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Older Persons in Social Development

 A Statement Delivered to Plenary of the the World Summit for Social Development

Susanne S. Paul, Global Action on Aging

March 9, 1995

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates,

I am happy to speak this afternoon as Chair of the NGO Committee on Aging at the United Nations in New York, as representative of the World Federation of Methodist Women and as President of Global Action on Aging.

The NGO Committee was pleased to be invited by the Summit Secretariat to organize a Special Event at Eigtveds Pakhus this past Monday. I want to report to you about that event. But first let me express my disappointment that, in spite of the efforts of our Older Persons Caucus, and in spite of various special preparatory meetings and workshops, the Summit documents say little about older persons, even though this large group -- nearly ten percent of the world's population -- suffers acutely from joblessness, poverty and social isolation, in the North as well as in the South.

Our speakers at Eigtveds Pakhus noted that persons over the age of 60 are rapidly growing in numbers; they represent a steadily rising proportion of the world's population. Population aging is a revolutionary change in global society and one of the great human achievements of our time. In 1950, there were 200 million persons over 60 living on the planet, today there are over 500 million and in just 30 years' time there will be 1.2 billion. That rate of increase is much faster than the global population as a whole. This change will deeply affect everyone in this hall. Each of us has a personal stake in constructing a decent old age for society in the future.

At Eigtveds Pakhus we heard reports from nearly every continent that families increasingly cannot provide a dependable basis of support for older persons, due to migration, disease, poverty and war. Many governments of the South -- and the North, too -- are shirking their responsibilities by claiming that families will always take care. This pretense cannot lead to social development. Rather it makes the elderly even more vulnerable.

The plague of unemployment causes the core problem faced by older persons. In village society, people could support themselves throughout their life as farmers, fishers, weavers, healers and so on. In the market economy, overall wealth is much greater and outright starvation less frequent. But only wage employment can provide security for existence. Now, more and more, older people cannot find wage work and many have no other source of support. If elderly were counted as unemployed rather than retired, the scandal of world-wide unemployment would be more painfully obvious. Even in Europe, three-quarters of all workers have now been pushed out of the workforce before reaching the so-called retirement age. Neo-liberal policies, recommended in Summit documents, have deepened this problem and will continue to deepen it, further impoverishing the elderly, as policymakers at this Summit surely know.

What is being done to "alleviate" these problems and to tackle growing poverty in later life? At Eigtveds Pakhus, we heard alarming testimony about how the World Bank, the IMF and other international financial institutions are forcing governments to slash pensions, health care programs and social services for the elderly -- in Latin America, Eastern Europe, China and now Turkey and Western Europe, too. In Argentina, pensions dropped so drastically in 1992 that desperate elderly committed suicide, some in protest, some out of desperation. Others, including one of our panelists, have carried on a vigorous, inspiring movement of opposition. -- Even where rights of the elderly are constitutionally protected, as in Brazil, the Bretton Woods Institutions do not hesitate to demand constitutional changes to destroy these rights as a condition for new loans. Why do Summit documents not say a single word about these scandals of greed? Hundreds of billions of dollars are being -- let us say it frankly: stolen -- from the poor elderly to enrich some of the world's wealthiest citizens. Four hundred billion dollars, according to one estimate, in Latin America alone in the last decade!

No. This is not "social development." And the world's older people know it. But, by coming together here, and sharing our concerns, we have gained new courage and new hope. We will work to win a society of real solidarity, where every person can look forward to a full, productive and cooperative existence throughout the life course. That is social development.

Thank you, Mr. President.