Simon Brown

March 2022
A man wearing a shirt stands and smiles, looking at a piece of paper on a table. Sat at the table are three women who are smiling.

Simon Brown is global technical lead for economic empowerment at Sightsavers. He is responsible for the development and oversight of employment, entrepreneurship, and agriculture across the organisation’s strategies and programmes in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.  

Here he explains why he’s hopeful that the USAID-funded Global Labour Program – Inclusive Futures (GLP-IF) will help change the labour market system in favour of people with disabilities.

For me, moving into working in disability inclusion and workers’ rights has been a bit of a journey.

From 20 years in the private sector, to running my own small business, to international volunteering in Nepal and then county director roles of a development agency in China, India, and Bangladesh, I’ve had a varied career. 

Disability, and losing my job because of it, led me back to the UK in 2019 after an amazing 25 years of living outside of it.

I learned a lot from that experience of losing my job because of a disability, of climbing out from a feeling of incredibly low self-worth, of fearing I’d never really work again.  

Sightsavers was literally to be my last development job application after 30-odd other tries. How lucky I got. I got the chance to technically lead the incredible Inclusive Futures formal employment programme, to apply so much that I had learned over the past 40-odd years of working and be part of delivering something which I think has massive potential to systemically change the labour market system in favour of people with disabilities. A completely new and, hopefully, final chapter of my working life.  

Passion is something which has been a constant throughout my working life and assignments.

But I’m also motivated by being directly connected to the people who matter to me the most. Whether that’s been recruiting and nurturing incredible talent while a junior (associate) director of IT at Procter & Gamble in Singapore, or working with smallholder farmers in Bangladesh, or working with and learning from people with disabilities in my current role.  

I feel so lucky with the chances I’ve had in life to have something of an impact. I’m hoping that the last 10 years of my working life will be in bridging the gaps in labour market participation and employment rates for people with disabilities.

It gets me up early in the morning with a bounce of expectation, and that’s all I can really ask for – to want to get at it as quickly as possible every day.   

I very much hope that through GLP-IF we can prove that a primary focus on disability will have increased the promotion and protection of the rights of all producers, workers and retailers within two very significant value chains in Kenya.

I’m pretty confident we will, as we’re already seeing how our commercial approach to supporting farmers with disabilities is attracting an equal, or greater, number of farmers without disabilities. 

That’s a really very important sign that the approach works, as does the interest from more than one thousand farmers to be part of it in just one sub-county in the coming ‘long-rain’ season. I think we’re going to see some outstanding results over the five years in Kenya, and some significant replication of it in other African and Asian countries through other funding mechanisms.  

At Sightsavers, of course, our primary focus is on promoting and protecting the rights of people with disability in employment, whether waged or self-employed.

I think I came into this at a rare moment of opportunity a time when the inclusion of people with disabilities as customers and employees had become increasingly important to the business sustainability of many companies.  

The COVID-19 pandemic then highlighted devastating inequalities: amidst the tragic loss of life, people with disabilities were pushed out of jobs and forced further into poverty. The Global Labor Program – Inclusive Futures offers the chance to demonstrate that a focus on disability brings material benefit to everyone in the value chains we’re partnering with, as we economically recover from the effects of the pandemic.  

That’s going to be an amazing achievement, not only for the workers, producers and retailers benefiting from the programme but also for companies more broadly recognising that it just makes great business sense.

I truly hope that in the next 10 years we’ll see Sightsavers and the movement demonstrating that collaborative, capacity building approaches are beginning to significantly dent the employment gap for people with disabilities.

We’ll demonstrate how that can happen through the Global Labor Program – Inclusive Futures, but also through other mechanisms like Standard Chartered Bank’s Futuremakers programme. Then we’ll massively scale it across many countries through public-private partnerships and some innovative, audacious financing mechanisms – demonstrating within that how everyone benefits, whether disabled or not. That will be another amazing journey to sign off from.

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