Between Jingle Bells and I’m dreaming of a white Christmas that seem to be playing in an endless loop, I stand in Cambodia’s biggest shopping mall watching people stroll by, checking out the glitter and glamour in the shop windows. The difference of temperature outside and inside the mall must be around 15°C and with the styrofoam snowflakes hanging from the ceiling high above me, I begin to feel festive. That wasn’t the case a few weeks ago.
It’s Sunday and the mall is crowded – 30,000-40,000 visitors per day the marketing manager had told me. And that is exactly why I’m here. It is December and we are celebrating the International Day of Persons with Disabilities with a public photo exhibition. We, i.e. the Disability Rights Initiative Cambodia, an Australian funded joint programme by UNDP, UNICEF and WHO are showcasing and celebrating ‘Abilities’ and we want to reach the biggest possible number of people with our message. This really is the perfect spot!
As I move up and down the hallway along the beautifully arranged exhibition pieces, I study them over and over again. There is the story of 23-year old Chhor who has cerebral palsy and still pursues his dream of becoming a famous artist. There is 14-year old Tang with a leg prothesis playing and laughing with her friends. And there is Sokchan, the Director of the Women with Disabilities Forum, in a wheelchair, after sustaining a spinal cord injury.
I observe the people that stop to look at the photos, that touch the Braille book on display, many discovering for the first time that blind people have their own way of reading and writing. I look at them taking selfies with the photos, and reading the stories to their children, and I feel proud. Proud of my team that over the last three months has put so much work and heart in making this happen. And proud of myself because we are doing this here and in cooperation with the mall. This almost did not come to pass.
The choice of the venue was obvious for us – public, extremely popular, fully accessible for persons with disabilities, and with a private business that takes their Corporate Social Responsibility seriously. Engage with the private sector, that is what the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development tells us, what management encourages us to do. After weeks of correspondence, discussions and negotiations, we finally had it all figured out and received a contract from the mall for signature. But then a major hurdle, I was told: UNDP cannot sign any such contract or agreement as it does not go with our organization’s rules and regulations. But the mall needs it to let us use their space. After all the hard work, I stand tired and disappointed. But as the proverb goes, where there is a will there is a way, the UN system is all about nuance and negotiation, and after two nerve-wracking days, we find a solution, a letter from UNDP that the mall accepts.
My take-away is clear: A lot of perseverance and a touch of luck maybe. But a larger lesson: that as UNDP starts to engage more with the private sector, we need to become more flexible to accommodate some of their rules too, or we risk being left behind. This time it worked. So, I stand in the mall, watching people learning, the snowflakes above me, humming along with the Christmas songs.