Disability Inclusion in Economic Development Programs: Insights from Nigeria

May 13, 2021 | by Sabine Garbarino & Kemi Asuni

Photo credit: Social Development Direct

Over 1 billion people are estimated to be living with some form of disability, with the majority of them in low- and middle-income countries. This makes people with disabilities the world’s largest minority (WHO 2020). Nevertheless, to date, economic development programs have placed little emphasis on targeting people living with disabilities and available evidence from mainstream agriculture and employment programs is extremely limited (Meaney-Davis and Coe 2020). Economic development programs are still too focused on (perceived) costs of disability inclusion instead of the opportunity it provides for economic growth and poverty reduction in Nigeria and elsewhere.

LINKS, an innovation and investment program operating in northern Nigeria, is one of the few private sector development programs that has quantifiable objectives to extend benefits to people with disabilities. Funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), LINKS aims to create 40,000 jobs for women and 6,000 jobs for people living with disabilities (40% and 6% respectively of LINKS’ overall jobs target). 18 months into the program, we have taken stock of what we have learned.

Disability inclusion in economic development can be a commercially viable business strategy if firms move away from a welfare approach. Many economic development programs struggle to adequately reach people with disabilities. They make false assumptions about small market shares and additional costs (Krueger 2020). Many more people live with or are affected by disability than narrow perceptions of disability may suggest. The WHO estimates that there are some 25 million persons with disabilities living in Nigeria. A LINKS internal survey in June 2020 showed that almost half of its program staff have a family member living with a disability. Ignoring people with disabilities and their families as consumers, workers, entrepreneurs and potential taxpayers is a missed opportunity for the private and public sector. Some firms in Nigeria target their Corporate Social Responsibility programs to help people living with disabilities. For example, the multinational mobile telecommunications company MTN provides annual scholarship grants and assistive aids through its Foundation. Programs like LINKS can build on this commitment and support firms to develop inclusive business strategies, where people with disabilities are seen as central to a successful enterprise. For example, SafariCom in Kenya has integrated an Interactive Voice Response Platform and increased access to its M-Pesa service for users with visual impairments while also significantly reducing fraud.

Supporting inclusive participation of men and women with disabilities in agriculture provides a “productive way out of poverty” for large numbers of people in Nigeria and elsewhere. LINKS has found that people with disabilities are actively involved in agriculture but face a range of barriers to increasing their productivity and income: they are underrepresented in agricultural cooperatives in Nigeria, which affects access to networks, information and opportunities, such as benefiting from lower prices by buying in bulk. Inaccessible transport creates additional costs to taking goods to market. Prejudice and stigma are widespread.

Women with disabilities often experience the combined disadvantages associated with gender as well as disability (Leonard Cheshire, 2018). Our program data showed that women with disabilities were significantly underrepresented among smallholder farmers in LINKS’ interventions with prevalence rates not exceeding 1% (compared to prevalence rates of 5 to 10% for male smallholder farmers). Moreover, they face an increased risk of sexual violence, frequently forcing them to trade out of the safety of their homes with limited sales. Measuring, understanding and addressing barriers to economic participation as well as the double discrimination faced by women with disabilities needs to be part and parcel of all program interventions. Interventions exclusively targeted at people (and women) with disabilities can support but not substitute these mainstreaming efforts.

Filling existing data and evidence gaps is essential. Nigeria is a data-poor environment when it comes to people living with disabilities. There is no accurate census of the disability population in Nigeria and there are conflicting prevalence rates from different sources – most underestimating the number of people with disabilities. The Washington Group Short Set on Functioning questions are a key tool for programs like LINKS to monitor and report on disability inclusion. Good data, however, relies on careful enumerator training and application within the context (e.g. responding to the challenge of Hausa being a largely oral language). Identifying people with disabilities successfully through program monitoring systems is a first important step to making previously hidden contributions to the country’s economic development visible.

Disability-inclusive economic development is a smart choice for policymakers and development programs alike. Disability and poverty are closely interlinked in Nigeria: 9 out of 10 people with disabilities are estimated to live below the poverty line in Nigeria (Haruna 2017); only 1.2% of people with disabilities are covered through social protection and are they are underrepresented in the formal labor market (Leonard Cheshire 2018). Women with disabilities frequently experience multiple exclusions. People with disabilities have the right to fully participate in all aspects of society and the economy. Moreover, if people with disabilities are active and visible participants of economic life as employees, entrepreneurs and consumers, it creates benefits for families, communities, the private sector (CDC 2021) and governments. It is therefore time for disability inclusion to find its way out of targeted niche efforts and enter mainstream economic development programming that has the potential to reach large numbers of men and women with disabilities.


Find out more about disability inclusion as part of the LINKS program, emerging lessons and future direction in this summary report.

Sabine Garbarino is a Gender & Diversity specialist with over 15 years of research and consulting experience. Her most recent work focuses on facilitating women’s economic empowerment and inclusive economic development through entrepreneurship, business environment reform, skills development and infrastructure provision.

Kemi Asuni is a Gender and Social Inclusion Specialist with 14 years’ experience and a specific focus on women economic empowerment in market system development. Recently, Oluwakemi worked on LINKS (Catalysing Economic Growth for Northern Nigeria) where she led the work on women’s economic empowerment and disability inclusion.

Categories: Women and Girls English Blog Womens Economic Empowerment Blog 2021