The state of the world’s older people: A smart new index on a rising development priority

December 19, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been catching up on the backlog of books and papers that spread like an oil slick across my floor, and have come across a couple of gems (as well as some seasonal turkeys).

Top of the heap is the Global AgeWatch Index 2013, (c/o the indefatigable Sylvia Beales). It’s a smart attempt by HelpAge International to get some proper attention for one of the (many) Cinderella issues in development.

The Report is smartly produced, with good graphics and a powerful message.

The first and most obvious point is that populations are ageing fast – the maps show the proportion of over 60s – Green is <9%, dark red is >30%. By 2050, globally, there will be more people over 60 than there are under 15s. Life expectancy continues to grow. A disproportionate number of the old are women (100 for every 84 men in 2012), facing a whole set of extra stigmas around age and widowhood.

Over 60s 2012 v 2050So who is ‘ageing well’ and who is not? The AgeWatch index combines income, health (including subjective wellbeing), education, employment and ‘enabling environment’ (social connection, physical safety, civil freedom, public transport) into a single index. The website allows you to create your own weighted index if you don’t like the HelpAge version.

The resulting ranking of 91 countries is not that surprising – Sweden, Norway and Germany at the top; Pakistan, Tanzania and Afghanistan at the bottom.

What is more interesting is the comparison with a country’s overall Human Development Index (see graph). Relative to their general population, some countries (Ghana, Mauritius, Nepal and Vietnam) are ensuring a better life for their older people while others (Jordan, Pakistan, Tanzania, Russia, South Korea) are the pits. Among the richer countries, South Korea is a particular outlier – so not surprising perhaps that it has a particular problem of high suicide rates among older people.

Age v HDI

Here’s some overall conclusions from the report:

‘The Index shows that good management of ageing is within reach of all governments. The rankings illustrate that limited resources need not be a barrier to countries providing for their older citizens, that a history of progressive social welfare policies makes a difference, and that it is never too soon to prepare for population ageing. A running thread is that action in the key areas of income security and health is essential.

The Index also highlights those lower-income countries that, regardless of their level of wealth, have invested in policies with positive impacts on ageing. In Sri Lanka (36), long-term investments in education and health have had a lifetime benefit for many of today’s older population. Bolivia (46), despite being one of the poorest countries, has had a progressive policy environment for older people for some time, with a National Plan on Ageing, free healthcare for older people, and a non-contributory universal pension.

Nepal (77) ranks 62 in the income security domain, having introduced a basic pension in 1995 for all over-70s without other pension income. Though limited in value and eligibility and with uneven coverage, this is an example of how a low-income country has chosen to make a start in addressing the old-age poverty challenge.’

Ageing populations will be increasingly central to the development debate, whether in terms of their rising absolute numbers, the struggle to put in place welfare systems that can cope, or because any attempt to ‘get to zero’ on absolute poverty is going to have to tackle the hard core of impoverished elderly people for whom market solutions are unlikely to work.

December 19, 2013
Duncan Green