APEC 2017 Second Senior Officials Meetings (SOM2) - Blog 2

May 11, 2017

Blog 2 - May 11, 2017

By David Dodwell

Hanoi's National Convention Centre, host to the second APEC Senior Officials' cluster in Vietnam's APEC chairmanship year, still feels eerily empty in the admittedly early days of the SOM. It sometimes seems impolite to disturb the drowsiness of the volunteers x-ray scanning bags at the entrance, or to discover when the next hourly shuttle to the outside world – the JW Marriott hotel – will leave. Doubtless the place will liven up in the coming days, perhaps aided by the launch of a quite lovely collection of Vietnamese art in the cavernous entrance atrium.

In sharp contrast to the huge empty spaces of the Centre, Wednesday's Symposium on employing people with disability was warmly snuggled into a quiet corner of the building, fascinating and oversubscribed but hard to find if you did not have very specific guidance.

The discussion – driven by the United States – provided a valuable next step in APEC's three year examination of the social and economic price we pay across the region for paying inadequate attention to inclusion. In the past, valuable work has been done – again mainly driven by American colleagues – on the economic cost of discrimination against women, on the business cost of poor health, and the particular problems being faced by the region's youth. Work has also been done of the cost of mental ill-health. This exploration of the opportunity-costs of failing to capture the surprising and sometimes counter-intuitive contributions that can be made by people with disability is clearly linked, and is a valuable complement.

The Symposium was launched with some explosive numbers: according to a 2011 study by the World Health Organisation and the World Bank, around 15 per cent of the world's population live with some form of disability. That is over a billion people. The price we pay for failing to ensure people with disability can contribute in the workforce amounts to something between US$1.37 trillion and US$1.94 trillion. As for the Asia-pacific region, we have around 650m people living in hardship or poverty because of their exclusion from the workforce because of disability of one form or another.

But these shocking big numbers had hardly sunk in before some awkward questions began to surface about the reliability of any of the numbers – not that they may be too large, but that they may not be large enough. First, the WHO-WB study that everyone seems to rely upon is already six years old, and very little systematic empirical work has been completed since then. Second, it quickly became clear that many economies worldwide do not gather the relevant data – certainly not on an apple-to-apple basis, and so even the 2011 study's empirical underpinnings look fragile.

Perhaps most critically, there was a frustrating absence of comparable data on what counts as a disability, and what kinds of disability make the largest difference. Since different forms of disability would need different policy responses, it seems to me quite basic that we should have an idea on what proportion are wheelchair-bound, or are blind, or deaf, or autistic or suffer some other form of mentally disabling condition. And where do things like chronic migraines or depression fit in? I presume that economy by economy, relevant officials have such data and use it as a basis for local policymaking, but for coherent APEC action, we need numbers that are regionally more confidence-building than that.

Most of the discussion appeared to focus on what I would call the "life-time disabled", but as the day progressed it became clear that this is just the tip of the iceberg if we are talking about the cost to our economies of failing to deal with disability appropriately. Beyond the "life-time disabled", what about the "temporarily disabled" who might have fallen down stairs or broken a leg in a car accident, or developed a serious thyroid condition during pregnancy? These have to number in the millions, with a very large and negative workplace impact. Then what about what I would call about the "late-onset disabled", victims of lifetime cigarette abuse, or serious obesity, or chronic debilitating lower back pain, or simply the wear and tear of a long, hard life? This has to constitute a further huge number, but is it ignored because so many of these "late-onset" sufferers are at or beyond retirement age?

Even more significant, I sensed that the numbers being thrown around took very little empirical account of the price we pay in our economies for losing the workplace contribution of people who are forced to be carers of the disabled. Most of these are unpaid family members, and are uncaptured by most labour ministries or census and statistics departments. Does this suggest that the economy-wide cost of excluding disabled might be double the US$1.94 trillion discussed at the Symposium if the loss to the workforce of unpaid carers is taken into account?

I also feel we have only scratched the surface of aggregate costs. Does that US$1.94 trillion simply measure that lost potential economic contribution of the world's 1 billion disabled? Does it include the cost of providing formal care and support? Does it include the unmeasured cost of unpaid family carers? Does it include the cost of those carers being kept out of the workforce?

Mercifully, Wednesday's Symposium was the start of a journey. It provided lots of food for thought, and a myriad anecdotal insights into the inspirational things being done to embrace disabled people into the workforce. But gosh, so much work still to be done – not least by the business community in general, and ABAC in particular. Officials were again and again inviting business into the discussion, aware that much of the potential being discussed would never be captured in the working world without a hugely supportive – and innovative – business community. There must be a good case for us in ABAC to explore this challenge more carefully – just as we have explored how to address the challenges of discrimination against women in the workforce. But without better numbers, I suspect we will end up asking more questions than providing answers.

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