Charlotte Vuyiswa McClain-Nhlapo

Global Disability Advisor | World Bank Group

  CV in brief:     Education:   Cornell Law School  |  University of Warsaw    Career in brief :  USAID  |  South African Human Rights Commission  |  UNICEF    Find Charlotte online:   LinkedIn  |  Twitter  |  World Bank blog  |  TEDx talk    Exclusive interview by Lucie Goulet, December 2017

CV in brief: 

Education: Cornell Law School | University of Warsaw

Career in brief: USAIDSouth African Human Rights CommissionUNICEF

Find Charlotte online: LinkedIn | Twitter | World Bank blog | TEDx talk

Exclusive interview by Lucie Goulet, December 2017

What do you do at the World Bank?

I am the Global Disability Advisor. My primary focus is to mainstream disability issues into World Bank projects, analytics and the overall work of the institution.

How did you end up working at the World Bank?

I joined in 2004. Prior to coming here, I was a commissioner with the South African Human Rights Commission, where I led the work on economic and social rights and children’s rights. Working this space alerted what seemed to be a missing link in terms of promoting, protecting and fulfilling human rights and was the development aspect. 

I joined the World Bank as the apex development agency globally with the view to look at how I could ensure that people with disabilities are included in all development projects.

You were selected for your position through a competitive process. Could say a bit more about that process?

Yes, I was. What put me in good stead was that I already had a solid background in development. I also had worked in developing countries and understood how developing countries work in terms of different administrations and context.

I had published extensively about disability and development. I was familiar with the global architecture around disability and development, so I was the best candidate and I think that was borne out by my appointment.

Throughout your career, you've worked both on disability and on child protection. Why were you drawn to these particular topics?

I started my career working in the space of human rights and started to chisel in a focus on child rights. Disability came to me by way of personal circumstance and I began to see the importance of articulating my own experience within the context of my work. While I never lost sight of child rights, I began to work more in the disability space, and more broadly in the area of human rights.

I focused on the economic and social rights of marginalised and excluded groups. They could've been children, people with disability, older persons, or it could be sexual orientation exclusion. Whatever the exclusion was, I was interested in understanding why people are excluded and how to find ways to make sure that we are including all people in our development initiatives.

Working in development has got to be one of the most gratifying and satisfying types of work because when you do it right, you can fundamentally change the lives of many people for the better.

What are the biggest challenges you face when you suggest new policies?

One of the major starting points, when you want to influence policy, is to ensure that you have buy-in from the country, from the leadership and from the people who are affected by the policy. People have to understand and see that the policy will benefit them all around. 

The last thing you want to do is have a policy that is seen as coming in from Washington DC without taking into account the contextual nuances of that particular situation and/or experiences of that particular group. Because I work on disability, it's important to insist that any kind of policy dialogue includes persons with disabilities from the get-go.

What do you look for when you hire at the World Bank? 

I look for somebody who has some level of development exposure, who shows passion and professionalism. I look for somebody who innovates and who is interested in looking at cross-cutting issues and in providing and finding ways to analyse situations that are extremely complex.

I look for somebody who works as a team player. I definitely look for somebody who's got excellent analytical and writing skills. But more than that, I look for somebody who exhibits a passion and a drive to address the more complex development issues and is ready to innovate and create new thinking and knowledge. 

Is there active work being done within the World Bank in terms of hiring women with disabilities? 

Definitely. My advice here is to encourage young women with disabilities to apply to positions at the World Bank because it's an area where we haven't done terribly well and we're looking to better our own standards.

You’re from South Africa and you have studied at the University of Warsaw in Poland and at Cornell University in the USA. How has your diverse educational background influenced your career?

That's another thing that's really interesting in the Bank: people look for diverse educational backgrounds because that brings in different perspectives on the way we learn our various disciplines, the way we understand the world, the experiences we have that shape us. Having a diverse educational background is an asset.

You were previously appointed by Barack Obama to work at USAID. What did you do there?

I lead the work at USAID on disability-inclusive development. We did a lot of work that supported organisations of persons with disability so that they can influence and lobby, at country-level, the development of policies and laws to protect and promote their rights.

Having worked in government and the World Bank, which is an international organisation, on disability rights, how does each side approach the same topic?

Working for USAID, there was more direct contact with civil society. We did not work exclusively with governments, we worked on building civil society. We provided grants to disabled people's organisations, whereas at the Bank, our primary interlocutor is the government. That was the biggest difference. Of course, the other difference is that USAID is a bilateral donor and aligns itself with the administration of the time. 

What's the biggest improvement you've seen during your time working on disability rights?

One is the passage of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, because that ushered in international norms for disability rights. The Convention has resulted in the empowerment of persons with disabilities across the globe. Increasingly, we're seeing more people with disabilities engaged in development processes, demanding their rights and owning their own agenda, which is key and has had a significant impact such as the disability being included in the sustainable development goals, which is a set of 17 development goals for the world.

Other important international frameworks like Habitat III are increasingly making specific reference to disability. Over the last 15 years or so, there's been serious advancements in this agenda.

You've recently written a report about achieving disability-inclusive disaster risk management. How does that work?

We're increasingly seeing natural disasters and countries are putting into place systems that can protect people in times of natural disasters. Often, these efforts have not been deliberate about including persons with disabilities.

For instance, you might have early warning systems, but if they are audio, you won't reach people who are deaf. If you have pick-up points that are inaccessible, then you're excluding people with mobility disabilities. The idea behind inclusive disaster risk management is to think about how we ensure that all measures that we put in place are inclusive of persons with disabilities. That spills over to making sure that we're including older people.

It’s an approach that says, "You need to think about your demographic. You can't just design a project or a response to a disaster situation that only works for those that are the fittest."