Whilst much is rightly written about older people in Haiti made more vulnerable by the disability or disease which sometimes comes with old age, far less is mentioned about the hundreds of thousands of active older people who are clamouring for the right to be included in the reconstruction of the country they love.
We automatically accept that statesmen and women can be in their 80s or even 90s but when it comes to the more physical side of things we assume that older people cannot play an effective role. HelpAge International has come across numerous cases of older people being excluded from cash for work programmes for reasons of age when they themselves have both the desire to help and the need to find a source of income to feed themselves and their families. Older people have the skills, the energy and the commitment to play a positive role in reconstruction and this is a combination which is sometimes lacking in their younger compatriots.
In my last trip to Haiti I met a man in his seventies who assured me that where I would not find many young people willing to carry 50kg sacks around, he was more than capable and certainly willing to do so all day long provided he received the usual daily stipend given for manual labour, approximately £2. Whilst the same cannot be said of all older people, there are many who can contribute in other ways; as skilled labour, as trainers or as mentors to young trainees.
Without the resources provided by a state pension or by having a regular source of income and with the apparent disregard of older people as a resource for reconstruction, it is extremely hard for older people in Haiti to find the wherewithal to support themselves. This is a burden felt by all but one which is particularly poignant for those older people who lost their children to the quake and who now find themselves as the sole support for their grandchildren; a situation which is not uncommon according to surveys carried out by HelpAge International. As an organisation we are taking a long-term view to this problem tempered by short-term action.
In the longer term we have a plan to campaign for a universal social pension for the over 65s in Haiti. The first step is a 6 month pilot project which will provide all residents over 65 from 93 displacement camps with US$ 15 for 6 months beginning in early 2011. Using the evidence from the project’s assessment and the impact on the wellbeing of individuals and families who receive the cash, the next step will be to try to interest a large multi-lateral donor, such as the World Bank, in a much larger pilot of this scheme in partnership with the appropriate Ministry of the Haitian Government. HelpAge International would play a purely advisory role.
During the course of this project, key government officials will be invited to participate in an internationally recognised course on how to implement a social pension on a country-wide scale. The campaign will also point out ways in which a social pension might be paid for in the resource-scarce environment which is post-quake Haiti and also the savings in other areas, such as national health, which can be made by having a universal social pension.
In the shorter term, HelpAge International is creating “job centres” run by Older People’s Associations (OPAs) for older people. The idea is that these will compile a database of active older people, their particular skills and their availability for work. These lists will be made available to organisations planning cash for work and other employment programmes. Simultaneously, HelpAge International and the OPAs will run a campaign encouraging government, private business and NGOs to include older people in their programmes, highlighting their suitability and desire to take part in the reconstruction of Haiti.
HelpAge International believes not only that older people have the right to be fully included in the reconstruction of their country but also that to exclude them is to create a potentially huge problem of extreme poverty amongst an age group that by rights should be enjoying their latter years in relative comfort and prosperity.
For more information on HelpAge’s work in campaigning for universal pensions go to http://www.pension-watch.net/