Volume 18, No.12 - December 2014

Feature articles

Promise of technology for persons with disabilities

Technology advances have changed the way people live. But not all people have benefitted equally, due to limited accessibility, social and economic barriers. To discuss the promises of new technology for persons with disabilities and other topics related to the upcoming International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December, DESA News met with Daniela Bas, Director of UN DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development.

Throughout human history, new and changing technologies have impacted on the way people live. Today, it is built in to nearly every part of daily living, from work, consumer goods, to recreational activities and social interactions. Information and communications technologies have also dramatically increased connectivity between people and their access to information, further helping to raise living standards.

For the 1 billion people living with some form of disability around the world, technological advances that could enhance inclusion, such as Apps on smart phones, interactive whiteboards in the classroom and 3-dimensional films can be a challenge to access. In spite of being the world’s largest minority group, persons with disabilities have remained largely invisible in mainstream development frameworks and its processes. The UN General Assembly continues to reiterate accessibility as a means and a goal for inclusive, sustainable development and as key for empowering and including all persons in the future development efforts.

“A lot has been achieved,” said Daniela Bas, as she described the situation across the globe for persons with disabilities. “I would say that we have to encourage people with disabilities themselves and the remaining part of the society, be it that we are talking about governments that decide about social policies, be it that we talk about other groups of the civil society, of academia,” Ms. Bas said, emphasizing that the situation for persons with disabilities still needs to be improved.

“Let’s unite the different skills we have, to find solutions, to make society accessible to everybody”

Daniela Bas
Director of UN DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development

Citing the UN Secretary-General, Daniela Bas also underscored the role of new technologies in moving towards a society where no one is left behind, a topic which will also be highlighted during the upcoming celebrations on 3 December. “There are going to be so many events and panel discussions with people from governments, NGOs, the private sector, to showcase what they are doing by using new technologies to enable everybody to be able,” Ms. Bas explained.

Accessibility and its benefits to us all

What do we mean by accessibility? Think of an App on a Smartphone. It is likely that the App has certain design characteristics, such as an attractive visual layout, state-of-the-art features and touch-screen elements, which deliver an appealing and sought after service. Now imagine a person with a visual impairment – an individual who may struggle to access this App, to appreciate its visual layout and its interactive features. While being advanced in its features, the App world, and certainly other technological advances, may not cater to all persons in society.

Accessibility is best defined as flexibility to accommodate each user’s needs and preferences. While the design of accessible technologies ought to cater for all individuals in society, it is important to note that the accessibility of such information and communications technologies does not automatically diminish the opportunities for others to enjoy the ease and flexibility of using such goods or services. Accessibility should therefore be identified as a set of global public goods, which are not a defined to benefit a particular group in society, but rather, to be accessible to all on a local, national and global level.

The improvements to physical and service infrastructure that come with a focus on accessibility also encourage a more multigenerational focus in development planning. In time, the youth population of today will have inevitably matured. Imagine the European population: by 2050 the number of people over 65 will be 3 times what it was in 2003, and the over 80 age group will be 5 times greater in number. Accessibility is an important aspect of realising the rights of the world’s ageing population; with age, the chances of acquiring a permanent or temporary disability increases. A focus on accessibility can therefore ensure that all are able to participate fully in society well into the older years.

Realizing the rights of persons with disabilities often requires policy interventions and the implementation of measures to remove barriers and provide reasonable accommodation in order to ensure their equal access and full participation.

Sustainable and inclusive development

In recent years, there has been increasing recognition that development paths would not exclude the participation of persons with disabilities in economic, social or political life. This is key for an inclusive, equitable and sustainable future for all, and the repositioning of accessibility as an integral development goal would secure such inclusion.

The concept of universal design is not a matter of style, but rather an orientation to design. It is based on the premise that design processes must be inclusive, produce equitable benefits and be appropriate to all groups in society, regardless of economical, social, cultural or physical feature. With this in mind, performance standards and technical requirements for accessibility should produce results for persons with disabilities and non-disabled persons alike.

UN Member States have recognized increasingly that ensuring accessibility for, and inclusion of, persons with disabilities is important for achieving internationally agreed development goals, such as the Millennium Development Goals.

Indeed, technology can be used as a tool to impact on the achievement and outcome of the post-2015 development agenda for persons with disabilities, and for people everywhere. The post-2015 development agenda can be used to promote the impact and benefits of assistive technology, accessible information and communications technology, technological adaptations and other policy and programmatic measures to improve the well-being and inclusion of persons with disabilities in society and development.

During the High-Level meeting on Disability and Development in 2013, UN DESA’s Under-Secretary-General Mr. Wu Hongbo made a call for all stakeholders to implement more disability-inclusive national development strategies, to ensure that development takes into account the needs of persons with disabilities.

IDPD_2014International Day highlights promises of technology

The annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December will further showcase the promises of new technologies as it will be celebrated under the theme “Sustainable Development: The promise of technology”.

During the day, panel discussions will be held at the UN Headquarters, one of which will identify key issues and trends with regard to technology and how the post-2015 development agenda can promote an inclusive path to development. The day will work to harness the power of technology to promote inclusion and accessibility, with a view to help realize the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society to achieve sustainable development for all.

“Let’s unite the different skills we have, to find solutions, to make society accessible to everybody,” Ms. Bas said encouragingly ahead of the international day. “Leave the ‘dis’ at home and bring the ability,” Ms. Bas concluded.

For more information: United Nations Enable website


Ebola: A threat to sustainable development


The current Ebola outbreak is considered the largest one ever recorded with a total of more than 17,000 cases reported as of 2 December 2014. During the 69th Session of the General Assembly, many heads of States have called for a global response to tackle the outbreak. As part of these efforts, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) will hold a special meeting on “Ebola: A threat to Sustainable Development” on 5 December.

6,070 people have died and cases of the Ebola virus disease (EVD) have been reported in Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Spain, the US and in the previously affected countries Nigeria and Senegal. The most affected countries – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – are also among the poorest in the world, with healthcare systems that are not equipped to handle a health crisis of this magnitude.

These countries with fragile economies are now faced with increasing fiscal deficits as a result of increased expenditure on health, security and social protection coupled with revenue reduction due to decreased economic activities.  According to IMF and World Bank estimates, the short-term fiscal impact of the Ebola outbreak is US$ 113 million (5.1 per cent of GDP) for Liberia, US$95 million (2.1 per cent of GDP) in Sierra Leone and US$120 million (1.8 per cent) in Guinea. These countries may also face borrowing constraints depending on the duration and spread of the epidemic.

Responding to a complex emergency

“Ebola is not just an urgent public health crisis, it is a complex emergency. Ebola and the fear and stigma it creates has affected health provision, education, food security, trade and economic well-being”

Dr. David Nabarro
Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Ebola

During the 69th Session of the General Assembly, many heads of States have called for a global response to tackle the crisis. In a historic resolution, the Security Council also emphasized the role of relevant United Nations System entities, in particular the United Nations General Assembly, ECOSOC, and the Peacebuilding Commission, in supporting the national, regional and international efforts to respond to the Ebola outbreak. In September, the Secretary-General also established the first-ever UN emergency health mission, the Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) to respond to the emergency.

“As [the Security] Council has emphasized, Ebola is not just an urgent public health crisis. It is a complex emergency. Ebola and the fear and stigma it creates has affected health provision, education, food security, trade and economic well-being,” said the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Ebola, Dr. David Nabarro, as he briefed the Security Council on 21 November, urging the international community to maintain its critical response.

Like the case with the economic impact of Ebola, it is equally, if not more difficult to quantify and make projections on its immense social impacts. In Sierra Leone, schools have been closed since June jeopardizing the gains made in children’s education. The closure of schools is expected to impact malnutrition in the country since school feeding programmes have been effective in providing nourishment to children. In addition, people’s livelihoods and food production are disrupted, and businesses are closing in the most affected countries.

Examining consequences for sustainable development

As the international community continues to elaborate on a post-2015 development agenda, the Ebola outbreak is a stark reminder that our policy choices and actions at all levels have economic, social and environmental implications. The chronology of the Ebola outbreaks also raises questions about the environmental dimensions in the emergence of infectious diseases that are transmitted from wild animals to humans, as deforestation and land use continue to bring people closer to wildlife. National policies and resource allocations that do not prioritize the health sector can furthermore make countries vulnerable to such outbreaks.

“Even as we focus on the immediate threats, it is not too soon to start working on recovery”

Ban Ki-moon
UN Secretary-General

As the United Nations, affected countries’ governments, Pan-African institutions and the international community increase their efforts to respond to the Ebola outbreak, ECOSOC will now further examine the economic, social and environmental dimensions of the Ebola virus disease (EVD) and identify solutions for a multi-sectoral response.

Taking place on 5 December, ECOSOC’s special meeting will be an opportunity to elaborate on the economic and social impact of Ebola in affected countries, their neighboring countries and the rest of the world. The event aims to explore policies and mechanisms needed to address the multidimensional nature of the Ebola outbreak and propose appropriate short, medium and long-term solutions to prevent future outbreaks.

“Even as we focus on the immediate threats, it is not too soon to start working on recovery,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his remarks to media following the meeting of the Chief Executives of the United Nations system on Ebola on 21 November.  He warned that “the consequences of Ebola will long outlast the outbreak” and appealed to the international community to stay engaged.

Photo courtesy of UNICEF

For more information:

ECOSOC Special Meeting on Ebola

UN system’s Global Ebola Response


Investing in sustainable transportation


With trillions of dollars expected to be invested in transport infrastructure and air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions rising, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tasked his High-level Advisory Group on Sustainable Transport with finding viable solutions to promote public health and safety, environmental protection and economic growth through sustainable transport.

Comprised of Government, civil society and private sector leaders, the Advisory Group will work with Governments, transport providers, businesses, financial institutions, civil society and others to promote and accelerate the implementation of sustainable transport.

“The opportunities for sustainable transport are profound and we must take action,” Mr. Ban said as he met with a number of the Group’s members. “Transport is vital for everyone, and with the right mix of solutions sustainable transport will help us to realize a better future by helping to reduce poverty while protecting the planet and driving economic growth.”

Mr. Ban requested that the Group ensure the close alignment of transport with inclusive and equitable growth, social development, and environmental protection.

Transport main source of air pollutants

Solutions needed as air pollutants from transport kill seven million people annually and greenhouse gas emissions from transport keep rising

The establishment of the Group reflects the importance of sustainable transport for addressing major global challenges. Transport accounts for more than one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, and is projected to grow to one-third by 2050. Transport is the main source of air pollutants, which lead to seven million premature deaths every year.

Population growth and urbanization are projected to add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050, with nearly 90 per cent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa. Poor and vulnerable groups need transport accessibility to get to jobs, schools, health care facilities and other public services. The Group aims to make sure that the transport dimension is recognized when Governments devise strategies on fighting poverty.

Safe and efficient maritime transport is the backbone of world trade, with 90 per cent of goods shipped by sea routes. Moreover, transport is one of the few growth sectors, estimated to attract trillions of US dollars in infrastructure investment in the coming decades. Exploring how these investments can result in sustainable infrastructure is one of the issues that will be discussed by the Group.

Unlocking potential for sustainable transportation

“The outcome document of the Rio+20 Conference, entitled The Future We Want, recognized that transport and mobility are essential preconditions for sustainable development,” said Under-Secretary-General Wu Hongbo as he addressed the Advisory Group. Mr. Wu encouraged the Group to keep in mind the negotiations on a post 2015 development agenda, which will include Sustainable Development Goals and targets related to transport, as well as the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December 2015 in Paris, France.

“The opportunities for sustainable transport are profound and we must take action”

Ban Ki-moon
UN Secretary-General

The Advisory Group held its first meeting on 17 November, and agreed to its priority areas and work plan for its three-year term. Among other things, the Group will look for practical ways to unlock the potential of sustainable transport to contribute to poverty alleviation, sustainable growth and sustainable urbanization. It was noted that to realize this goal, all modes of transport must be considered, including aviation, marine, ferry, rail and road.

The Group agreed to address a whole range of issues essential to transport, including access, accessibility, affordability, efficiency, climate and environmental impacts, public health and safety. It also decided to look at cross-cutting issues such as education, gender, finance, technology transfer, and capacity building.

To accomplish its goals, the Group will provide a global message and recommendations on sustainable transport. It will launch a “Global Transport Outlook Report” by July 2016 to provide analytical support for these recommendations and help mobilize action and initiatives in support of sustainable transport on the global, regional, local and sector levels, with a particular focus on urbanization.

The Group will support the organization of the Global Sustainable Transport Conference that will be convened by the Secretary-General towards the end of 2016. It will promote the integration of sustainable transport in relevant intergovernmental processes, including by making recommendations on the formulation and implementation of the post-2015 development agenda.

Members of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Group on Sustainable Transport

  • Olof Persson (Sweden), Chief Executive Officer of the Volvo Group, Co-Chair
  • Carolina Tohá (Chile), Mayor of Santiago, Chile, Co-Chair
  • Frank Appel (Germany), Chief Executive Officer of Deutsche Post DHL.
  • Milica Bajic-Brkovic (Serbia), President of the International Society of City and Regional Planners.
  • Morten Engelstoft (Denmark), CEO of Services & Other Shipping
  • Alain Flausch (Belgium), Secretary-General of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP)
  • Maty Mint Hamady (Mauritania), Mayor of Nouakchott
  • Patrick Ho (Hong Kong, China), Deputy Chairman and Secretary-General of China Energy Fund Committee
  • Victor Kiryanov (Russian Federation), Deputy Minister of Interior of the Russian Federation.
  • Jean Pierre Loubinoux (France), Director-General of the International Union of Railways
  • Tanya Müller García (Mexico), Secretary of Environment of Mexico City and Vice-President of the World Green Infrastructure Network
  • Len Roueche (Canada), Chief Executive Officer of Interferry

For more information: Secretary-General’s High-level Advisory Group on Sustainable Transport