Why disability rights are integral to the Sustainable Development Goals

Sightsavers, June 2023

We have now passed the halfway point to the deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and progress is off-track for all the goals.

We know that a key factor behind this is the fact that people with disabilities are still being excluded from mainstream development policies and programmes, meaning that 16% of the global population isn’t being properly taken into account in efforts to tackle inequality and climate change. To keep the ‘leave no one behind’ promise of Agenda 2030, urgent action must be taken.

Two sustainable development forums, held in early 2023, highlighted the challenges ahead of us if we are to have any chance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They were the 9th Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development and the 10th Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development.

The forums provide a shared platform for governments, civil society and the private sector to comprehensively review progress towards the SDGs at the regional level. They support voluntary national reviews and voluntary local reviews, formal mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating progress and challenges in implementing the SDGs at the country level. They also help prepare for the annual High-Level Political Forum, which brings countries together to review the SDGs at the global level.

The forums took place in the spring of 2023. The Africa forum, held in Niamey, Niger, focused on ‘Accelerating the inclusive and green recovery from multiple crises and the integrated and full implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Agenda 2063.’

The Asia-Pacific forum, held in Bangkok, Thailand, focused on ‘Accelerating the recovery from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at all levels in Asia and the Pacific.’

Discussion at both forums highlighted that while some issues faced by people with disabilities are unique to a specific region, larger issues effect all regions equally, and two key issues in particular: data and engagement. Although the forums cover vastly different areas of the world, these two things are common to both regions. Here’s what we learned about them, and what needs to happen to address them.

Three women from Cameroon sit around a table during a working group to support people with disabilities on gender-based violence. Behind them is a banner with information about the SDGs.

Sightsavers and the global goals

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals underpin all our work, and we’re actively supporting other countries to fulfil their commitments.

Our SDG work

Lack of data is a major issue

A lack of data disaggregation by disability contributes towards significant data gaps that exist globally. The 2022 SDG report highlighted that data gaps in terms of “geographic coverage, timeliness and level of disaggregation” still exist. This is especially true of disability disaggregation.

Global data is available for only two out of 10 SDG indicators that require disaggregation by disability.

This was highlighted during the Asia-Pacific forum’s roundtable discussions on SDGs, where different groups including the Disability Constituency emphasised this gap.

It is crucial that data collected for SDG indicators at national level reflects disability, so that governments can make informed policy decisions. As part of the joint statement submitted by civil society organisations to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) during the Asia-Pacific forum, the disability focal person developed a factsheet on SDG 11 (which addresses sustainable cities and communities). This provided us with an opportunity to emphasise disability inclusion in all aspects of SDG 11 and highlight the lack of data disaggregation by sex, gender, age, and disability as a major contributor towards insufficient data on SDG 11 globally. We made specific interventions on this point during the roundtable discussion on SDG 11.

No SDGs without OPDs: involvement and participation of people with disabilities is crucial

Involving people with disabilities at all levels of decision-making processes is an essential prerequisite to achieving the SDGs by 2030. ‘Leave no one behind’ is the central transformative pledge of Agenda 2030, the global plan for implementing the SDGs.

By attending the Africa regional forum, Sightsavers and other civil society organisations helped make sure that countries making commitments around their national and local reviews would make them inclusive of young people, women, indigenous groups and people with disabilities, at all stages of discussions and planning. This was an important outcome of the forum.

We were also pleased to see a commitment from countries to bring organisations of people with disabilities (OPDs) into the voluntary local review process. We also emphasised the importance of including the voices of people with disabilities in the preparatory processes leading up to the SDG Summit and the Summit for the Future, especially through our disability statement presented during the Asia-Pacific forum.

Involving people with disabilities at all levels of decision-making is essential to achieving the SDGs by 2030.

What we called for, and what we achieved

Sightsavers’ central ask of the participating governments, UN bodies and world leaders during both these forums was to make sure their mainstream public policies and programmes clearly incorporated tangible actions to include people with disabilities. Our advocacy efforts during the events resulted in specific mention of disability by country representatives and forum organisers.

During the Asia-Pacific forum, Sightsavers requested Pakistan’s minister for planning and development to mention disability as an important area of development in his country statement. He honoured this request by mentioning disability as a core focus for flood relief efforts in Pakistan. In joint efforts with OPDs, we also influenced the adoption of key messages around disability in the meeting report for the African forum. Most importantly, disability inclusion in the voluntary national reviews was explicitly highlighted by the UNECA’s deputy executive secretary and chief economist in her closing speech.

Development plans that exclude people with disabilities are incomplete and ineffective – it’s vital for this to be widely accepted and understood in order for it to be treated as a priority for all UN member states. Regional summits, alongside national and global forums, are key opportunities for Sightsavers, particularly through the Equal World disability rights campaign, to make this clear and to call on world leaders, including governments, UN agencies and other global actors to take action by meaningfully including people with disabilities in SDG processes and outcomes. We need to establish clear links between national, regional and global activity, to ensure disability inclusion is a priority at all levels.

Interested in learning more or partnering with us on global advocacy and the SDGs? Contact Saleck by emailing [email protected] or Ujala by emailing [email protected]

Development plans that exclude people with disabilities are incomplete and ineffective.

A large group of delegates cheers at the 10th Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development in Bangkok.
Delegates at the 10th Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development in Bangkok. © Sightsavers/Gerimara Manuel


Saleck Ould Dah is Sightsavers’ global advocacy officer in West Africa, and Ujala Sarfaraz is global advocacy officer in South Asia.

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