Older and at the Sharp End: Why more Social Protection is needed to protect Older People in the global food, finance & fuel crisis 

May 3, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Babken Babajanian

The current global crisis, with soaring prices for food and fuel, has been devastating for many people around the world. But for older people in poor countries with no access to pensions or social protection, it is particularly bleak. And worse still for older women.  Sadly, although they are bearing the brunt of the crisis, they don’t have any say in how to mitigate against it and this needs to change. 

Since 2022, most countries have witnessed sharply escalating prices for food, fuel and fertilisers, accompanied with a fall in average household incomes.  

The effects of this crisis on people’s lives and livelihoods have been devastating, especially in lower income countries, and it has disproportionately affected the poorest and most disadvantaged, including older people and especially older women. 

Nepal: Pramod Bista, 61. Photo credit Ganesh Bista, Ageing Nepal

And with climate change disasters almost now becoming commonplace and an increasingly ageing population, there is now an urgent need for better social protection measures to protect older people in future crises. 

New research from HelpAge International across ten countries – Argentina, Colombia, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Malawi, Mozambique, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Yemen – shows how rising food and fuel prices, combined with falling income mean that older people cannot afford the food they normally eat and in some countries they are literally starving, selling their assets and are reduced to begging.

We found that many older people prioritise feeding their grandchildren over themselves. For example, an older person from Sheikh Othman in Yemen said: “We buy bread and cheese and feed the children while we do not eat.”   

The report also reveals that across the ten countries older people are struggling to afford to pay for health care or to reach hospitals and health centres, due to rising transport costs. 

Older people in particular are struggling to cope with the crisis as they don’t have alternative sources of income; they often lack adequate savings and access to credit. 

Crucially, older people interviewed for report did not have any access to social protection. In most of our research countries, only a small share of older people received any form of benefit such as pensions or cash transfers from the state. The existing pensions systems in these countries mainly benefit those with formal jobs and civil servants – usually men. Many older women, e.g. in Sri Lanka and Colombia, who have done unpaid domestic and care work previously, cannot access any form of social protection.

In Ethiopia, for example, only 7.3 per cent of older people receive a pension, of whom only 10 per cent are female.  

Even in Argentina, where the majority of older people receive a basic pension, inflation has wiped out benefits and they are struggling to buy food. In some countries, governments, NGOs and international actors did provide some emergency assistance, but such help was irregular and insufficient.

Mozambique. Credit: credit Mauro Vombe, Fairpicture, HelpAge International

We must enhance lower income countries’ capacity to deal with the crisis alongside increasing older people’s ability to cope and recover. 

And yet older people are often invisible in the current policy discourse at both national and global level. The assumption is that they will be helped by their families.

But even where that happens, there is a cost. In Tanzania, where only a small proportion of older people receive a pension from a contributory scheme, older people are indeed three times more likely than the national average to receive monetary transfers from family members. But reliance on family members, friends and neighbours had a negative impact on many older people’s mental health, as they felt shame and embarrassment in having to accept help.

Furthermore, not all families are able to support their older relatives any more as they themselves are stretched to the limit; and what about older people who do not have children, or those whose children or grandchildren are migrants stranded in faraway lands, also affected by global crises?

There is also a bigger, normative question – why should older people rely on their families to satisfy their basic needs? Should not this be the responsibility of the state to ensure that people who worked all their lives – in construction, services, farming, or domestic work – are entitled to basic basic minimum income, health care and have opportunities to engage in income generation?

There is some good news. Many governments are agreeing to respect older people’s right to social protection by making pensions available to all older people. But this needs to be wider reaching and supported at the highest possible levels. It is not acceptable that a crisis created by global forces are driving the most vulnerable to starvation when there is a clear and logical solution.  

Pensions can be an effective way to reduce existing poverty and deprivation, and can provide protection against shocks and stresses to ensure people do not become destitute in the first place.

Colombia: Asociación Cultural Casa del Niño. Credit: HelpAge International

When well implemented, these systems build people’s resilience to risks by helping people meet their basic needs in a predictable and systemic manner.

Social protection systems can not only improve older people’s wellbeing and dignity, but also prevent and reduce poverty, inequality and social exclusion in society.  

And what’s more they can enhance older women’s economic autonomy, strengthen their voice and agency, and can be an effective way of recognising the value of unpaid work.  

More investment is urgently needed to enable all citizens to live longer, healthier lives now and in the future 

May 3, 2023
Duncan Green