Last week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings (CHOGM), made important commitments to reducing plastic waste, cutting emissions and tackling malaria, but one notable omission was any discussion of the rights of older people.
A positive trend across the Commonwealth is an increase in life expectancy. And according to a newly published report on ageing in Commonwealth, the number of older people in the Commonwealth is predicted to double by 2043. This step forward has come about because of improvements in health, education and the economy across many parts of the Commonwealth.
However, alongside this increase in the older population there is also a far less positive story of discrimination, increasing health problems and human rights abuses. In many places, older women and men are likely to experience poorer health due to multiple chronic illnesses and a lack of adequate medical attention, discrimination when trying to access financial services and loans, and even violence and abuse that denies them their safety and security.
This is why it is so surprising that the Commonwealth has consistently refused to recognise the needs, contributions and rights of older people in official discussions.
This year’s CHOGM placed particular emphasis on youth; this is understandable given that 60 per cent of the Commonwealth’s population are aged under 30, but it demonstrates a short sightedness that overlooks the older generations’ contributions to society, their families and the lives of younger people.
For example, in many Commonwealth countries, older people care for their grandchildren to enable younger adults to take on paid employment, and in parts of Africa, the older generation has brought up children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic or the Ebola outbreak.
A Commonwealth that only talks about youth, risks excluding the very people who helped to build these countries through their hard work. This is not the fairer, more prosperous and more inclusive Commonwealth that the Summit promised.
Outside of CHOGM, Commonwealth governments are committed to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals and the World Health Organisation (WHO) global strategy and action plan on ageing and health - these explicitly recognise the role that older people play in society and require countries to respond to their needs. The Commonwealth itself has made a commitment to “leave no one behind”.
Despite older people being left off CHOGM’s agenda, more member states are beginning to recognise the rights and needs of older women and men in their own countries.
For example, in January the Kenyan Government started the rollout of a social pension for all older people and in March the Ugandan Government announced it would do the same for everyone over the age of 70 – around one million people – following from the success of a pilot scheme that is being supported by the UK Government, something for which Age International campaigned.
The impact of these measures cannot be overstated. Without a pension, many older people have no choice but to keep working, often in physically demanding jobs and even when their health starts to fail. Yet, the modest amounts of money coming from social pensions can make a huge difference to the wellbeing and quality of life of older women and men and their families. Research in South Africa found that children living in households with a pension were in better health and more likely to be at school than those who were not .
Despite this progress, millions of people across the Commonwealth are still entering later life with little or no income security and so they risk experiencing desperate poverty. Unless the Commonwealth takes action, this will be the reality facing today’s youth when they get older.
By putting the needs and rights of older people on the agenda, the Commonwealth could provide an opportunity for governments to discuss how to build a better future for all. For the Commonwealth to be truly forward looking, it must look beyond responses that focus on only one generation.
We can only hope that the UK Government can use its influence to make sure that the Commonwealth is genuinely for people of all ages. The next time the Heads of Government meet in Rwanda in 2020, we should expect issues affecting older people to be given a rightful place in the Summit and its discussions.
1. Duflo E, Grandmothers and granddaughters: old age pensions and intrahousehold allocation in South Africa, World Bank Economic Review, 17, (1), 1–25 (2003).