“If you have only dust in your hands, then friends are far; when they are full, they come closer”: an examination of the impacts of Zambia’s Katete universal pension

“If you have only dust in your hands, then friends are far; when they are full, they come closer”: an examination of the impacts of Zambia’s Katete universal pension

For the past 10 years or so, Zambia has been experimenting with a universal old age pension in the district of Katete, in the east of the country. It has provided a regular pension to 4,500 older people aged over 60 years, 63% of whom were women. The recipients of the pension belong to the Chewa tribe. In 2010, the author undertook a study of the pension and, at the time, it provided people with a regular transfer of 120,0001 Kwacha (around US$23.50) per month. The pension was funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and managed by the Ministry of Community Development and Social Welfare.

The Katete pension has had a transformative impact on the lives of older people, as well as on their wider communities. It has also helped address discrepancies between the ideal and reality with regard to how older people view themselves and how they are viewed by society. It enables older people to delay the inevitable decline into dependency on others and enables them to retain their humanity – as expressed in Chewa ideals – for as long as they can. By maintaining active mutual sharing and caring relations, they keep kinship and love alive. The pension has particularly positive benefits for those that have been marginalised in old age to re-incorporate themselves within intimate communities, which offer them care, respect and support, which they, because of their possession of cash, can reciprocate.Moving towards a much simpler universal pension, as in Katete, would make a lot of sense. The vast majority of older people in Zambia live in poverty and attempting to exclude the richest appears to add little – if any – value, in particular when they cannot be accurately identified. Furthermore, it would be preferable to provide the benefit as an individual entitlement so that households with more than one older person can receive multiple benefits. If not, households may be encouraged to split while particularly vulnerable households – with more than one older person (or person with a severe disability) – could receive a higher income, which they surely need.