Helping Aged Persons in Uganda
January 29, 2009
The overwhelming majority of older people in Katine will never be able to afford to stop working. According to HelpAge International, an agency working on older people's rights and livelihoods, more than 90% of Ugandan's don't have any choice but to continue often physically demanding, strenuous and badly paid work into very old age with no form of state support.
While Uganda does have a pension system for public and private sector employees, the vast majority of Ugandans, particularly in rural areas like Katine, are "informal" workers, such as farmers, labourers, market traders or small business owners, and get no form of financial protection in their old age. HelpAge says that only 10% of those reaching the statutory retirement age of 55 are eligible to claim any kind of support.
The existing pension framework is in itself problematic for those who are eligible to claim. Retired civil servants, such as government administrators, government teachers and healthcare workers, constitute roughly 4% of the population and are eligible for a small state pension. Yet many local governments fail to pay out. The state pension scheme currently has Ugandan shillings (Shs) 314bn of unpaid pension claims.
Even those drawing a pension usually have to continue earning to supplement this monthly stipend. Amounts paid out through state pensions are also woefully small. Anna Pearson, senior social protection policy adviser for HelpAge, says they are "barely enough to buy a meal a day".
The Ugandan government has always relied on people to be looked after by family and communities in their old age. Now urban migration, rising unemployment and spiralling food and living costs mean many children are unable or unwilling to provide ageing parents with any kind of regular support.
Social fragmentation is being exacerbated by other issues such as decades of civil conflict and the HIV/Aids epidemic, which has eaten through a whole generation of parents in Uganda.
HIV/Aids is still the leading cause of death for people aged between 15 and 49. Half of all Uganda's 1.2 million HIV/Aids orphans are cared for by grandparents and recent research carried out by Ugandan NGO Uganda Reach the Aged Association estimates that the average Ugandan grandparent cares for five young dependants.
"In Katine you have a situation where many older people have no regular support from their children, they are vulnerable to disease, are struggling to cope with the demands of demanding agricultural labour, but know if they don't work, they simply can't eat," says Susan Wandera, deputy country director of the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) Uganda.
Older people have always lost out when it comes to government policies on social protection and are barely mentioned in Uganda's national Poverty Eradication Action Plan
Things could be changing. Last October five new seats for the elderly were created in the Ugandan parliament to try to place older people closer to the heart of political decision-making.
The Ugandan government is also taking steps to show it is proactively rolling out social protection programmes for the most disadvantaged.
Last year, the UK's Department for International Development (DfID) also put nearly £8m towards a pilot scheme to provide the most chronically poor households with a monthly stipend of around $10, launched by Uganda's Ministry for Gender, Labour and Social Development. The government says this could lift thousands of its most vulnerable citizens, including older people, out of poverty.
But groups such as Amref and HelpAge argue that poverty-focused initiatives aren't the answer.
Pearson points to the patchy success of means-tested pension and social protection schemes such as the Old Age Allowance (OAA) system in place in Bangladesh, where older people have to qualify for support instead of being automatically entitled to a monthly pension once they reach retirement age.
"The problem with means-testing is that, as we've seen in Bangladesh, arbitrary decisions are being made about who qualifies and who doesn't, which creates divisions in communities," says Pearson. "Unless you introduce a universal scheme you're never going to get away from the difficulties faced by helping some people and not others."
According to groups campaigning for universal social pensions, they also make economic sense. One study says that for every $1 given through the universal social pension $2.54 gets generated by the recipient.
Support for a universal social pension is not unanimous. A 2005 study by the Southern African Regional Poverty Network (SARPN) concluded that the idea was "fiscally unsustainable" and unrealistic.
Amref's Wandera says that despite the fact that other African countries, such as South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, have now introduced a universal social pension, at the moment it looks like Uganda is unlikely to follow suit.
"Sadly the reality is that there isn't enough money to even start to think about getting a scheme like this off the ground," says
"There are so many needs and older people simply aren't and won't be prioritised and it's unrealistic to expect this to happen."
Wandera also points to the logistical challenges of trying to get a universal social pension off the ground. With many people missing birth certificates and unable to verify their age, and with the social, economic and political divisions in Uganda, it could be a long time before social protection percolates down to Uganda's elderly.
However, Wandera does believe that keeping pressure on the Ugandan government over the idea of universal social protection for older people struggling to cope with the increasing demands placed upon them will ensure that their voices begin to be heard in policy circles.
"What the debate has done already is make the government really face up to the problems older people in places like Katine are facing," she says. "So there is hope that their needs will begin to gather more interest in government circles."
Information on World Pension Issues
Copyright © Global Action on Aging