Why the SDGs must include older people to ‘leave no one behind’

    Older people wait to have their eyes checked in Haiti. People aged 60 and over are the fastest-growing global age group. Photo by: Frédéric Dupoux / HelpAge International

    In the discussions held over the last 18 months on the post-2015 agenda, member states, U.N. representatives and other stakeholders all agreed the future Sustainable Development Goals should “leave no one behind.”

    HelpAge International, together with the NGO Committee on Ageing in New York, has worked to ensure the SDGs should include the rights of people in older age so that commitment to “leave no one behind” is truly realized.

    Throughout the process to date, we have highlighted the importance of developing a framework that reflects the reality of the world as we find it — and the fact is that global population is ageing, progressively and fast. It’s an unprecedented phenomenon that is affecting every single country in the world. People aged 60 and over are the fastest-growing global age group, and women account for an increasing share of this. In 2012, people over 60 constituted 11 per cent of the world’s population, but by 2030 this figure will have increased to 16 per cent, and there will be more people aged 60 and over than under 10.

    As noted in a recent report by the Global Thematic Consultation on Population Dynamics, “population dynamics influence concerns and objectives at all levels of national and global development agendas. Failure to keep pace with changing demographic trends will make it impossible to support improvements in the well-being of all people now and in the future.” Commenting on the shaping of the post-2015 agenda, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for the world to “envision a new paradigm that aligns demographic ageing with economic and social growth, and protects the human rights of older persons.” Has his advice been heeded?

    The 30 June revision of the so-called “zero draft” by the U.N. Working Group on the SDGs recognizes that “people, of all ages and abilities, are at the center of sustainable development” and commits to “work together to promote sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development and environmental protection … to benefit all.” However, we remain very concerned that this does not carry over to the current draft goals and targets.

    Of the 17 goals and approximately 150 targets currently being discussed, there is only one reference to people of all ages, and no reference at all to older people or people in older age. Without the specificity that articulates how goals and targets will be delivered for all people, we risk leaving older people behind. We have been advocating for the inclusion of the language “people of all ages” to provide this specificity and ensure that older people are included.

    In the current draft framework we were extremely pleased to note the target to reduce by at least half the proportion of people of all ages living below national poverty definitions. This is a very welcome inclusion. However, the draft target on social protection remains weak. A core strategy in addressing poverty and inequality is the implementation of universal social protection systems, which build resilience and prevent people from falling into poverty. Without a universal social protection target in line with already agreed international commitments, the goal of ending poverty everywhere will be in jeopardy.

    We also strongly welcome a cross-cutting target to increase significantly the availability of high-quality and timely data disaggregated by income, gender and age, among other characteristics relevant in national contexts.

    We know that current data systems are not fit for purpose in today’s ageing world. Data on older women and men is often not collected. When it does exist, it is not fully analyzed, reported or utilized, leading to the absence of issues affecting older people in policies and development interventions. For this reason, a data revolution is needed to underpin an inclusive new post-2015 framework. Data — including on people in older age — must be collected, disaggregated, analyzed and utilised across the entire SDGs if the new framework is to be truly inclusive.

    Other areas of the current draft give greater cause for concern. Population ageing is in part an outcome of progress in the health sector, but it also presents a major challenge and the need for health systems that support ageing populations. A universal health goal that speaks to this reality is crucial. Throughout the discussions of the OWG a goal of healthy life at all ages for all appears to have gained traction — yet in this most recent draft the language has been cut back to “attain healthy lives for all,” lacking the specific reference to the differing health needs of people at different stages of their lives. This must be addressed as the OWG warps up its work.

    There is also a risk that targets included under the health goal may be exclusive. The draft target on non-communicable diseases has included the term “premature deaths” defined by an arbitrary chronological age range — people between the ages of 30 and 70 — suggesting that it is acceptable for someone to die of an NCD if they are younger than 30 or older than 70. This target risked excluding population groups, including those in older age who account for two-thirds of deaths from NCDs worldwide, and institutionalizing age discrimination in the delivery of health outcomes. This is why we were pleased to see the removal of this term in the current draft, and we must now work hard to ensure that this discriminatory language does not reappear either at the target or indicator level.

    Similarly, a draft target on ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls has had the long-standing language “women of all ages” removed. We know that women in older age experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. We also know that the focus on girls and women of reproductive age has resulted in little or no data being collected on women over 49. However, gender-based and other intersecting inequality can accumulate over a lifetime and be exacerbated in older age, which can have devastating effects for women in older age and needs to be specifically addressed. Via the explicit recognition of an approach for women of all ages at both the goal and target levels, the framework must recognize that gender inequality affects women at every stage of their lives.

    In the context of rapid population ageing, it’s crucial that all people, including those in older age, are included in the sustainable development framework.

    Addressing the issues raised here will be a step in the right direction to ensuring no one is left behind. HelpAge International and the NGO Committee on Ageing continue to call on U.N. member states to redouble their efforts in this regard, as the OWG concludes its work and the world moves into the next phase of the post-2015 process.

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    About the author

    • Rachel albone profile

      Rachel Albone

      Rachel Albone is HIV policy adviser for HelpAge International. She is also co-founder of the Caregivers Action Network, a global advocacy network calling for the full recognition and support of community caregivers. Prior to joining HelpAge in 2008, Albone worked as a consultant undertaking projects for DfID, UNAIDS, the Dutch government and various international NGOs.