The Disabled Poor

> Posted by Joshua Goldstein
What role can microfinance organizations play in helping to bring access to financial services to people with disabilities? The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities emphasizes that people with disabilities should not be treated as “objects” of charity but as “subjects” with rights, who are capable of living productive lives and contributing to society.
This shift in perspective sounds remarkably similar to the way that the perspective about the poor transformed in the seventies when the microfinance revolution took off. The poor, long viewed as objects of charity, became “subjects” determining their own destiny, fueled by loans to lift themselves out of poverty, rather than as lifetime wards of first world philanthropists.
Today, the WHO estimates that roughly 10 percent of the world’s population (650 million people) lives with some kind of disability, 80 per cent in low-income countries. There is a clear association between poverty and disability. Yet, the Millennium Development Goals where it is never even mention disabilities. Activists in the disability community are lobbying to rectify this situation.
Microfinance practitioners face a challenge to find viable and sustainable ways to serve this vast segment of the global poor. It won’t not be easy for MFIs to train loan officers and other staff to serve this diverse client base, since what constitutes a disability runs the gamut from mental illness to blindness, deafness or loss of limb. A deaf client might need a very different kind of vocational training and even loan product than someone who is blind, for example, to achieve economic independence.
The Center for Financial Inclusion is beginning to grapple with what is both a problem and enormous opportunity for microfinance providers As a first step we are talking with Professor Michael Stein, Executive Director, Harvard Law School Project on Disability to identify concrete first steps including pilots to address this enormous market failure. One thing is for sure – achieving full financial inclusion is impossible if the disabled are excluded from the equation.
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