Old People in the Developing World: A Wasted Resource

Abigail Watson

Elders in Afghanistan (Iain Cochrane, 2007)

Elders in Afghanistan (Iain Cochrane, 2007)

When old people in the developing world, defined by the UN as anyone over the age of 60, are considered by individual donors and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) they are, often, seen as “passive recipients of welfare provisions” with little to offer their community. The result of this mistaken belief is twofold. First, it means old people are neglected, especially from systems such as cash-for-work and “livelihood recovery programmes” because of the erroneous belief they no longer work. Second, it means that an incredibly valuable resource in the developing world is wasted.

This issue is gaining greater importance with the growing population of old people. By 2050 the number of old people in the world will go from 50 million to 200 million, with just over 80% of these living in the developing world. Unfortunately, too many people perceive this phenomenon as a problem, as Kaiser and Chawla note:

“…many developing countries … [g]iven the pressures of poverty, migration and urbanization and the general economic constraints of many developing countries, the aging of the population is often viewed as one more burden competing for already scarce resources.”

However, treating this group as a resource could change how the old in the developing world are viewed and treated, as well as help NGOs to build sustainable peace and development. Thus, it is more important than ever to recognise old people’s contributions to their family, their community and to NGOs.

Old people’s contribution to their family

A grandmother and grandchild in poverty-stricken Tamil hill country  (Michael Keller, 2004)

A grandmother and grandchild in poverty-stricken Tamil hill country (Michael Keller, 2004)

The contribution old people make to their family has become more important. Depleting job prospects in rural areas have drawn young adults to the city to seek work, often leaving grandparents to fulfill childcare roles. These roles are essential, however they are unpaid. Thus, when charities and organizations – such as the UK’s Departments for International Development – focus on wealth creation to pull countries out of poverty they focus on younger adults because they perceive them as more economically productive. This ignores the invaluable role that old people play in freeing up younger generation’s time. This childcare role is also essential in the wake of the HIV/AIDs epidemic, now 40% to 60% of orphaned children in the countries most affected by HIV/AIDS are cared for by grandparents. Neither is childcare the only domestic role old people do, an investigation of the contributions made by old people in Chile, Sri Lanka and the Dominican Republic found old people also do household shopping, gardening, household repairs, washing and ironing, sewing and mending, household cleaning, food preparation and caring for the sick and disabled[1]. All these tasks free up the time of younger generations – allowing them to pursue paid work. Further, some have noted that old people even work in their children’s business.

In countries where old people receive a pension the money goes back into the family. There is much evidence of it being used to pay for children school fees and household bills, for example HelpAge International found:

“In South Africa in 2002 …Having a pensioner in the family reduces the probability of a household being poor by 12.5 per cent, which can have a direct impact on the health of others in the household. Girls living in a household with an older woman who receives a pension are 3-4cm taller than girls in households with older women who do not receive a pension.”

Old people’s contribution to their local community

Elders in Afghanistan (Iain Cochrane, 2007)Other than subsidising the local economy by working for free in their children’s business, many old people remain economically active themselves – often until the day they die. Other than this, they play roles in transmitting cultural, skills, crafts and traditional medical practices. Although there is some debate over whether old people choose to or are forced to, there is a lot of evidence suggesting that old people do dangerous jobs in the village so that younger people do not have to. One such job, in Darfur, is collecting firewood from outside the village which can mean risking being raped or attacked. Old people can play the role of de facto authority in times of crisis, for example negotiating with host community in times of displacement. It was even found in the Middle East that old people carrying out this role received more respect than policymakers. Old people can also contribute to wealth creation in the local community with their pensions. For example in northern Namibia research shows25-50 per cent of pension income is invested in productive enterprises, and in Lesotho 18 per cent of recipients of the social pension spent part of their pension on creating cash jobs for other people”.

Old people’s contribution to NGOs

Unfortunately, the contributions old people could offer NGOs have been under-exploited; however, when old people have been used by NGOs they have been an important resource. HelpAge International have created old people committees to “disseminating early warning messages to vulnerable older persons and their families, identifying those who were worst hit, compiling beneficiary lists and notifying people when and where to receive relief goods”. These have been used all over the world, such as in Mozambique after the floods in 2000, in 2007 after Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh and in Southern and Western Sudan.

The many things that old people could offer was realised by the New Sendai Framework, which states “[o]lder persons have years of knowledge, skills and wisdom, which are invaluable assets to reduce disaster risk, and they should be included in the design of policies, plans and mechanisms, including for early warning.” Similarly, Ban Ki-moon noted

“[Old people’s] years of experience can help in reducing risks posed by disasters. We should involve them in disaster risk management as well as related planning and decision-making processes. Older persons can also meaningfully enrich our critical global discussions on addressing climate change and achieving sustainable development.”

Old people can offer something unique to their family, community and humanitarian and development efforts. The sooner organizations realise this, the sooner old people will stop being neglected and charities gain a resource.

[1] Kaiser, Marvin A., and Sandeep Chawla.(1993)  “Productive but not empowered in developing countries.” Ageing International 20.1 pp 37-42.

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