On International Day for Persons with Disabilities, a spotlight on Finnish JPO Tomi Lounio's work on Disability Rights in Africa

We caught up with Finnish JPO Tomi Lounio who recently joined the UNDP Regional Service Centre for Africa (RSCA) in Addis Ababa as a Programme Analyst for UNDP’s work on the human rights of persons with disabilities. Despite having just started a couple of months ago, Tomi has hit the ground running with his assignment: So far he has been deeply involved in establishment of the African Disability Forum and supporting UNDP’s ongoing role with the coordination of the UN Partnership to Promote the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD) in the Africa region. In light of the International Day for Persons with Disabilities on December 3rd, we asked Tomi to share his perspectives on UNDP’s work on the UNPRPD and how disability rights can be advanced under the framework of Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.

IMG_2221Finnish JPO Tomi Lounio (far left) with disability rights activists from Ghana


UNDP JPOSC: Hi Tomi. Thanks for meeting with us. Can you tell our readers a bit about your background? How did you get involved in disability rights advocacy work?

TL: On a personal level, disability rights is a topic that has always been of interest to me because I have a younger sister with Down Syndrome. Professionally, my experience with disability rights work goes back to 2005. In Finland, when you turn 18 years old you have the option to either do military or non-military service. I chose the latter and ended up taking a 13-month placement with the LYHTY Learning Unit and Workshops for Adults with Intellectual Disabilities. My role there was to support programmes for young adults with all types of intellectual disabilities. At the time this centre represented a bit of a paradigm shift for working with people with disabilities in Finland as it focused on creating a new spirit of social inclusion, which even in Finland was unique at the time because persons with intellectual disabilities in Finnish society were typically quite isolated. The programmes we offered encouraged creativity and self-expression and included everything from workshops on gardening to music classes. We have a few success stories: for example, LYHTY supported a group of musicians with intellectual disabilities to form a punk band called Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät who ended being the Finnish representatives at the Eurovision Song Contest! In another case, one of our former young clients, Dimitri Baltzar is now running as a candidate in municipal elections.

UNDP JPOSC: That is so inspiring! So did you continue working in this area?

TL: Yes. I was initially trained as a football player and since then, I’ve been involved with the Finnish Sport Association of Persons with Disabilities where I worked part-time while I was studying for my MSc in Development Studies at the University of Helsinki. I also got the chance to work as a General Director of the Special Olympics European Football Tournament. I also managed an EU funded project which supported European Transplant Sport Week and Championships with transplant athletes from 24 countries.


UNDP JPOSC: And how did you eventually get involved with the UNDP JPO Programme?

TL: Initially, I heard about the JPO Programme while I was working as a project manager for LiiKe – Sport & Development, which focused on promoting physical education and health education in Tanzania. There was a JPO placement open with UNESCO, Tanzania. I was interested in continuing development work in Tanzania at the time. But when I applied for it, I didn’t get in. So when I heard about this JPO placement, it seemed like a very good fit and I decided to apply again. This time, I was successful.

IMG_2088Non-discrimination is a key principle mentioned in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities


UNDP JPOSC: Your current role as a JPO seems like a perfect match considering your background and experiences. What have you been up to so far?

TL: I am a resource person for the UN Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD). The UNPRPD has so far funded 5 projects focusing on disability rights in sub-Saharan Africa countries. In addition the Partnership has funded a regional initiative, managed by UNDP regional office in Addis Ababa, on the establishment of the African Disability Forum.  As part of my work here I have been collaborating a lot with them recently.

UNDP JPOSC: And what role does the ADF play in promoting disability rights in Africa?

TL: The ADF is a regional umbrella organization for Africa whose members are African disability organizations from 32 countries. It is an important network for the disability rights work we do at UNDP as it provides links us directly to organizations on disability rights in the region. Many of these organizations are based on democratic principles and represent persons with disabilities living in their respective countries. so the network gives us a valuable perspective on disability rights issues in Africa.  I just returned from Accra, Ghana where I attended the ADF’s BRIDGE Disability workshop. Most of the participants were human rights advocates with disabilities and came from 10 countries across Africa to receive training on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the SDGs. This event was ground-breaking! The facilitators were very impressed – they said they’d never seen this level of participation and inclusivity before as so many nationalities and groups engaged. Basically, we had almost all the impairment groups in Africa that you can think of represented.

IMG_1896Liberian participants Henry Momo and Celio George presenting on the challenges persons with disabilities are facing in their native country.


UNDP JPOSC: That is quite impressive. Do you have any insights you can share on some of the challenges African countries might face in mainstreaming disability rights?

TL: It’s actually quite hard to make a generalization. Each country in the region that we work with faces unique circumstances and barriers and there are many different types of impairments. Having said that, we do know that gender is often one of the most neglected aspects of disability advocacy work in Africa. Typically, women with disabilities in many African countries are the most marginalized. Many projects, for instance, tend to focus on men with disabilities. Another challenge is getting accurate demographic data on persons with disabilities which can create many barriers to the the work we are doing.  For example, adequate service provision without accurate figures is almost impossible.

UNDP JPOSC: So what role can the UNDP play in advancing the rights of persons with disabilities Africa?

TL: UNDP serves as a key link and facilitator between the important players in promoting disability rights. We have a very strong role in coordinating and facilitating cooperation between governments, disabled persons’ organizations, various UN agencies and other partners. In UNDP’s own programming, we follow a twin-track approach, which means that we have projects focusing solely on disability rights, but even more importantly we have to mainstream the human rights of persons with disabilities in to all of our programmes.

Since the SDGs are much more disability-sensitive than the MDGs were, disability-mainstreaming into UNDP’s projects has become more important than ever before. At the UNDP RSCA, we have regional experts and consultants who provide technical guidance to country offices in 45 countries across Africa and one of my roles is to make sure that we fully engage the disabled persons’ organizations and give them a platform to have their voices heard. At UNDP, we have a strong vision of an equal world without poverty and we respect our commitment to leave no one behind!

IMG_2219Maria Mordi is a vocal self-advocate with Down syndrome from Nigeria.


UNDP JPOSC: Any final thoughts and reflections on your assignment so far?

TL: I’ve been very happy with my assignment so far! At the RSCA, we get a vast variety of colleagues with different types of expertise and working background and mine is very unique here.  Many of my closest colleagues here have a background in law for example, and I’m a social scientist with hands-on experience. I love the diversity and multicultural setting– we have people from around the world and I really cherish coming to work every day and learning from everyone.
Also, I think it’s important to not get stuck in an ivory tower, and I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to get out there and get in touch with disability organizations, meet their members as well as attend other events in Ethiopia.

So, I’m really happy because I’m working on issues I’m passionate about!