Scanning the press coverage of the current Disasters Emergencies Committee (DEC) appeal for East Africa uncovers a predictable range of approaches.
Most articles take the ‘Isn’t it awful? We must do something’ line. They show heart-wrenching pictures of emaciated children and dying cattle.
Others take a more analytical approach and seek to apportion blame on someone or something. Corrupt dictators, too many children, climate change, over-population, lack of aid, too much aid, unfair trade, conflict – the list goes on. I have a good deal of sympathy with some (though not all) of these arguments.
There is also plenty of coverage of how the situation is affecting children. I’ve even seen a plea for emergency aid for the animals affected. But I have yet to read any news article which mentions older people.
So why don’t older people don’t get a mention?
Firstly, I think there is an assumption by many (including some in the development community) that there aren’t any older people in developing countries. And if there are, they are lucky to have made it so far, they are living on borrowed time so we don’t need to bother about them. Children are the future. Older people are just past it.
So, before we go any further, some facts.
It’s estimated that there are currently around 54 million older people living in Africa. And the proportion of older people is growing rapidly.
Of course, it is true that rapid population growth in recent years has led to predominantly young populations in most African countries. But people are also living longer, and many more are reaching older age.
One in 10 of the poorest people in the world are now over 60. By the year 2050 there will be more over-60s in developing countries than under-14s.
Older people in developing countries are not passive recipients or victims. Most make a big contribution to their own communities. In the many countries where there is no old age pension from the state, most people have to go on working for as long as they can. Many older people are carers for young children, enabling parents to earn money by working away from the family home, or because children have been orphaned.
If you scan the news images from the refugee camps in East Africa, it’s true that you won’t often see an older face. But there’s a good reason for that. With age, comes declining mobility, so when a family decides to leave their home village to seek help elsewhere, many of the older people are left behind. In many of the famine-ravaged communities in Ethiopia where our partner HelpAge International is working, about half of the population are over 60. Those who can get up and go have got up and gone. The older people are left behind. This blog from Gacheru Maina, working with HelpAge International in East Africa, illustrates just this point.
And for those who make it to camps where they might get help? Tragically over the years we have heard many stories from older people who have got to a camp, only to find themselves left behind again. After the 2010 floods in Pakistan, 70-year-old Sultana said, ‘As I was waiting in the queue for my turn to receive food, somebody punched me in the face and knocked me unconscious: all this just to get ahead of me.’
So, as Age UK, an organisation dedicated to improving later life in the UK and around the world, what can we do about this? Frankly we have a job on our hands.
Sometimes it seems that as a nation we are obsessed with young people and youthfulness – and not much interested in what happens beyond our borders either. At Age UK we need to get out there and make the case for older people living in poverty around the world. We’re doing this already, but we obviously have to try harder, and we’re thinking about how to approach this.
In the meantime, please donate to the Age UK’s East Africa appeal and please start asking yourself as you read news reports from East Africa: where are the older people in this story? And if they are not there, why not?