Empowerment of Older People

As the Arab population ages, an increasing focus on the situation of older persons is required to ensure that they are able to age in dignity.  Achieving this goal in the Arab region will require a focus on the multidimensional concerns of older persons, including their access to social protection and empowerment.

Ageing is already well underway in the Arab region.  The absolute number of persons aged 65 and above has more than doubled over the past three decades, increasing from almost 6 million in 1980 to 14.4 million in 2010, making up 4.1 per cent of the total population of the region.  By 2050, the number of older persons is expected to increase to 70.4 million, representing 11.7 per cent of the total population.[1]  The ageing process is thus taking place at a faster pace than in other regions.  However, it is also taking place in a period when most Arab countries are at a lower level of socioeconomic development than those countries which have already undergone this process of ageing.  Arab countries have a smaller time frame and fewer resources to adjust to the consequences of ageing populations, increasing the social, economic and health challenges faced by some countries, and risking to outstrip the capacity of existing mechanisms of social and welfare support.

Research carried out in the framework of the second review of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing[2] and preparations for the 20-year review of progress of the implementation of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development in the Arab region have found that, although some Arab countries have developed national policies on ageing, many are still largely unprepared to meet the challenges posed and faced by older persons. Social protection systems are generally based on employment in formal sector activities, thus excluding the majority of people from access to such benefits. Women, given their weak formal labour market participation, are de facto excluded from these benefits and are thus particularly vulnerable to old-age poverty. Even those who receive these benefits are often forced to supplement their incomes through continued employment beyond legal retirement ages.

Aware of these challenges, a few Arab countries have undertaken initiatives aimed to improve the situation of older persons. For example, Jordan, Lebanon, and Libya have participated in initiatives such as the World Health Organization (WHO) Age-friendly Cities initiative, and most countries take strong stands against the issue of elder abuse.  Meanwhile, many social structures give a privileged position to older persons to participate in decision-making processes.  These structures have also been supplemented by specific initiatives aiming to promote the engagement of older persons in economic and voluntary activities, such as microcredit initiatives for older women.  However, in general, benefits provided to older persons still tend to be welfare-based, rather than rights-based, and negative images of older persons abound.  Finally, despite their potential as factors of community stability and contributors to peacebuilding, the older persons are further marginalized by ongoing conflicts in the Arab region, while humanitarian response plans often fail to integrate the specific needs of this group.

In the Arab region, caring for older persons is a moral duty and obligation rooted in customs, traditions, and religious values and principles. However, this concern should be complemented by a proactive development approach to dealing with older persons and to tackling issues of concern to them. Further work is needed to ensure that older persons are integrated into poverty reduction plans and decent work policies; that they are able to participate in society and remain active and productive for longer; and that better health services and social protection are provided for all persons, particularly older persons. These achievements would not only benefit older persons but also, given their accumulated experience and knowledge, the whole society.

[1] ESCWA, the demographic profile of the Arab countries.  E/ESCWA/SDD/2013/Technical Paper.14 (advance unedited copy available on ESCWA website).

[2] See Report of the Secretary-General, Second review and appraisal of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, 2002 (E/CN.5/2013/6).