Why ageing of the African continent should be included in the Dutch Africa Strategy

If you look at the figures, there is only one conclusion: Africa is ageing rapidly and will be doing so till at least 2050. It is obvious that this will have consequences for the way in which sustainable economic development and poverty reduction can be achieved on the African continent. In 2009, the Dutch Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) concluded that anticipating the ageing population in low-income countries should be an integral part of Dutch development policy. In the same study, the AIV concluded that the mainstreaming of ageing in development policy is “not progressing well”. The AIV formulates this as follows:

“The lack of prospects of retirement provision for the majority of people living in developing countries means minimal income security for old age.”

Despite the fact that this problem has been known for quite some time, global ageing and its consequences for international cooperation are not an integral part of Dutch development cooperation yet. In fact, Dutch development cooperation policies do not mention global ageing and the rising social protection burden for low-income countries once. However, the Dutch Africa Strategy offers a second chance. In this article, I explain why mitigating the consequences of an ageing continent deserves a place in the Dutch Africa Strategy, and where the first starting points for concrete measures for social protection can be found. Social protection is defined here as policies and programs developed to mitigate the direct consequences of poverty, for example through cash transfers or viable pensions.

Ageing increases the need for social protection

The AIV is not alone in its conclusion that the ageing population should be an integral part of international development agendas: the UN also concluded this and other more recent studies show that, towards 2050, it will be a great challenge to prevent African adults from falling into poverty after their working life. On the African continent challenges regarding ageing are as great as in the rest of the world. Research shows that in all African countries the number of people over the age of 60 will (almost) double towards 2050. Many of these older persons traditionally depend on their social environment, such as neighbours, acquaintances and their children. However, this social environment has been subjected to change: urbanisation (the migration of young people to the city) and the breakdown of traditional extended families (families in which 3 generations live together) mean that African older persons are increasingly dependent on themselves.

In addition, according to research, the percentage of older people receiving a pension is below 10 percent in almost every African society. The lack of viable pensions on this continent often leads people aged 60 and over to depend on their social environment after their working life. This dependency makes older persons potentially vulnerable when the social environment faces adversity such as loss of income, or when the social safety net is not there in the first place. There is therefore an urgent need for social protection for older persons, for example in the form of living pensions, to prevent older persons from falling into (extreme) poverty.

Why simply working more and longer is not the solution

All this means that, without effective policy interventions, more and more older people will have to continue working to individually generate a living income. This is not always possible for every older person due to physical constraints or a lack of skills. An additional problem is that the percentage of older people participating in work worldwide fell between 1960 and 2010. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the labour participation of people over the age of 65 fell from 57 to 48 percent. In the Middle East and North Africa combined the decline is even stronger: from 29 percent in 1960 to 18 percent in 2010. The conclusion is therefore that, instead of working more to meet their increasing needs, older persons have participated less in labour over the last 50 to 60 years.

This confluence of circumstances in which an increase in the number of older people, a lack of social protection and a decreasing labour participation of older people come together, is an obstacle for achieving the SDGs. SDG1 (no poverty) and SDG2 (zero hunger) are directly at risk if mitigating the effects of ageing of the African continent is not integrated into future development strategies.

Starting points for the Africa Strategy

Fortunately, there are always glimmers of hope. An example: the ever-increasing penetration of the mobile phone on the African continent, also among older persons, in combination with the mobile payment technology popular in (Eastern) Africa, makes it relatively easy to reach older persons in remote and rural areas. This is important, because (extreme) poverty is often more concentrated around rural areas. This mobile payment technology does not require any personal data, bank accounts or proof of identity: the telephone number is sufficient to receive and send payments. This enables governments and NGOs to reach individuals in vulnerable situations and to offer social protection in the form of cash transfers, also in remote and rural areas. Small-scale experiments are already underway in countries such as Kenya, Lesotho and Rwanda, with promising results at first glance. With technological heavyweights such as Adyen and Capgemini Nederland, the Netherlands have the knowledge to further develop this infrastructure. This could be the prime example of a successful aid and trade combination: strengthening African public services for marginalised people with the help of Dutch knowledge and skills.

Strengthening social cohesion between young and old, and preventing young people from moving to the cities is more complex. This requires a socio-cultural dialogue that cannot be imposed from European countries. However, local and international NGOs can stimulate the debate in collaboration with diplomatic offices. Also, the Dutch ministry can provide the financial means for lobby & advocacy on the benefits of social protection for potentially vulnerable people such as older persons, people with a disability or women.

Let’s go!

The Africa Strategy specifies how the Netherlands intend to relate to the African continent, both in the European context and bilaterally. A hefty task, especially since the strategy aims to be relevant for the next 10 to 15 years. A wide range of themes such as trade, equal partnerships, climate change, security and migration are therefore incorporated in the strategy. Given the facts presented above, ageing deserves an integral place in this strategy. Let the Africa Strategy therefore be a first step towards finally working on restoring social protection for older persons, making use of Dutch knowledge and expertise where relevant. Only by doing this, we can keep track of achieving the SDGs.

01 December 2022

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