How social protection schemes can provide vital support to older people

1st October 2019

This blog originally appeared on the Impact Initiative website

Tuesday 1st October marks the International Day of Older Persons on which we celebrate the huge contribution that a large – and growing – demographic group makes to our societies across the globe. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that many older people live in poverty and vulnerable conditions.

In light of an ageing population, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide important impetus for greater focus on tacking poverty among older people, and for social protection to play a role in doing so. SDG 1 specifically calls for eradication for all people everywhere, and for reducing poverty in all its forms for people of all ages. It also refers to the implementation of social protection programmes and systems to include those living in poverty and vulnerability. As such, we have seen a greater focus on older people in discussions about poverty reduction and being covered by social protection interventions.

While social pensions are commonplace in many high-income countries, this does not hold in many low- and middle-income countries. In low-income countries, fewer than one in five people over statutory retirement age receive a social pension. But this is changing. Various countries – such as, KenyaUganda and Zanzibar – have recently trialled or adopted social pension schemes that provide regular cash transfers to those over a certain age.

These schemes provide vital support to older people, helping to afford basic needs and improving their wellbeing. But the effect of social pensions stretches beyond older people. They have positive effects on their families and the communities that they live in. Research by Brunel University in Lesotho found that pensions allowed for children to go to school as their grandparents were able to pay for school fees and uniforms. Advocates for social pensions also point out that older people are not merely ‘receivers’ of support but that they play an active role in their communities, and that the social pensions allow them to take on these active roles for longer.

In some cases, schemes are universal and offered to all older people. In others, they are targeted to older people living in poverty. Whether pensions should be universal or targeted is subject to heavy debate. Proponents of targeting raise serious concerns about exclusion of old people in need when restricting pensions to a small group that are considered the poorest and most needy. Mechanisms for identifying this group are often flawed and result in people being wrongfully denied a benefit. However, as pointed out by research by the Centre on Ageing at the University of Southampton, inclusive social pensions should do more than be universal. They require active measures to find ‘hidden’ populations who might not appear on official registers or household lists and would be missed out altogether.

If we are serious about ending global poverty for older people, and achieving the SDGs, then the research evidence highlights the need to go beyond unhelpful narratives that perceive older people as a burden on resources, and to improve systems to enable people to thrive later in life. We need to learn from the evidence - such as the ESRC-DFID funded research on pensioner poverty -  that shows that when older people are financially secure, they are more likely to work for longer, take on caring roles within their communities, as well as invest in, and provide vital suppport to, their local communities.

Photo credit: Pensioners Rights Group Protest, 31st Anniversary, Bhopal Disaster (cropped to fit Eldis template)| Bhopal Medical Appeal/Colin Toogood | CC BY-NC 2.0


Keetie Roelen

Dr Keetie Roelen is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, and Co-Director of the Centre for Social Protection. She is a development economist by training and current research interests include the dynamics of (child) poverty, social protection and the linkages between child protection and social protection.

Keetie has worked with many international organisations such as UNICEF, FAO and Concern Worldwide, performing research and policy advice work in South East Asia, Southern and Eastern Africa and Central and Eastern Europe. She has quantitative and qualitative research skills and has designed and delivered lectures and training courses for Masters students, professionals, practitioners and policy makers. Her work has been published in the form of peer-reviewed journal publications and book chapters, working papers and project reports.