Older people in Burma driving development

This blog was contributed by Camilla Williamson, public affairs adviser at Age UK, who is currently undertaking a secondment with HelpAge International in South East Asia.

It’s hard to understand what an older person in Burma’s life is like by just reading stats and facts on paper whilst sitting in an office.  I’d been doing this for a few months and thought I had a pretty good appreciation of the difficulties faced by these communities and some of the practical and policy solutions needed to help.  But arriving in a village that is only accessible by a 20 minute

There are 41 Older People’s Self-Help Groups (OPSHGs) in Burma

punt down a narrow stream wedged in between rice paddies, after a four hour rocky road journey from Yangon, sharply brings the reality into focus.

Ma Au Kone consists of 260 small wooden houses built on stilts over streams running through miles fields.   There is no electricity.  There is no fresh water.  The nearest hospital is 15 miles away (or 2 hours in local terms) and transportation there is expensive: at a cost of 100,000 kyats it is equal to what one OPSHG makes in a year (see below).  

Like many of the villages in Burma, health and livelihood are the two dominant challenges for older people and their communities here, and the kind of change that is needed to address the issues is not small.  It will necessitate full-scale, population-wide development over a number of years.

So where does an organisation like HelpAge International start?

One of their chief solutions to the multiple problems faced by communities in Burma is the Older People’s Self-Help Groups (OPSHGs).   These are community-based organisations which aim to improve the well-being of people in later life, their families and communities in a wide-range of ways. HelpAge has been supporting the establishment of OPSHGs in Burma since 2008 and, working with local staff, has helped to set up 41 across the country.  In addition to supporting their establishment, HelpAge works with the groups to train them to be independent and to undertake livelihood programmes, homecare projects and health promotion. 

It was incredible to see first-hand the kind of impact these groups are having, not only on older people but on entire communties.  Rice banks which loan out baskets of rice, each one enabling families to grow an entire field of food, are rapidly increasing in size.  The OPSHGs are promoting health and care education which has enabled all generations to lead healthier lives as both the older people and the volunteers pass on their knowledge to others.  The president of the OPSHG in Ma Au Kone told us how, last year, the visiting health professional funded by the project correctly diagnosed and, as a result, saved the lives of a mother and baby. 

Perhaps the biggest achievement and testimony to the impact older people can have on development has come from OPSHGs in Pyin Oo Lwin in North Burma where they have installed electricity in 741 households, 10 primary schools, 10 monastries, 5 health centres, as well as street lighting in 6 villages.  And this is all financed by OPSHG fundraising activities. 

On visiting these communities, I met and spoke to people of all ages involved either as members or volunteers in OPSHGs, all keen to tell me how the groups were changing their villages and their ambitious plans for the future.  In five years, OPSHGs across the township spoke of their aims for facilitating the building of better roads and communication means, the introduction of electricity to all households, funding more scholarships for children’s education and, in one village, the introduction of a social pension!

It’s clear that while waiting for top-level change to happen, older people in Burma are creating it themselves with great impact.  What’s important going forward is that this action spreads. We’re currently hoping the Government will adopt the OPSHG model and replicate it nationally which would ensure more older people in Burma get the opportunity to improve their own lives and the lives of their communities.

Find out more about HelpAge International’s work in Burma

Find out more about our international work



Ageing in Asia Pacific

Camilla Williamson is Public Affairs Adviser at Age UK and is currently doing a three month secondment with HelpAge International at their East Asia Pacific Regional evelopment Centre in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Camilla is working on ageing policy in the region and strategies for communicating the work the regional team are doing with people in later life to governments.

A number of people’s initial response to the topic of ageing in Asia Pacific might be to assume that as a result of wide-spread poverty and health challenges in the region, population ageing is less of an issue here than it is in, say, Europe. But a glance at some global and regional stats on changing demographics will quickly give you an appreciation of the challenges countries here are facing and why the ageing population debate is especially pertinent to them.

Many of you will know the often repeated stat that the global population of over 60s is set to more than double by 2050, resulting in there being, for the first time, more people over 60 in the world than under 15. But did you also know that 80% of these older people will be in the developing world, with 1,236 million (62%) in Asia?

It is not just the enormity of the figure that presents a challenge: it’s also a question of pace.  Whereas it took between 45 and 150 years to double the older population from 7 to 14 percent in most developed European countries, it is expected to take China, for example, a mere 26 years; Thailand 22, and Singapore a mere 19.

The key issue here is that unlike most Western countries, many East Asia Pacific nations are having to meet the needs of an ageing population before they become relatively wealthy and modernized. The (often extreme) poverty that many of these countries face means that while in Europe we have social protection and health care systems which are there to support us as we age, in these countries providing universal welfare of this sort, even solely for the elderly, is a challenge. 

The task then for organisations like Age UK and our sister organisation, HelpAge International, cannot be to merely encourage governments in the region to provide more directly, but to encourage and support them to enable non government organisations, business, civil society and, most importantly, older people themselves to come together and develop collaborative systems for improving later life. 

Key areas for work include strengthening the informal care system; tackling gender inequality – there are many more older women than men in the region, and they are in more severe poverty than their male counterparts; improving health and wellbeing; addressing the needs of older people in emergencies; and enabling economic, social and political participation for people in later life.   

The Strategic Framework for Social Welfare and Development (2011-15) published this month by ASEAN (Association of South East Asia Network), with support from HelpAge in Asia, addresses a number of these issues and provides governments in the region with a strong framework for progress. HelpAge’s role in this will be to use our expertise to help develop and build capacity for the design, budget and delivery of innovative solutions.

Through older people’s associations all over the region, we are already delivering practical projects on the ground addressing the full range of older people’s needs.  These include home care services, HIV/AIDS programmes, advocacy work, social protection training, and income-generating programmes.  Through these projects, the network successfully helps thousands of older people and their communities.   Our job for the future is to advance this work and show governments in the region, by example, how they can, individually and in partnerships, help many, many more.

 Find out more about our international work

Find out more about our partner HelpAge International