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Africa’s rapidly ageing population is in need of social protection, yet it continues to be largely overlooked


Our blogger, Madeleine Cretney, is a Social Policy Officer at Development Pathways. 

Africa may currently be the youngest continent in the world, but the growth of its older population this century will outstrip that of any other region. According to a 2019 UN report on population ageing, the continent will see a three-fold increase in the number of adults aged 65 or over by 2050 (from 32 million to 101 million). 

Despite this, many African countries do not have in place effective policy measures to protect older people’s rights and to address their needs. The absence of universal social pensions, including old-age pension schemes is one of the starkest examples of this lack of government focus on older personsAccording to a recent ILO social protection policy paper, in Sub Saharan Africa only 22.7 per cent of people above retirement age receive a pension, either contributory or non-contributory.  

At Development Pathways, our analyses of evidence shows that some of the biggest challenges faced by people happen during old age, as the capacity to work gradually reduces due to age-related health issues and increasing disability. At this time, the loss of independent income and inability to access income support not only increase the likelihood of poverty amongst older people, but can also lead to social isolation, neglect, abuse and discrimination. Furthermore, many face the additional financial challenge of taking on care responsibilities for children or other adults with disabilities, leaving them with little disposable income to meet their own needs. Older persons who have limited resources or receive little care are placed in vulnerable positions – often forced to undertake strenuous work or resort to begging, just to survive. This is active ageing, but not in a way that is dignified. 

The lack of attention paid to older persons’ issues, thus far, reflects widely held assumptions about old age as a period of unproductivity and socioeconomic dependence. In reality, older people constitute a significant share of the overall labour force and land-holding population in Africa. They contribute immensely to maintaining communal wealth and household consumption as the custodians of ancestral land and by engaging in economic activities such as small-scale farming. Though, as they age, the labour and capital they provide to the economy will decline while their healthcare needs will increase, having serious economic implications. In the absence of strong healthcare and social protection systems, the economic weight of caring for older people will increasingly fall on family members of typical working age (15-64).  

These challenges can be addressed by increased investment in social protection which, if tackled effectively, could contribute to income security as well as enhanced wellbeing for Africa’s growing older populationSpecifically, investment in non-contributory social pensions paid to everyone above 60 or 65 years of age is a promising way to address their vulnerabilities and prevent income shockswhile also generating a wide range of broader socio-economic benefits for individuals, households and communities.  

National experience from Uganda has demonstrated that providing a regular income to older persons in the form of a social pension results in their increased ability to meet daily basic needs and access private medical services in time of illness. Furthermore, recipients tend to use their pensions to support children and young people, reflecting an investment in the future labour force. 

Evidence from Kenya further shows that the provision of an oldage pension for all citizens can ensure that every person lives their final years in dignity and with a greater sense of autonomy and self-worth. It ensures that they are better able to provide for their families anno longer need to rely on others for basic support, and therefore feel less like burdens and more like important resources for their country 

Old-age pensions are also justified on economic grounds: older people can use their income to generate new economic activities; their spending can stimulate demand and consumption; and pensions can encourage both public and private savings and investment. 

Of course, large investments are required in Africa’s largest demographic population, children and youth. But, as policymakers set their sights on the promise of the region’s youthfulness, they must not lose focus on the strategic relevance of the older people in realising this potential. African countries must put in place proactive social protection floors that include oldage pensions and address the needs of its older populationsBy investing in a system of universal social protection –that is inclusive of older people  governments will be supporting them to actively contribute to their families and nations, consequently improving not just their lives, but also of their future generations. 

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