Had a nice chat with Cherian Mathews, the incoming head of HelpAge International, this week, which got me thinking about how we talk about the role of older people in development. Our conversation on possible future directions for HAI mainly centred on narratives and tactics.
Obviously no one wants to go with ‘older people as victims’, which manages to combine ageism and poverty porn. But I have questions even over portraying older people as fighting for the rights of older people. Have a look at HAI’s #OlderNotOver campaign. It’s inspiring, but also raised questions for me. How many older people self-identify as such? After all, the experience of ageing is highly intersectional: older people are at the forefront of a bunch of age-spanning activism on issues like climate change or women’s rights (or in my case, talking about activism to anyone who’ll listen). They may prefer to see themselves as activists on one of those issues rather than be pigeon-holed as older people. How to recognize that and build a movement out of such disparate parts?
Older people may well be making unique meta-contributions, e.g. through their emphasis on inter-generational cohesion (‘we want to make the world fit for our grandchildren’) or as particularly powerful volunteers. Think of the phases of life and activism. Very crudely, from 60 onwards there are decades, potentially several of them, during which older people have resources (financial, social, knowledge) and the time to use them. In all previous phases of life, you either have time, or resources, but seldom both. I saw the power of older activists (especially indefatigable nuns) at CAFOD, and it left a marked impression.
You can also see that role in later life playing out in the research by IDS and Oxfam on governance diaries – in countries like Myanmar and Pakistan, older people like retired civil servants become the ‘intermediaries’ who help fix people’s problems at the grassroots, acting as a go between with the state. OK, it’s not entirely voluntary (some kind of informal payment in cash or in kind is usually involved – thanks for the chicken), but it is an important and little recognized role. I would love someone to do an ‘ageing diaries’ research project to uncover where, when and how older people engage in influencing the communities or societies around them in different countries. I suspect it would uncover a whole lot of things that conventional tropes on older people just ignore.
If it starts to sign up individual older people as members, could HAI act as a clearing house for all this experience and time, putting people in touch with each other and saying ‘now get on with some influencing. According to your online forms, you guys are all retired tax accountants and lawyers. You’re the experts, so please come up with a campaign on a wealth tax, and we will brand it, but otherwise we’ll just let you get on with it – after all, you have the networks and credibility.’
That also made me wonder if conventional campaign models (at least in the North) are to some extent rooted in experiences of student/youth campaigning, where the foot soldiers are treated as such by the ‘generals’ back in HQ, with a focus on centralized leadership, planning and control, rather than ‘cut them loose, back them and see what happens’.
It’s relatively easy to find partners to work on services for older people etc, but older people as leaders and campaigners? That doesn’t have any obvious fit with existing disciplinary boundaries, as far as I can see, which can be a big stumbling block. Who’s working on this?
Here’s the campaign video – see what you think. Seemed a bit past tense to me – respect this older person because of what they’ve done in their lives. But what about what they’re doing now? After all, (and I’m not saying this is necessarily a good thing) look how many older people are still running countries, Universities and (farewell, then, Rupert Murdoch) major media houses!