How a focus on the 'old' can make the 'new' development agenda more inclusive

70-year old Vinciane uses a sewing machine in Haiti. Despite the increasing number of elderly around the world, aging has been “inadequately addressed in many government policies and programs.” Photo by: Evelyn Hockstein / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

The sustainable development goals, which will be adopted later this month, have a bold ambition: for the world to take transformative steps to move toward sustainable development that leaves no one behind.

And that means the needs of everyone, including the growing number of elderly people globally, must be addressed by the 17 goals and 169 targets in the much-anticipated post-2015 development agenda — something that the expiring Millennium Development Goals failed to do, according to Jane Scobie, director of communications and advocacy at HelpAge International.

“[The MDGs] focused on child and maternal health [and] issues of aging were not mentioned. The overall target of reducing poverty by half was not specific enough and was not used to improve measurement of old age poverty,” the author and architect of the London-based group’s Global Age Watch Index report told Devex. “The SDGs … addresses this shortfall [with its] focus on ‘for all at all ages.’”

According to the World Health Organization, the number people of aged 60 and up has “doubled since 1980,” rising from comprising just 11 percent of the world’s population to 22 percent in 2014. It is further expected to grow 230 percent to 2 billion by 2050, with 80 percent of these elderly citizens living in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in Asia and Africa.

While the rising number of older people — according to HelpAge, someone turns 60 every two seconds — is an increasingly important development that needs immediate attention, Scobie said it is also a “success story.” The fact that more people are living to age 60 and older proves that the solutions proposed 15 years ago to improve people’s lives, mainly through improved health care and general well-being, are working.

But perhaps because of the global focus on improving people’s lives, aging has been “inadequately addressed in many government policies and programs.” Scobie hopes the SDGs, which recognize that “the world is aging,” would change that.

“Health systems in many countries lack adequate services for responding to older people’s needs … psychological, financial and physical abuse of older people is high and underrated,” she explained. “If [the SDGs] do not include and address the rights, needs and aspirations of older people, it is failing in its aspiration since … its overall goal is to tackle poverty in all forms.”

The need for better data

Despite the increasing number of elderly people around the world, comprehensive and aggregated data on old age poverty remain missing from over 90 countries, particularly in the developing world, Scobie said.

“Comparable international data was only available for 96 countries, covering 91 percent of older people worldwide,” the expert said. “The absence of data on aging shows that the world is currently ill-prepared to deal with its increasing number of old people.”

This lack of information has made it difficult for organizations and governments to formulate better and more effective policies to protect and promote the welfare of its aging population. Previous studies from the London-based organization have revealed that only about 1 percent of international humanitarian projects specifically address or consider the vulnerabilities of older people.

This data disparity is even more apparent in the poorest regions of the world, “where older people are more at risk,” Scobie said, pointing to the fact that even HelpAge’s index was only able to include 11 of 54 African nations.

“[U.N. Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon’s call to ‘leave no one behind’ is to give priority to the data revolution and ensure that improved comparable and comprehensive international data disaggregated by age is available,” she said. “So many governments and specialist agencies can monitor older people’s well-being and understand the impact of the SDGs.”

Asked about the kind of contribution older people can make toward the post-2015 development agenda, Scobie said younger generations can benefit from the elderly’s experience and may learn from their mistakes, which may then lead to better and more effective implementation of the SDGs.

“Ending poverty in the older age groups will support the young, as older people everywhere support younger generations,” she stressed. Their participation in community and national groups like older people’s associations are key as these institutions “aim to improve their living conditions and develop their communities.”

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.