This disability activist says we must offer dignity and financial inclusion rather than just braille and ramps

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sean Fleming, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • It’s time to boost the economic resilience and participation of people across the developing world – particularly people living with disabilities.
  • The benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution aren’t being experienced universally.
  • It’s time to seize the chance to put humanity on an entirely new trajectory.

Diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy at the age of two and given only five years to live, Edward Ndopu has gone on to become an award-winning disabilities advocate who’s got the ear of the UN secretary-general. As part of the Sustainable Development Impact Summit, Ndopu shares the issues that keep him up at night and the importance of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals in ways that benefit the most vulnerable.

You can hear more from Edward Ndopu, and other leading global figures, on the World Economic Forum’s Great Reset Podcast. https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/896824813&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true

1. What do the UN Goals – taken together with the sustainable agenda more broadly – mean to you, personally?

I am a young person from the continent of Africa. I’m a person of colour. I’m a person with a disability. So to me, the goals are a blueprint for creating a world where I’m able to see myself reflected.

I think the goals offer humanity a pathway for making sure that all voices are equal. And I think we have a unique window of opportunity right now to bridge the gap between international development and social justice.

2. What are some of the challenges in advancing that agenda, and helping marginalized and vulnerable communities?

Right now there are various estimates that say between 200 and 500 million people could be plunged into extreme poverty as a result of the global pandemic. We need to think about why their situation is already precarious and what has made them so vulnerable.

And so I think we have an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and go beyond what I call the zero mentality – this idea that the minimum threshold is good enough. Because ultimately that doesn’t provide the kind of resilience the most vulnerable and marginalized communities need in order to live a life of dignity.

I think a second point is that we cannot underestimate the importance of representation, especially when it comes to how the planet is being shaped. We need to ensure that the people in those rooms look like the communities they represent and are advocating on behalf of.

3. What are some of the unique solutions that you’re working on to advance policies that are more holistic in nature?

So, I have launched a not-for-profit organization called Beyond Zero. I work with leaders, both in the public and the private sector to help them identify ways that they can increase and raise that income threshold.

I’ll give you a practical example. My constituencies are mostly people living with disabilities. So when I sit down with a Fortune 500 company or with a head of state, what I am saying to them is that we need to go beyond compliance. We need to go beyond just the ramp, beyond braille, beyond sign language, to really think about access that goes beyond the built environment and into economic participation. Where disabled people feel as though they are productive, valuable members of society.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

4. What keeps you up at night in terms of trying to make progress on all of this?

What keeps me up at night? Well, I think it’s the fear that people are already being left behind. At the United Nations we have a mantra – you leave nobody behind. But I think if we are honest with ourselves, there are so many people that have already been left behind.

And that could have been me. I have a Master’s from Oxford, but I’m always deeply aware that 90% of children with disabilities across the developing world have never even seen the inside of a classroom. That is quite jarring.

On the one hand, we have tremendous technological progress in the form of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Yet on the other hand there is immense deprivation, immense inequality, immense poverty. These two things exist side-by-side in the world we live in. And so I am really animated by the deep desire to bridge these gaps.

5. With UN Week coming up in conjunction with our Sustainable Development Impact Summit, what do you hope leaders will be addressing and discussing?

This is a sobering moment, an opportunity for leaders to take stock of our collective failure to really make the world better for people who don’t see themselves reflected in it.

It is my profound hope that leaders meeting on the occasion of this 75th anniversary of the UN will think about the goals, not just as a milestone to be reached but as a turning point. It’s a chance to put humanity on an entirely new trajectory that is in service of everyone.

I’m not sure how many chances we have left, to be able to do that. It’s sort of now or never.

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