Are current humanitarian standards working for older people?

Older people in Kathmandu, Nepal, register for assistance following the devastating earthquake in April. Too often, older people and people with disabilities, despite being two of the most vulnerable groups, are not reached effectively by humanitarian programs. Photo by: Sachin Shrestra / HelpAge International

World Humanitarian Day on Aug. 19 gave us a chance to reflect on the work that humanitarians do in incredibly difficult and high-pressure settings. Today, many aid agencies are stretching limited budgets to reach the most vulnerable people who have been affected by disasters around the world.

Too often, older people and people with disabilities, despite being two of the most vulnerable groups, are not reached effectively by humanitarian programs. In these circumstances it is even more vital that the principle of impartiality, providing assistance based on need alone, is upheld.

Last week six aid agencies, including our partner HelpAge International, launched a new set of minimum standards to support aging- and disability-inclusive responses in humanitarian crises.

Of course standards already exist for humanitarian actors, such as the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability and the Sphere Handbook. However, despite the focus on protection and the needs of vulnerable groups, older people and people with disabilities continue to come up against barriers to humanitarian assistance and protection.

The Age and Disability Capacity Building — or ADCAP — program, led by our partner, has responded by bringing together materials developed by specialist age and disability agencies with existing standards for the new Minimum Standards for Age and Disability Inclusion in Humanitarian Action.

These new standards are not intended to place additional demands on aid agencies; rather, they clarify and reinforce what is already required and how this applies to older people and people with disabilities.

There are eight key inclusion standards and sector-specific standards. These include making sure that people with disabilities and older people are recognized, can participate in decisions that affect them and have equal opportunities for employment and volunteering in humanitarian organizations.

Older people and people with disabilities make up a significant and growing proportion of disaster-affected populations. Globally, 1 in 8 people (12.3 percent) are over the age of 60 and 15 percent are living with some kind of disability.

Two recent examples are the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. In June 2015, the Global Protection Cluster in Ukraine reported that 59 percent of registered internally displaced people were older. In 2014, HelpAge International and Handicap International reported that 22 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon were suffering from some kind of impairment; this rose to 70 percent among older people.

Injuries, disrupted and often overwhelmed health care systems and a failure to treat noncommunicable diseases all contribute to an increased risk of being affected by disability in conflicts and natural disasters.

Older people are also more vulnerable to external conditions, like hot or cold weather; they often have impaired sight and hearing, and reduced mobility and strength, which may mean they are unable to get to distribution sites or access other services.

Humanitarian actors may not target them for nutrition or livelihoods programs or other forms of assistance, or may think it is not possible to address their “specific needs” with limited time and resources.

This is one reason our emergency response work through the HelpAge global network often involves an inclusion adviser in country, whose role is to support other agencies. By working with others we are able to share specialist knowledge and reach far more people than one agency acting alone.

Following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, around 1.27 million people over 60 years of age were affected. They lost relatives, homes and livelihoods, leaving many displaced and vulnerable. We not only worked with other humanitarian experts but also with a long-standing partner with considerable expertise in the field of aging. Their relationships with older people’s associations and knowledge of the socio-political situation in affected areas allowed us to reach older people and their communities.

For an organization whose primary focus was the promotion of rights and services for older people, delivering an emergency response program was not a simple task. However, since Typhoon Ketsana in 2009, we had been working with Coalition of Services of the Elderly on developing their disaster preparedness. When Haiyan hit in 2013 they were ready to respond in ways that met international standards and the needs of older people.

So how can we do more? Around the world, one of the first steps toward improving inclusion of these groups is improved data collection. Sometimes people are excluded inadvertently because they remain invisible to humanitarian organizations. As a result, their needs remain unaddressed and their capacities unused.

After the Nepal earthquake we carried out a secondary data review to provide an estimate of the numbers of older people and people with disabilities who had been affected. While population data disaggregated by age and gender were available, there was limited information available on the nutritional status of older people — data on undernutrition were available for mothers and children but not older people — and national disability data were found to be unreliable.

Governments and the humanitarian sector should improve the quality of data being collected to support the design of programs that will meet the needs of the affected populations.

One way to improve data collection would be to adapt current international household surveys. There are three gaps that, if filled, would gather richer and more representative information on older people through already existing programs: coverage, representativeness and greater depth of information.

To ensure that older people are covered in household surveys, people living in nontraditional households, for example in institutions such as residential care facilities and long-stay hospitals, should be included. Some surveys include separate interviews for “eligible” women within the household and, in most countries, men aged 15-59 years. Including household members who fall outside of the “eligibility” requirements of surveys would increase the coverage of older people.

For data to be statistically robust, enough people of different types (gender, age, region, etc.) need to be given the opportunity and encouraged to respond. For older people, this may require oversampling in this age group to collect representative data.

Finally, to obtain richer information on the experiences and perceptions of older people, all household members should be asked the questions currently in surveys and additional questions asked on issues that affect older people in particular.

In advance of next year's World Humanitarian Summit, we want the needs of older people and people with disabilities to have the same profile and mainstream recognition that is needed if they are to be adequately and effectively supported and helped to recover.

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About the author

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    Chris Roles

    Chris Roles has been director of Age International, the only U.K. charity focusing on the needs and rights of older people in developing countries, since 2012. Previously he has held senior positions in a number of international relief and development agencies.