Opinion: The private sector's role in supporting a disability-inclusive world

A young girl gets her eyes tested during a school screening event in Vietnam. Photo by: Claire Eggers

When we think of disability and its impact on individuals and the world, it’s easy to think of it in isolation. We don’t necessarily consider creating an inclusive society as something which requires all of us to play our part. This is despite the development of an inclusive society being front and center of the Sustainable Development Goals, and that by creating a wholly inclusive society we improve the lives of everyone, not just those directly affected by disability.  

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The scale of this challenge means that no one — NGOs, governments, or businesses — can achieve any lasting change on their own. Fortunately, NGOs and businesses working together are becoming more common.

We’ve seen an explosion in the growth of the social sector and social entrepreneurship with new approaches to addressing the world’s social, economic, and health-related problems. This is helping to foster more understanding and acceptance between the public and private sector and providing a bridge between two very different ways of thinking.  

Of course, cynicism still exists. Questions are often asked about the motivations of both. Are they really committed to working together to address a problem or is this mutually beneficial only to the two parties involved — the NGO gets funding and the business gets a marketing story and can tick the corporate social responsibility box?

From a private sector perspective, this happens when the partnership is seen as peripheral and not core to the mission or purpose of the company. Thankfully, this is becoming the exception rather than the rule and more businesses are recognizing the importance of being fully invested in a purpose.

“ I believe it is time for the private sector to step up as an instigator of change.”

— Kovin Naidoo, senior vice president of inclusive business, philanthropy, and social impact, Essilor

At Essilor, our commitment to the eradication of poor vision is core to our very existence. Good vision is a basic human right, so our responsibility as a company is not only to those consumers who can afford to buy our products but to ensure everyone, whether they have the potential to be a customer or not, has access to vision care. Through innovation, we’re focused on building an entire ecosystem around improving lives by improving sight.

How the private sector can get involved

There is a commonly held assumption that most NGOs benefit only from funding from the private sector. While it is true that funding is often “make or break,” it is not the only — or always the best — way the private sector can provide support.

We’re seeing a move toward a “funding +” model where businesses provide anything from management and systems support to staff training or the development of appropriate products in addition to money.

Joshi, a young woman in India, who became an Eye Mitra and opened her own eye care shop. Photo by: Essilor

The private sector, due to market forces, is conditioned to root out the most cost-effective ways of working. This mindset can be extremely useful to NGOs when looking to see how projects can be developed and become self-sustaining. Inclusive business models such as Essilor’s Eye Mitra program have enabled individuals and communities to break away from dependence on support. The private sector can also provide innovation in both product development and service delivery.  

For example, we are a founding member of global coalition Our Children’s Vision, which aims to upscale, accelerate, and expand access to eye health services to 50 million children by 2020. The campaign has already garnered the support of over 90 organizations and is a great example of how working in partnership can drive real change.

Could we have delivered this program alone? Yes, but without the other parties, the reach and scale we are achieving would not have been possible.

Lessons learned from partnerships around disability

The NGO-private sector partnership can be a very successful and fruitful relationship, but only if certain ground rules are observed. Common values and expectations must be established from the outset.

When working together, NGOs and the private sector can have much more impact, particularly when it comes to influencing governments. In the case of eye care, the combination of NGO advocacy and business expertise has enabled us to:

1. Generate data to show how productivity changes with the availability of eye care.

2. Collectively come up with an offer for governments to make it more viable for them to invest in eye care. Working together, NGOs, and the private sector can put together models showing more affordable options.

3. Gain access to hard-to-reach communities, while also providing the necessary local knowledge and expertise. For example, Essilor’s 2.5 New Vision Generation team and the Indian State of Telangana recently launched a free eye screening program, which aims to screen each and every state citizen — an estimated 35 million people — and equip the needy with spectacles within just six months.

Many NGOs battle to survive and, therefore, there is always the risk that survival becomes the primary interest, rather than interrogating and resolving fundamental issues of principles, values, and ethics. It is a big challenge for both parties to keep this front and center as it ensures transparency and equality in the relationship.  

Another ground rule and something that can become a major challenge if not addressed is being on the same page in terms of strategy, planning, and implementation. I was once offered a considerable sum of money while working in the NGO sector to initiate a program for a company, but I knew that the model they wanted to use would not give them the outcome they were hoping for and was not in the interests of the community so I refused. When I explained this, I garnered their trust and we ended up jointly developing a very successful program.

Finally, both parties must be very clear on what they are contributing and to who, and consider which program or project model might be the best to use. There is a lot of grandstanding around the best models when the reality is that rarely does one size fit all, and different strategies are more likely to be deployed to reach different stakeholders.  In the case of Uncorrected Refracted Error, for example, where Essilor is focused, it’s a very segmented market and each level requires a different approach.  

The need to address the challenge of disability and inclusivity is not going away any time soon and more can always be done to address the challenge. I believe it is time for the private sector to step up as an instigator of change. Currently, we have many small islands of success in a sea of despair because the reality is that the lack of resources often means large scale success is not possible. The private sector can address this issue head-on by looking to fund at scale, bringing more NGOs together to work toward a shared goal.

We know we need this if we want to realize Essilor’s ambition of eradicating poor vision in the world by 2050, and it is guiding our approach in many ways.  

For more coverage on creating a disability-inclusive world, visit the Development Enabled series here.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Kovin Naidoo

    Kovin Naidoo joined Essilor International as senior vice president of inclusive business, philanthropy, and social impact in 2018. In this position, Naidoo leads the group’s efforts to reach the 2.5 billion people living with uncorrected poor vision through inclusive business and philanthropy.