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Volume 15, No.9 - September 2011

Feature articles


“Life knew that I had a mission”

“Life knew that I had a mission”

Daniela Bas was only six years old when doctors found a tumor pressing on her spine. Beating the odds, she survived but became paraplegic in less than 20 days before surgery. Now, Daniela heads UN DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development, where one of the tasks is to promote the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its implementation worldwide. 

“I was very lucky,” says Daniela Bas, about having defeated a very rare disease that affects only two or three children in every million and which hardly any child survived in the 1960s. “Probably life knew that I had a mission,” she adds.

Daniela also refers to her parents and the fact that they always stood by her. Coming from a small town on the Italian countryside, the mentality and culture were different in those days. “Because I was paraplegic, I was a ‘handicapped’. The label was there. People started treating me as a ‘handicapped’, except my parents.”

To them, she was exactly the same child in her heart, feelings and personality. She might not be using her shoes anymore. She was wearing them, but it was the tires of a wheelchair that helped her move forward. But the way she commuted was the only thing that had changed.

Her parents also made sure that she could attend the primary school she was supposed to, only five months after she had become paraplegic, despite rules in those days not allowing children with a disability to attend ordinary school. However, three years later in the 1970s, regulations changed and Daniela was legally accepted in ordinary school.

“I think overall in Europe, things have improved. It took about 40 years. When it comes to developing countries, we have to be aware that even if we have the convention, it will take time before we see improvements,” says Daniela.

International expert and broadcaster Daniela graduated in international relations, writing her dissertation on employment of people with physical disabilities and the elimination of architectural barriers. With knowledge of several foreign languages and after completing an exam, she joined the UN’s CSDHA/Disabled Persons Unit in Vienna as a Junior Professional Officer in 1986. In the 1990s, this office moved to New York and later on became DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development, of which Daniela now is in charge.

“I have to thank the United Nations for being so motivated. It is because the UN started promoting equal opportunities also for people with disabilities decades ago that I am here,” she says.

For about 10 years, Daniela worked for the UN in the area of social development and human rights. She left the organization in 1995 and held a number of other significant assignments including as Special Adviser on “Fundamental Rights” to the former Vice President of the European Commission; as the Italian representative to the European Commission on “Tourism for All”; as Management Board Member of the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency in Vienna, and as journalist and broadcaster for Italian Radio RAI and Radio24/Sole24 Ore and TV channels.

Concept of reduced mobility

“When I talk about disability, and this is my very personal point, I prefer to talk about reduced mobility. Because that can embrace 80 per cent of the population. For one reason or another in our lives we will have some sort of reduced mobility, temporary or permanent,” says Daniela.

During her years working as a journalist, Daniela focused mainly on leisure and tourism, as these are topics that appeal to people. “In all my broadcast, I was talking about social issues through tourism, trying to convey a message, to educate people and my listeners to this concept of reduced mobility.”

Also behind this choice of focus, is probably Daniela’s passion for travel. “For me, travel means freedom. I can move. And I have met many people with disabilities around the world, who have inspired me.”

Focus on the person

Over the years, Daniela has seen progress within the UN on matters relating to disabilities. “The UN has changed its definitions during the past decades from ‘handicapped’, ‘disabled person’, to nowadays ‘a person with a disability’. We are focusing on the person. I think this is a huge achievement.”

Daniela also mentions other signs of improvements in society. When looking at fairy tales from the old days, the “bad guys” of the stories were often portrayed with some sort of disability. The cat in Pinocchio was blind, Captain Hook in Peter Pan had a hook instead of an arm and the wicked queen in Snow White probably had scoliosis. Nowadays, the stories are different and characters with disabilities are portrayed in a positive way. “This tells us that things have improved and that all the efforts of the UN during the last decade are paying off,” says Daniela.

Working for change and advancing rights

Three months ago, Daniela returned to the UN and her area of expertise as the Director of UN DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development. Daniela highlights that through DESA’s work, three disability-focused instruments have been adopted at the international level.

First there was the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons in 1982; then the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities in 1993; and lastly the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006. Pakistan is the latest country to ratify the convention, making 103 the total number of countries which have ratified so far.

“I hope the convention will help countries as well as the UN system to promote the rights of persons with disabilities in all aspects of society and development,” says Daniela. She also hopes that the convention will bring about raised awareness about disability as a development and human rights issue as well as the situation of persons with disabilities on the ground. “Persons with disabilities should enjoy equal opportunities and a better quality of life. It takes decades, because it requires a cultural change.”

Daniela also underscores UN DESA’s cooperation with civil society and the possibilities created when we all work together. Member States, civil society, UN agencies and NGOs at grassroots level all play a part in affecting people and bringing about change.

Meeting to evaluate progress made in the implementation of the convention

Next on the agenda for Daniela and her team is one of the largest meetings of the international community working on disability taking place in New York on 7-9 September. The Fourth session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will then be held under the theme Enabling Development, Realizing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Member States, the UN and civil society will discuss on-going progress and will share good practices on the effective implementation of the convention around the world.

At the end of this DESA News interview with Daniela Bas, it is clear that nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it. And as said in a quote by Goethe, included on Daniela’s personal website: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it”.

For more information:

United Nations Enable:

http://www.un.org/disabilities/

United Nations Enable on Facebook:

http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/United-Nations-Enable/196545623691523

UN DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development:

http://social.un.org/index/

Fourth session of the Conference of States Parties:

http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=1571

World Report on Disability:

http://www.who.int/disabilities/world_report/2011/en/index.html

Daniela Bas:

http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/newsletter/2011/june/cg.shtml#cg2

What to make of the recent global financial turmoil?

What to make of the recent global financial turmoil?

Is it fair to compare the recent plunge in stock markets with the early stages of the crisis in 2008 and are we heading towards a double-dip recession? These and other frequently asked questions on the current economic turmoil are addressed by UN DESA’s Development Policy and Analysis Division (DPAD).

 

Q1: Many observers draw a parallel between the recent plunge in stock markets and the early stage of the global financial crisis in 2008. Is that a fair comparison?

To some extent it is. The precipitous sell-off in global stock markets, the heightened market volatility, growing fears for a spreading sovereign debt crisis in Europe and escalating risks of a double-dip recession all have elements of resemblance to the situation in the first half of 2008, just before the global financial crisis erupted.

In some respects, the current situation may be even worse. In 2008, the main concern was with stress in the private financial sector. Now facing both public debt distress and continued financial sector fragility and the two are interwoven. In late 2008, many governments were able to mobilize large-scale resources to combat the crisis. Now most developed countries face greater fiscal constraints and political resistance to more government intervention.

In other respects, things are better now. Banks have disposed of a large proportion of toxic assets and have increased their capital. Households and firms have also managed to scale back their debts.

Q2. Are we heading towards a double-dip recession?

This may well be true for the advanced economies. Unemployment rates remain high and are a drag on the recovery of output. The economy of the euro zone has come to a virtual standstill already with growth in France and Germany faltering and the debt-ridden economies of Greece and Portugal have never been out of recession over the past three years. Economic growth in the United States has also decelerated significantly in the first half of the year, to less than 1 per cent, while Japan had already entered in another recession by the end of 2010.

The global economy need not enter into a double-dip recession, however, as growth in developing countries is still strong. Even so, their economic expansion is also slowing, in part because of the weakness in the advanced economies.

Q3: Is fiscal austerity the answer?

As such, it is not. The high unemployment and lack of private consumer and investment demand in advanced economies would in fact call for some additional fiscal stimulus. True, this may add to government debt, but so would a sliding economy that eats into government revenue and pushes up debt ratios.

For most advanced economies, the focus should be on measures stimulating jobs growth more directly in the short run and lay out credible plans for reducing budget deficits and debts over the medium run once economies are going again. Not all economies are in a position to do so, especially where the debt situation is beyond limits, such as in Greece and Portugal. Their plans for fiscal sustainability have greater urgency, but can only be effective with further external financial support and stronger growth in the euro zone because else an even deeper recession would defeat attempts at fiscal consolidation.

In short, national policies need to be coordinated internationally. During the financial turmoil of the past weeks, investors have been mostly concerned with faltering economic activity, not with fears for debt defaults per se.

Q4. Will the US dollar weaken following the downgrading of the credit rating for US sovereign debt?

The downgrading has exacerbated uncertainty in foreign exchange markets. So far, however, investors do not seem to have given up hope in the dollar and also their confidence that the United States will honour its debt obligations seems unscathed. In fact, over the past weeks they have bought more US Treasury bills as a sign these are still a ‘safe haven’ amidst all uncertainty and interest rates have fallen.

What happens next remains to be seen. No doubt we will see continued exchange rate volatility among major currencies in the short run. Over time, the tendency of the US dollar to fall is likely to resume if its external deficit persists.

Q5. What will happen to growth and poverty in the developing countries?

For now, growth rates are still up in developing countries and also employment has returned (on average) to pre-crisis levels. The slowdown in Europe and the United States will hurt their exports. Further declines in commodity prices will be a mixed blessing: some economies will see inflationary pressures ease with lower food and energy prices; others, depending on commodity exports, will see bleaker growth prospects. The uncertainty and related volatility in commodity prices and capital flows will be damaging to all, however, as it will affect long-term investment decisions and complicate macroeconomic policies.

Many developing countries showed resilience during the global crisis, but fiscal space is running out for a number of them to counteract another major drop in external demand. Many countries have already shifted to more restrictive policies in order to counteract high domestic inflation. But poverty reduction will be better served by a stable external environment and by policies focusing on making economic growth more inclusive through agricultural development, industrial diversification, and social development programmes.

For more information:

UN DESA’s Development Policy and Analysis Division (DPAD):

http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/policy/index.shtml

To stay updated, please follow the analysis in the Monthly Briefings on the World Economic Situation and Prospects: http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/policy/wesp/wesp_mb.shtml

Indigenous rights: a celebration and a caution

Indigenous peoples make up more than five per cent of the world’s population. Although their societies have contributed much to scientific and cultural knowledge, their ways of life continue to be threatened by the pace and scale of global development.

The UN International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on 9 August was commemorated with a panel discussion on the theme Indigenous designs: Celebrating stories and cultures, crafting our own future, highlighting the need to protect the rights and support the aims of indigenous groups. It was also stressed that the world cannot afford to lose the cultural wealth of indigenous societies, a point beautifully illustrated by the film Kalimantan’s Craft; Harmony of Culture and Nature.

Video: http://www.unmultimedia.org/tv/webcast/2011/08/panel-discussion-on-indigenous-designs-celebrating-stories-and-cultures-crafting-our-own-culture.html

UN DESA’s website story, featuring the film Kalimantan’s Craft; Harmony of Culture and Nature: http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/social/celebrating-indigenous-peoples.html

Indigenous Day resources: http://www.un.org/en/events/indigenousday/resources.shtml

UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/index.html

UN News story: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=39258&Cr=indigenous&Cr1