As part of our new blog series, we will be collaborating with some of the charities, organisations and groups who have contributed to our books. Contributors will be providing us with specially commissioned articles on pressing social issues, which will feature exclusively on the Independence blog, and will highlight topics that are raised in the ISSUES and ISSUES today books.
Our first featured contributor is Campbell Harrison, who provided content for our Ageing and the Elderly (ISSUES) and Older People (ISSUES today) books. In this exclusive post Campbell Harrison brings our attention to countries that do not provide social pensions – incorporating topics from our age-related titles, but also connecting with the issue of global poverty and the struggles faced by developing countries.
What about those countries without social pensions?
In the UK we’re lucky enough to have a system where the majority of older people are eligible to receive a basic state pension once they reach a certain age. The amount you get is dependent on your financial contributions to society via national insurance (or national insurance credits), but as long as you have contributed some national insurance or received certain benefits you will get financial support. A lot of countries have a similar kind of social pension but a significant number of countries don’t offer older people any kind of financial security in old age. This leaves a lot of people, many of whom will have worked their entire lives, in a very vulnerable situation.
Out of 55 recognised African states only six offer some kind of social pension. This is largely because a lot of African countries are considered to be fragile or weak states i.e. states where the Government cannot, or will not, deliver core functions to the majority of people or relatively stable states that are prone to violent conflict and humanitarian emergencies in some areas of the country. When a country is recovering from conflict or in the throes of resurging civil war, establishing consistent state programmes that protect citizens is extremely difficult. The problem is compounded by the fact that conflicts create more citizens in need; fragile states have poverty rates of, on average, 54% compared with 22% in other low income countries.
Fragile states all tend to share the following characteristics:
– High levels of poverty
– Poor access to basic services
– Infrastructural deficiency: poor road networks and low telecommunication coverage
– Lack of social trust in divided societies
– Fragmented and competing elites
– Weak state bureaucracies
– Prone to violent conflict or are currently in violent conflict
What is it like for an older person living in a fragile state?
According, the majority of low-income rural areas in fragile African states are populated by older women and children. This is because the majority of male and middle-aged family members have migrated to more urban areas, often in the hope of raising funds to send back to family in rural parts. The practicalities of sending money back from the city to the countryside, however, are frequently underestimated, meaning that most family members left behind do not benefit financially from urban migration. Older women are often left responsible for providing income for themselves and for grandchildren who have been left behind in environments that are especially neglected because of the fragile state; environments where food is scarce and poverty and ill-health are prevalent.
Older women have to contend with these issues whilst also trying to work for an income and without receiving any financial support in the form of a pension. Typically, they will work as farmers, but in fragile situations, such as northern Kenya, border disputes can make this impossible.
Sierra Leone is just one of countless countries that do not offer their elderly citizens any kind of pension scheme. Aishatu Bangura is 80 years old; speaking about her everyday life in Sierra Leone she said:
‘I have six grandchildren under my care because my two sons have abandoned us in the village. I have difficulties providing for them [grandchildren]. Two have dropped out of school because they need to support the rest of us. I am also not feeling well and can’t afford to buy medicine because I don’t have money.’
What provisions are in place?
Despite older women’s status as a vulnerable group in society, they are not included in government-run programmes that provide free access to health services. Sierra Leone offers free healthcare to pregnant women, lactating mothers and children under five years old, but no provision for older people, even though a significant number of older women suffer from mobility issues, non-communicable diseases and poor eyesight. All of these could be treated at a low cost.
Sierra Leone does offer social insurance schemes, which provide some kind of social protection. However, they are only provided for those in formal employment. Those in the formal sector are enrolled into the National Social Security Investment Trust (NASSIT) which offers a number of financial benefits and protects families from loss of employment. However, since the majority of workers in Sierra Leone (and most fragile African states) are informal workers (up to 95% of women work informally) only 5% of the working population are eligible for the NASSIT scheme.
Although, currently, there is no working social pension in Sierra Leone, the Government has trialled a scheme to improve provisions for older people and the relationship between the state and its citizens. From 2007 to 2008 the Government introduced a pilot scheme called the Social Safety Net (SSN), which specifically targeted the poorest older people. As part of this scheme, over 16,000 older people received a one-off or two-cycle payment of SLL200, 000 (the equivalent of US$47). Those who received the benefit said it had a positive impact but most respondents claimed that the system for deciding who would receive benefit and who wouldn’t was unfair and arbitrary, with many remaining neglected. Pension’s watch, however, argued that the theory behind the scheme was robust but that improvements needed to be made in its implementation to ensure protection of the elderly in Sierra Leone.
A global issue
The lack of pension schemes in fragile states is a social problem that has significant global consequences. In many countries, older people who act as primary care givers to younger generations are unable to provide for them, leaving them stuck in an unavoidable poverty trap.