognise the value of their contributions and respect their dignity. Disability data is scarce but the ILOSTAT estimates that, in developing countries, 75% of persons with disabilities of working age are unemployed. Thus creating barriers to living independently and being included in the community. The past two decades have seen a major shift in inclusive economic empowerment both in terms of organisations involved and in the breadth of work covered. We are no longer limited to closed workshops and the likes but prospects are instead much broader. To look at this shift and its impact on the economic empowerment of persons with disabilities, the International Disability and Development Consortium and Sightsavers organised a workshop in Brighton (UK) on 16 May 2024 that brought together representatives from programmes, international organisations and governments.

The workshop focused specifically on three dimensions of economic empowerment in the Global South: ‘Vocational training, entrepreneurship and self-employment’; ‘Financial services inclusion and social protection’; and ‘Formal sector, value chains and rural economic empowerment’. We had the opportunity to hear from a wide array of programmes implemented by IDDC members and partners such as the FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office of the United Kingdom) funded Disability Inclusive Development – Inclusive Futures Program covering the STAR+ project in Bangladesh, InBusiness in Kenya and HAMRO coffee in Nepal, as well as the SPARK Disability Inclusive Rural Transformation Project, Emploi & Handicap, Community-Based Savings Groups, Older People’s Associations, Por Talento Digital or Kapebo Programme. The International Labour Organisation and the FCDO shared their insights as partners and donors investing in inclusive economic empowerment.

Breaking down barriers to the economic empowerment of persons with disabilities is not a specificity of Global South’s contexts. As reminded by the ONCE Foundation, while sharing their work in Spain, and in particular their programme Por Talento Digital. the difficulties for persons with disabilities to achieve economic independence is a worldwide phenomenon. Looking at the Global South, whether you consider the formal/informal sector, entrepreneurship, or group savings, there are key elements beyond training persons with disabilities that leverage their sustainable economic empowerment: 

  • Persons with disabilities and OPDs are partners. Economic empowerment is inclusive only where compliance with the CRPD is ensured. This means that persons with disabilities and organisations representative of persons with disabilities are meaningfully involved. Not just as beneficiaries and consultees but as true partners, from design to delivery. In the SPARK Programme, Light for the World and its partners applied its Disability Inclusion Facilitator approach that put persons with disabilities in the lead position. With this approach, young people with disabilities are trained to become Disability Inclusion Facilitators that support awareness and implementation of disability inclusion in mainstream programmes, services, organisations or workplaces. In 2022 and 2023, the 82 trained Disability Inclusion Facilitator provided 1.185 professional services reaching out to more than 50.000 people across Burkina Faso, India, Malawi and Mozambique. The combination of lived experience of disability and technical expertise on disability inclusion bring forth practical advice and innovative solutions. In the Inclusive Futures programme, OPDs are meaningfully engaged throughout the whole project cycle, in governance and decision-making, as important implementing partners, and in monitoring, evaluation, and learning.
  • Adaptability. Reaching out to the hardest to reach such as persons with complex disabilities (people with deafblindness, people with multiple impairments) requires flexibility. Within the Inclusive Futures programme, Sense International presented a concrete example with the apprenticeship-type model, the STAR+ model, they are implementing in Bangladesh to support persons with deafblindness in gaining financial independence. This mainstream model initially developed by BRAC was adapted in order to meet the reality of persons with deafblindness. Education, economic and age criteria to join the program have been modified, a pre-training period introduced to prepare the learner for the training and the length of the training itself adjusted.
  • Capacity-building. On the one hand, this is capacity-building of persons with disabilities and OPDs. From a waged employment perspective, this means building the employability and job readiness of women and men with disabilities, supporting them with access to employability training, soft skills training, access to mentorship, and additional support. As aforementioned, Sense International introduced a pre-training period to its programme to go through activities of daily living, communication, orientation, mobility, assessments to get assistive devices in order to prepare the learner for the training. As part of Emploi & Handicap, Humanity & Inclusion supports Organisations of Persons with Disabilities in assisting and preparing job seekers for employment and going through all the critical phases of identification and registration, needs assessment, orientation, etc. On the other hand, capacity-building is also meant for employers and other staff members to build their confidence and their disability-inclusive practices in order to ensure a safe and thriving working environment for persons with disabilities. Humanity & Inclusion reported more than 400 professionals trained on disability inclusion. In the case of entrepreneurs, the involvement of caregivers, families and the overall is not to be overlooked.
  • Strong partnerships with the private sector. To ensure sustainability over time and avoid post-programme regressions, efforts are deployed to make disability inclusion becoming part of the companies’ DNA. With such an institutional cultural change, disability inclusion will not be limited to their programming, but will be part of their systems, financial systems, human resources policies, partnerships, etc. Sightsavers’ approach in relationship-building and public/private partnerships additionally looks at how to embed inclusion throughout the companies’ value chains, leveraging their call for influence across clients, service providers, and suppliers.
  • Peer-to-peer learning. Building the employer confidence and disability-inclusive practice of companies is facilitated when sharing experiences and lessons learned with one another. For instance, Sightsavers works closely with the International Labour Organisation and existing employer networks to establish business disability networks. Those are convening platforms for peer learning and champions of best practices between corporates, Organisations of Persons with Disabilities, and Civil Society. They are independent but all connected to the ILO Global Business and Disability Network. Hence, when a country decides to create a new network, they can benefit from the olders’ technical support and knowledge. At the moment, new networks are being established in Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

An encouraging trend is that economic empowerment programmes are focusing more and more on the aspirations of persons with disabilities themselves. From becoming a barista to a microentrepreneur owning their businesses, choice is theirs. Inclusive value chains support those interested in areas of self-employment and entrepreneurship, either in urban spaces or in more rural contexts. Sightsavers mentioned in particular the Coca Cola Beverages Africa value chain and the Diageo Sorghum value chain that supports respectively the inclusion of women with disabilities and farmers with disabilities. Similarly, Light for the World developed the Disability Inclusive Value Chain Development tool. The latter analyses value chains from a disability-inclusion perspective, with a gender lens, and supports the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the most promising nodes and sectors in terms of business and jobs opportunities. In addition, while labour markets are facing a challenging global context with the rise of Artificial Intelligence or the change from a carbon intensive economy to a green economy, these actually represent a unique opportunity and we need to make sure that emerging markets are inclusive. The Next Step Foundation shared its work in supporting persons with disabilities to acquire skills in data science and cybersecurity in order to meet the private sector’s growing demand in this sector. Another interesting trend lies in the growing efforts invested in opening the doors of formal employment to persons with disabilities. At present, an estimated 60% of all employment in the world is in the informal sector and just a few years ago this sector represented the only gateway to economic empowerment for persons with disabilities. But mindsets are evolving and even if limited for now, the formal sector represents another source of employment opportunities for persons with disabilities.  

Economic empowerment goes beyond mere employment, this is also about gaining access to financial services. Obtaining microcredits from banks is difficult for persons with disabilities, all the more when they live in a rural area. In this context, saving groups represent a key entry point for income generation and broader economic empowerment of persons with disabilities. Saving groups are self-developed and self-managed structures where members take loans to invest in income generation activities, to buy medicines, pay school fees, or provide food for their families. When the concept is introduced in a community, the uptake is usually high due to the transparent table banking methodology, risk mitigation through the annual share out, good returns on savings, easy access to affordable loans and democratic decision making processes. Since 2016 in Rwanda, CBM and their partner NUDOR have been working with Saving Groups in nine districts. To date their projects have supported the establishment of 2,892 Savings Groups with 82,248 members, through various funded projects. Over the past couple of years, CBM has also been promoting disability inclusive saving groups gathering people with and without disabilities as well as caregivers of children with disabilities in order to further support communities in becoming more inclusive.

Social services and the presence of a safety net is equally crucial to ensure the economic empowerment of persons with disabilities. However, when it comes to governmental social protection policies, advocacy efforts are still needed to uproot old thinking of social protection and enable people to combine disability benefits with other types of benefits such as unemployment benefits or pension benefits. At present, in many countries worldwide, not just in the Global South, jobs/social pensions and disability benefits are mutually exclusive. To overcome the public sector shortcomings, alternative informal mechanisms are being established. Saving groups provide informal social protection mechanisms to their members as they contribute to a social fund from which money can be withdrawn in time of acute need to pay for unforeseen expenses. Older People’s Associations are established to improve older people’s living conditions and develop their communities. HelpAge International highlighted that in many countries, they are the largest source of community-based care for older people with disabilities.

Another important hurdle is the lack of inclusive data, including livelihood-related data. This makes it difficult to advocate for inclusive work. How to counter claims that including is too difficult or too expensive when you do not even have evidence that can support your argument? This is the rationale behind setting up Inclusive Futures Program:  introduce equity as a value to include in financial frameworks and produce evidence that is sorely lacking at present to support future programmes in this sector. Speakers underlined programmes and projects’ sustainability is irrevocably linked with genuine evaluation phase supporting the production of evidence that can be shared, scaled-up and exported in other contexts, especially mainstream areas. Economic empowerment increases persons with disabilities’ access to economic resources and opportunities including jobs, financial services, property and other productive assets, skills development and market information. Economic empowerment can only be achieved if they have access to jobs and livelihoods and to basic entitlements, such as education, health services and housing. In turn, this economic participation facilitates the social integration of persons with disabilities.

Inclusive Economic Empowerment in the form of a Venn Diagram.

Circle on the top: Persons with disabilities have access to basic needs: education, health services, housing, etc.
Circle on the right: Persons with disabilities are included in the society.
Circle on the left: Persons with disabilities have access to jobs and livelihoods.

Where all the circles meet, you can read 'Inclusive Economic Empowerment'
Chart 1: Inclusive Economic Empowerment

People can get enthusiastic about inclusion when they experience how well it works. By becoming gainfully employed and financially independent, persons with disabilities are better included in their family and community. They gain confidence and increase their communication and physical skills. Behind the figures, we have microentrepreneurs with deafblindness networking in an international business conference in Kenya, we have mothers bringing their children with disabilities to meetings of savings groups instead of hiding them at home, we have a restaurant owner, in a refugee camp, recruiting persons with disabilities as staff members after a first positive experience of partnering with a microentrepreneur with disabilities.

Through capacity-building, and in particular the capacity building of OPDs, strengthening of social and employment services, establishing deep and long-lasting partnerships with both public and private sectors, supporting innovations, you can get to the tipping point, where all the small changes turn into a shift. We are not there yet, but we are much closer than two decades from now and we will continue advocating and working to reach it together with our OPD partners.

Key learnings from the workshop
* Engage meaningfully with persons with disabilities and OPDs: not just as beneficiaries but as partners.
* Flexibility of donors and programmes are preconditions to leave no one behind.
* Strong partnerships with the private sector going beyond programmes to provoke is the road to an institutional cultural shift making inclusive employment the norm.
* It requires specific efforts and adaptations to ensure that women with disabilities can equally participate and benefit from economic empowerment initiatives; these include adapted selection criteria, arrangements for caretaker responsibilities, and addressing safeguarding and safety concerns.
* Investing in making existing programs disability inclusive is a small investment with the potential of big impact.
* People can get enthusiastic about inclusion when they experience how well it works.
* Economic participation is a door to social integration.
* More evidence is needed to be shared and scaled-up in other contexts.

Portfolio: Programmes and Projects mentioned during the work

Inclusive Futures Program
2018 – 2025

The FCDO and USAID funded Inclusive Futures programmes work globally to empower people with disabilities. Their focus centers on four key areas: health, education, employment, and negative stereotyping and discrimination. They develop programs that address the specific health needs of disabled individuals, while also promoting accessibility and equal opportunities within education systems. Furthermore, they foster vocational training and entrepreneurial ventures to increase employment options. By collaborating with experts and utilizing data analysis, Inclusive Futures ensures their programs are effective and deliver long-term positive impact for people with disabilities.

Projects under the Inclusive Futures Program include for instance:
InBusiness Kenya. Aligned with the UNCRPD, this FCDO-funded project empowers individuals through micro-enterprise training, mentorship, and financial support. The project connect micro-enterprises with markets and pushing for inclusive policies. At present, the project achieved nearly 1,200 empowered individuals, a 27% profit jump for micro-enterprises, and companies like East Africa Breweries embracing disability inclusion.
Nepal Coffee Value Chain Project. Building on past successes, this FCDO-funded initiative aims to create a more inclusive coffee value chain in Nepal, linking it to the EU-funded Hamro Coffee Project. By working alongside people with disabilities and coffee industry actors, innovative solutions ensure inclusivity, benefiting both individuals and Nepal’s economy.
STAR+ Bangladesh. The STAR model is an apprenticeship training originally developed by BRAC. It’s equipping school dropouts with technical, vocational and soft skills. The project helps employers create a ‘decent work’ environment and tries to foster decent work practices in the informal sector. Within Inclusive Futures, this model was adapted (STAR+) to consistently include young people with disabilities in the training cohorts, including young people with multiples and complex disabilities, and also trial putting OPDs in the lead of running the initiative.
Global Labor Program. Funded by the US Agency for International Development, it will work with East African Breweries Limited (EABL), owned by Diageo, and Coca-Cola Beverages Africa (Kenya) to ensure inclusion and labour rights are a key part of the companies’ supply and distribution chains.

Consortium: ADD International, BBC Media Action, Benetech, BRAC, COTU-K, Central Organization of Trade Unions Kenya, Development Initiatives, Equal Rights Trust, Humanity & Inclusion, Inclusion International, Innovations for Poverty Action, Institute of Development Studies, International Disability Alliance, Kenya Female Advisory Organization, Leonard Cheshire, Light for the World, LINC, Sense International, Sightsavers, Social Development Direct, Standard Chartered, Sustainable Hospitality Alliance, TechnoServe, Ulula, United Disabled Persons of Kenya.
Countries: Kenya, Bangladesh, Nepal, Tanzania, Nigeria and Uganda.
Website: https://inclusivefutures.org/ ; https://inclusivecoffeejourneys.org/

SPARK program
2021 – 2024

The SPARK Disability Inclusive Rural Transformation program empowers people with disabilities for success in agriculture. It trains individuals as Disability Inclusion Facilitators (DIFs) who advise on integrating them into agricultural projects. DIFs also build capacity within organizations working on rural development, ensuring disability inclusion throughout the process.  SPARK further strengthens Organizations of Persons with Disabilities and fosters innovation to guarantee lasting economic inclusion for people with disabilities.
As part of the programme implementation, SPARK implements Social Innovation Labs and Agri Labs. A Social Innovation Lab is a process of developing local solutions using the principles of Human Centred Design, and Co-Creation involving those who are impacted by a challenge the most. Through this process, solutions are ideated, nurtured, tested, and developed. The process aims at creating solutions that are not only locally viable, but also scalable. An AgriLab follows the same process, but is aimed at the development of a physical tool used in an agricultural context, whereas a Social Innovation Lab can develop any type of solution or resource. Both Social Innovation Labs and AgriLabs are always set up around a challenge. These labs have produced various adaptive farming equipment and creative projects such as the Agriopoly game to assure engagement.

Partners: Light for the World, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Labour Organisation and Procasure
Countries: Burkina Faso, India, Mozambique, and Malawi.
Website: https://sparkinclusion.org/

Emploi & Handicap Phase 2
2021 – 2024

The project aims to create an inclusive ecosystem for supporting job seekers with disabilities in accessing jobs by coordinating social and employment services with employers. It focuses on OPDs capacity-buiding and supporting inclusive practices. To achieve this, multi-stakeholder committees are formed, pathways are designed, and a competency framework is developed. Additionally, five OPDs are empowered to lead awareness events and advocacy. Over 400 professionals receive training in disability inclusion, and Morocco’s employment agency receives an inclusive roadmap. Furthermore, social services assist with accommodations. The project engages 250 companies, organizes job fairs, and fosters CSR initiatives and green practices, ultimately building an inclusive job market for individuals with disabilities.

Implemented by: Humanity & Inclusion
Countries: Morocco, Tunisia, Benin, and Senegal

Kapebo Programme
2023 – 2024

The Kapebo Program aims to empower vulnerable communities in Kenya, including Persons with Disabilities, orphans, and widows. The initiative provides essential digital, entrepreneurial, and life skills to break down barriers and foster economic self-sufficiency. Through a comprehensive four-week training regimen, participants undergo training in digital skills, job readiness, and life skills, facilitating their transition to independent living and job placements tailored to their abilities.

Implemented by: The Next Step Foundation
Country: Kenya

Por Talento Digital
2019 – Present

Por Talento Digital is an innovative program aimed at bridging the digital gap and enhancing the employability of persons with disabilities, with a focus on digital and technological fields. It targets individuals of all ages, educational backgrounds, and levels of digital skills, delivering training online, in person, and through hybrid formats, thereby reaching individuals even in rural or isolated areas. In 2021, the first Por Talento Digital training center opened in Madrid, equipped with state-of-the-art technology, followed by the launch of a new e-learning platform in 2023. The training catalogue is tailored to the needs of the labour market, identified in collaboration with employers.
Since 2019, the program has trained approximately 26,000 students with disabilities. 47% of participants were women, addressing their underrepresentation in the technology sector, and 51% were over 45 years old, highlighting the program’s role in upskilling and reskilling individuals with disabilities. 
Por Talento Digital received the European Social Economy Award in the “Skills” category in 2023 and was acknowledged as one of the innovative initiatives by the Zero Project in 2024. 

Implemented by: The ONCE Foundation
Country: Spain
Website: https://portalentodigital.fundaciononce.es/

CBM – NUDOR Saving Groups projects in Rwanda
2016 – Present

SaveAbility project Rwanda
(2017 – 2022)
Funded by the Scottish Government, the main objective of the project is to improve incomes, Economic resilience and involvement in community decision-making for persons with Disabilities in Rwanda. Target Group: 31,200 persons with Disabilities across eight Districts of Rwanda: KAYONZA.

Zigama Ushore Ubeho Neza (ZUUN)
Improving the social-economic living conditions of persons with disabilities
(2022 – 2024)
Funded by BMZ, the project focuses on savings and health of people with disabilities. It is being implemented in five Districts: Gisagara and Muhanga districts in Sourthern Province, Rubavu district in Western Province, Burera district in Northern Province and Ngoma District in Easten province. The target groups of this project are the 22,500 future members of the 750 village savings groups to be founded in this project, of which each group will have around 30 members.

Dukore Twigire Project (DUT)
Promoting the Employment and Socio-Economic Status of People with disabilities in Rwanda
(2022 – 2025)
The project intervention focusses on improving incomes, economic resilience and involvement in community decision-making; strengthening the access to financial services and enhanced financial skills, through the creation of Village Savings and Loans (VSL) groups and technical & appropriate soft skills training through Community Based Trainings (CBTs). The project is targeting the population of Huye district in Southern province, Rwamagana and Bugesera districts in Eastern province and Kicukiro district in Kigali city. Direct target group are 14,000 persons with disabilities in mentioned four districts and 200 Youth with disabilities.

Partners: CBM and the National Union of Disability Organisations in Rwanda (NUDOR)
Country: Rwanda


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