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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. 

Read more like this:

Publication‘I feel more loved’: Autonomy, self-worth and Kenya’s universal pension

BlogThe case for universal social protection is more self-evident than ever

NewsILO urges countries to realise the right to social security to respond to the global COVID-19 crisis 

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  • Thank you for this eye opening blog that motivated me to write this.
    We, Ageing Nepal was running “Basic Literacy Class for Older Persons” since the last five years and COVID19 came in to stop us. The whole objective of the programme was to enable older women to read and write letters and numbers without which they would not be able to use any digital gadgets some of which have become an integral part of our civilization. More than 90% older women of today in Nepal are illiterate so they are out of any activity we “the literate” ones think of like ZOOM or WhatsAPP meetings and training while all those illiterates of 60+ age can not recognize Alphabets and Letters. We literates don’t see”illiterate older persons” and they don’t see the relevance of things we do, use or think about. This is because of the digital divide that stands tall between us with digital literacy and they without it. Unfortunately, not only that no organization has programmes for digital literacy for older persons but no one willing to think about the need for such a programme. So indirectly, we are leaving the ILLITERATE older persons behind to the extent that we even don’t recognize the existence of “those illiterate older persons”.

    Take the case of Nepal. According to the National Census Survey of 2011, overall literacy rate (for the population aged 5 years and above) has increased from 54.1 percent in 2001 to 65.9 percent in 2011. Male literacy rate is 75.1% compared to female literacy rate of 57.4%. The highest literacy rate is reported in the capital Kathmandu district (86.3 %) and lowest in remote mountainous Humla (47.8%).

    The above data clearly show that 25% Male and 43% Female population are illiterate at present. It is most likely that a majority of them, particularly women, will enter old age as an illiterate The total number of such illiterates may show a decreasing trend with progress in literacy. But looking at the above data, one can see that illiteracy among older persons is there to stay for a long time to come because of the following reasons.

    (a) the national education policy does not have policy or programmes targeted to older persons;
    (b) most of the national and international agencies, including INGOs and CBOs are designed to see and think from the perspective of developed world where illiteracy do not exist as a significant problem at this stage
    (c) most of these illiterates live in areas with limited access to modern amenities including schools
    (d) most illiterates are from poverty stricken families or areas and can not afford to attend private schools and government schools have limited coverage
    (e) most of them are from families that practice traditional subsistence farming, a profession where literacy is not a prerequisite. They may never realize the need for basic and digital literacy in their working age to end up being 60+ of age as an illiterate and no one thinks to provide education for them
    (f) limited scope and coverage of “informal education” programmes being implemented in Nepal.

    There are other many countries in different parts of the world that are in similar or even worse situations than Nepal in terms of Basic and Digital literacy. In essence, all our net and other electronics based innovative programmes are leaving a majority of older persons behind in moving towards SDGs 2030. Needless to say that a majority of older persons of today and tomorrow will be living in third world countries, ignored and left behind to suffer their isolation, loneliness and all other physical and mental ailments because the world failed them by design.

    I wish all our members safe and healthy life in these difficult days of COVID19

    Warm regards
    Krishna M. Gautam


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