Amid Rapid Ageing Population Growth, States Must Do More to Combat Discrimination against Elderly People, Support Caregivers, Social Development Commission Hears

Against a backdrop of an ongoing mega-trend of ageing and its myriad challenges across many regions, there was no time to waste in protecting the world’s oldest persons, the Commission for Social Development heard today during a high-level panel discussion on how much States could do to protect their elders.

We are all ageing and we all wish to age in a decent world, declared Sylvia Beales, independent inclusive social development consultant and former head of Strategic Alliances at HelpAge International, who moderated the panel on the third review and appraisal of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing.

Providing a way to create such a world, the General Assembly had mandated the Commission to review every five years the Madrid Plan of Action, the outcome of the Second World Assembly on Ageing in 2002. Presenting findings of the third review, panellists presented regional report cards on gains and cited a range of concerns, including a dearth in disaggregated data, uneven progress in implementing targeted policies and recent trends in how societies treated their oldest members, some of whom faced neglect, underemployment, poverty and alienation.

Rapid ageing population growth was another shared concern in some regions. In member States of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), the ageing population was expected to quadruple by 2050, representing 15 per cent of the total population and exceeding the youth population in many States, said Abla Sibai, Chair of the Epidemiology and Population Health Department at the American University of Beirut, the co-founding director of the Centre for Studies on Ageing in Lebanon. Moving forward, population ageing required a regional response and a paradigm and attitude shift, she said. While steps had been taken, gaps existed between the presence of policies and their implementation, caused in part by limited access to financial and human resources, weak ministerial coordination and lack of data.

In Africa, Lazarous Kapambwe (Zambia) said there was some progress in realizing the Madrid Plan of Action priorities, with countries formulating policies, but obstacles persisted. Many countries had reported major human rights challenges, gaps in social security provisions, abuse, neglect and lack of legal protection. Most countries had reported the absence of programmes for the use of communications technology and fewer than one in five older persons received an old age pension.

Progress across Asia was uneven, said Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, Speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament. Asia was in fact experiencing a range of challenges common among developing nations experiencing rapid ageing population growth before graduating to middle-income country status. In Bangladesh, the ageing population was expected to double in the coming decades, demonstrating a trend among developing countries that the window of opportunity to address the issue was closing. Ageing cut across the goals set out in the 2030 Agenda and the Madrid Plan of Action provided guidance, she said, encouraging all stakeholders to work towards building a truly sustainable world.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, gains were being made, but more must be done. National plans and policies were addressing pressing issues, including safety, health and long-term care, said Hector Ramon Cardenas Molinas, Minister for Social Action of Paraguay.

Moving forward, some offered suggestions. It is vital to change our mind set with regard to ageing to dispel stereotypes; the ageing population could not be seen as a burden, said Jose Antonio Vieira da Silva, Minister for Labour, Solidarity and Social Security of Portugal. As Chair of the Economic Commission for Europe Regional Review and Appraisal Conference, he said the region’s main priorities included empowering individuals, providing incentives to employers to hiring older persons, combating discrimination and developing age-friendly community programmes, with better support for informal and family caregivers. But, challenges remained, he said, stressing that the Madrid Plan of Action was able to guide those efforts, which should go hand in hand with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Other panellists and delegates shared that view. Discrimination against age is simply unacceptable, said Guatemala’s Minister for Development, echoing a common call heard throughout the discussion. He said efforts must be strengthened to ensure that no one was left behind in the pursuit the 2030 Agenda goals.

In the afternoon, the Commission held a high-level panel discussion on Towards inclusive, resilient and sustainable development: an evidence-based approach to the mainstreaming of disability in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the 2030 Agenda. Moderated by Venus Ilagan, Secretary General of Rehabilitation International and former President of Disabled People’s International, it featured Zhang Haidi, Chairperson of China Disabled Persons’ Federation; Mesbah Ansari, Deputy Director for Human Rights of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran; Mary Crock, professor in the Faculty of Law at University of Sydney in Australia; Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities of the Human Rights Council; and Margaret Mbogoni, Senior Statistician at the United Nations Statistics Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

The Commission will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 1 February, to continue its work.

Panel III

The Commission held a high-level panel discussion titled The third Review and Appraisal of the Madrid Plan of Action on Ageing. The Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, adopted by the General Assembly in 2002, was the outcome of the Second World Assembly on Ageing. Moderated by Sylvia Beales, an independent inclusive social development consultant and former head of Strategic Alliances at HelpAge International, the panel featured presentations by: Hector Ramon Cardenas Molinas, Minister for Social Action of Paraguay; Jose Antonio Vieira da Silva, Minister for Labour, Solidarity and Social Security of Portugal and Chair of the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) Regional Review and Appraisal Conference; Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, Speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament; Lazarous Kapambwe, Permanent Representative of Zambia to the United Nations; and Abla Sibai, Chair of the Epidemiology and Population Health Department at the American University of Beirut, the Co-founding Director of the Centre for Studies on Ageing in Lebanon and the Co-founding Director and an Executive Committee member of the American University of Beirut for Seniors’ Programme.

Ms. BEALES opened the discussion, saying the Madrid Plan of Action was the first plan to examine issues related to ageing. It was the first time Governments had agreed to link questions of ageing to other issues, including human rights. Since 2002, other plans, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, had in turn considered those questions. We are all ageing and we all wish to age in a decent world, one that takes us through the life course, she said, inviting panellists to present their findings. Against a backdrop of a mega-trend of ageing, there was no time to waste.

Mr. CA�RDENAS summarized the outcome of the fourth Regional Conference on the Madrid Plan of Action in 2017 in Paraguay, discussing concerns and progress, such as the growing older population and various national plans and policies that were addressing pressing issues, including safety, health and long-term care. On the regional level, efforts had been made to protect the human rights of older persons and, to date, several Latin American countries had ratified an agreement. Conference participants had adopted the Asuncion Declaration that recognized the rights and freedoms of older persons, supplementing the work of other regional and international mechanisms. In addition, the Declaration appealed to Government to include related policies and development plans, including recognizing gender inequality, in the follow up to the 2030 Agenda’s implementation.

Mr. VIEIRA DA SILVA said the fourth Ministerial Conference on Ageing for Europe, held in Portugal in 2017, had resulted in the adoption of the Lisbon Declaration, which recognized the potential of older persons and encouraged longer working lives and ageing with dignity. Summarizing gains in implementing various policies, he said the pace of progress differed across the region, with national plans, growing civil society involvement and the use of innovative approaches to provide services. It is vital to change our mindset with regard to ageing to dispel stereotypes; the ageing population could not be seen as a burden, he said, adding that the Lisbon Declaration recognized the importance of cooperation among all stakeholders. At the Conference, ministers had committed to achieving by 2022 the ECE’s main priorities, including empowering individuals, providing incentives to employers to hire older persons, combating discrimination and developing age-friendly community programmes and better supporting informal and family caregivers. But, challenges remained, and the Declaration acknowledged the need to explore the transformation of the Working Group on Ageing to an ECE standing sectoral committee. The Madrid Plan of Action was able to guide those efforts, which should go hand in hand with the 2030 Agenda.

Ms. CHAUDHURY said Asia was experiencing a range of challenges as many countries experienced a growing older population before they graduated from being developing nations. In Bangladesh, the ageing population was expected to double in the coming decades, demonstrating a trend among developing countries that the window of opportunity to address the issue was closing. Across the region, policies varied, with most countries having action plans and legislation and low-income countries showing increased awareness of related issues. At a recent regional conference, country representatives shared examples of how their Governments were responding, with many calling for increased cooperation to promote further progress. Providing income security and efforts to reduce old age poverty were discussed, with some representatives describing their national pension plans. Noting that Bangladesh was redoubling efforts to increase coverage and strengthen the social safety net, she said many countries had increased access to health services and insurance and several had introduced a parents’ maintenance act, ensuring that children provided adequate support. Gaps existed, including rising income inequality. More generally, ageing cut across the goals set out in the 2030 Agenda and the Madrid Plan of Action provided guidance, she said, encouraging all stakeholders to work towards building a truly sustainable world.

Mr. KAPAMBWE, representing Africa, provided a snapshot of ageing populations based on a survey, saying 4.9 per cent of the population of Africa, often described as a youthful continent, were over age 60, with that figure expected to rise to 7.6 per cent in 2050. Africa had made some progress on the Madrid Plan of Action priorities, with more countries formulating policies. However, obstacles persisted, with many countries reporting major human rights challenges, gaps in social security provisions, abuse, neglect and lack of legal protection. Most countries reported the absence of programmes for the use of communications technology and fewer than one in five older persons received an old age pension. Not many countries had measures to advance health and well-being services nor to support those with disabilities. Turning to Zambia, he said all social protection programmes were tailored to include older persons’ needs, including food security, cash transfers and targeted efforts to reach farmers, and the retirement age had been raised to 65 from 55. A national policy had established centres to provide care and support. Despite some progress, insufficient financial resources, political will, inter-ministry cooperation, data and human resources capacity remained obstacles.

Ms. SIBAI said that among the 18 members States of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), the ageing population was expected to quadruple by 2050, representing 15 per cent of the population and exceeding the youth population in many States. The region faced many challenges, including war, conflict and political instability. Pension schemes varied, but gender disparity persisted. Data on health was scarce, but concerns included high levels of diabetes and obesity affecting most women. Across the region, the family remained the main pillar of ageing policies, with laws based on the vital role of informal care, yet socioeconomic advances and political conflicts had triggered a trend of neglect and alienation of older persons, often cloaked in secrecy. While steps had been taken, gaps existed between the presence of policies and their implementation, caused in part by limited access to financial and human resources, weak ministerial coordination and lack of data. Population ageing required a regional response, she said, encouraging a paradigm and attitude shift.

In the ensuing discussion, delegates raised their concerns, with many speakers presenting their Governments’ actions in implementing related agreements. The representative of Argentina described national plans and policies, from health to financial security. The delegate for Indonesia said policies helped to eradicate poverty, improve living conditions in rural areas and include older persons in decision making on related issues. Such initiatives were aimed at shifting from a charity-based to a rights-based approach. The speaker for South Africa pointed to old-age grants and pension schemes supported by legislation and an older persons act.

Several speakers from countries with rapidly ageing populations shared their perspectives. The representative of Finland said her country’s population was rapidly ageing and Government efforts included expanded care and housing. People over 65 offered a great potential and resource for society, she said. To better serve them, technological tools were needed and should be up-scaled. The delegate for Japan said perhaps early retirement should be made unattractive.

Discrimination against age is simply unacceptable, said the Minister for Development of Guatemala, echoing a common call heard throughout the discussion. He said efforts must be strengthened to ensure that no one was left behind in the pursuit the 2030 Agenda goals.

Panellists then responded to questions about universal pension, the possibility of holding a third World Assembly on Ageing and national concerns, including elder abuse.

Mr. CA�RDENAS said the issue of ageing should remain at the centre of dialogue across many sectors, from health to housing. Binding instruments must foster more progress, which should be complemented by strengthening institutions.

Mr. VIEIRA DA SILVA said social policies must be accompanied by constructive labour-related efforts, including establishing a minimum retirement age and pensions, with a view to making early retirement less appealing and maintaining social protection systems.

Ms. CHAUDHURY said while social protection included trying to cover financial security, other actions could aim at providing flexible employment opportunities and tax incentives to encourage the private sector to employ older people.

Mr. KAPAMBWE said different forms of exploitation of vulnerable populations existed in various countries, so States must aim at passing by-laws to regulate specific situations.

Ms. SIBAI said worldwide developments, ranging from poverty to digital illiteracy, were cause for closer consideration at a new World Assembly.

Also participating were representatives of Brazil, Russian Federation, Costa Rica, France, Paraguay, Kenya, Austria, Iran, Spain and Dominican Republic, as well as the European Union. Representatives of several civil society organizations also participated.

Panel IV

In the afternoon, the Commission held a high-level panel discussion on the theme Towards inclusive, resilient and sustainable development: an evidence-based approach to the mainstreaming of disability in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the 2030 Agenda. Moderated by Venus Ilagan, Secretary General of Rehabilitation International and former president of Disabled People’s International, it featured Zhang Haidi, Chairperson of China Disabled Persons’ Federation; Mesbah Ansari, Deputy Director for Human Rights of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran; Mary Crock, a professor in the Faculty of Law at University of Sydney in Australia; Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities of the Human Rights Council; and Margaret Mbogoni, a senior statistician at the United Nations Statistics Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Ms. ILAGAN, opening the session, described the strides made by her organization, Rehabilitation International, over its nine decades of work on behalf of persons with disabilities around the world. Turning to today’s panel discussion, she said that it would explore, among other things, how the collection and use of data and statistics could be improved to help meet the needs of persons with disabilities, especially in the context of the 2030 Agenda. The discussion would also make a contribution to the process of monitoring that Agenda from a disability perspective, she said, urging the panellists to cite concrete examples of inclusive and sustainable policies; identify evidence gaps and how to close them; discuss ways to enhance evidence-based approaches; and consider how Governments, civil society organizations and other actors could help improve the 2030 Agenda’s monitoring to ensure that persons with disabilities were not left behind.

Ms. ZHANG said she had a deeply personal understanding of the issue of disability, having been paralyzed at the age of five. Welcoming an increase in efforts � especially on the part of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) � to implement the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the 2030 Agenda, she said China was committed to a people-centred development philosophy that did not leave persons with disabilities behind. The China Disabled Persons’ Federation, for which she had served as Chairperson for the last decade, represented China’s 85 million citizens with disabilities and had made progress in such areas as disability-related big data collection, poverty reduction, rehabilitation, education and employment. As poverty was the biggest challenge facing Chinese citizens with disabilities, the Government had introduced a system of living allowances and nursing care subsidies, which had benefited more than 20 million people since 2016. Other priority issues were rehabilitation, inclusive education and the empowerment of women and children with disabilities, she said.

Ms. DEVANDAS AGUILAR said that, over the first three years of her mandate, she had produced thematic reports addressing such topics as social protection, participation in decision-making, support services, sexual and reproductive health and rights and legal capacity. Noting that the lack of validated methodologies to collect disaggregated data had for years been used as an excuse to delay efforts on disability and development, she described a short set of six questions � developed by the Washington Group on Disability Statistics � that could be easily inserted in all national data collection instruments, such as censuses and surveys, and which constituted the best available tool to disaggregate data by disability. Noting that those questions had also been endorsed by United Nations entities and many other experts, she urged the United Nations Statistical Commission and the Inter-Agency Expert Group on Indicators to decisively include them in the monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals, warning that persons with disabilities were still at risk of being left behind in that process.

Ms. CROCK described her work studying refugees and displaced persons living in urban, camp and detention settings in six countries, namely Uganda, Indonesia, Malaysia, Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan. Against the backdrop of today’s uncertainty, wars, climate change and mass migration, the siloed view of issues around development and humanitarian action continued to isolate actors from one another. That challenge was particularly apparent in the mechanisms developed to collect data relating to disability among the target populations. Noting that countries sometimes did not fully report the numbers of persons living with disabilities among various communities, she described a recent Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) verification exercise of Afghans living in Pakistan, stressing that the key to collecting reliable data lay in adopting disability disaggregated processes. To date, the lack of such methods had led to evidence gaps in accurately assessing how well persons with disabilities among refugee, migrant and other populations could access public services. In addition, there was a need to streamline and improve instruments and guidelines used by humanitarian personnel in emergencies, she said.

Ms. MBOGONI, noting that the 2030 Agenda identified persons with disabilities as a particularly vulnerable group and called for their empowerment, said diversity among persons with disabilities in different countries must be taken into account. The Statistics Division had therefore embarked on a stock-taking exercise on national experiences through a series of regional consultative meetings. Among lessons learned from those meetings, she reported that more countries had collected data on disability during censuses in 2010 than those in 2000; wide variations existed among regions in sources for data on disability; there remained a general lack of experts on disability statistics in many countries; and statistical capacity development programmes were widely required to improve the collection, analysis, dissemination and utilization of data on disability. The Statistical Division, in collaboration with the Regional Commissions, was undertaking a disability data collection and updating the United Nations Guidelines and Principles for the Development of Disability Statistics, first published in 2001. A long-term and more holistic strategy would be required to fundamentally improve the collection, analysis, dissemination and use of statistics on disability, she concluded.

As the floor was opened for comments and questions, several delegates described the promotion and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities � and improving their countries’ data collection capacity � as top development priorities. Many expressed concern that obstacles remained both to the collection of accurate data on persons with disabilities and their ability to access critical social services.

Some speakers, including the representative of Kenya, cited persistent challenges in the collection of data disaggregated by disability, and urged the United Nations Statistical Commission and other relevant bodies to continue to assist countries in bolstering that capacity.

Others stressed that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities remained the cornerstone of all efforts aimed at meeting the needs of persons with disabilities. The Minister for Social Development of Guatemala was among several speakers outlining recent progress towards implementing the Convention, noting that disability issues had been included in Guatemala’s 2018 national budget and that a relevant training programme had been launched for civil society organizations.

The Vice-President of Costa Rica described the Convention and the 2030 Agenda as complementary documents, noting that her country’s national policy on disability was the first to be fully harmonized with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Meanwhile, the representative of Argentina drew attention to the 2030 Agenda’s cross-cutting, human rights-based approach, which applied equally to issues related to disability. In line with those principles, Argentina had established a national plan on disability designed to ensure the full social inclusion of persons with disabilities, while efforts were also under way to ensure the development of appropriate methodologies and indicators on those issues.

The Vice-Minister for Social Services of Indonesia said his country was committed to leaving no one � including persons with disabilities � behind, and outlined a number of laws aimed at protecting and promoting their rights.

Some delegates also posed concrete questions for the panellists. The representative of Romania, for one, asked what steps could be taken to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities in social and economic development. She also asked how multiple forms of discrimination against persons with disabilities could be monitored and evaluated, and how the 2030 Agenda could best be mobilized to combat them.

Namibia’s representative, drawing attention to cases of individuals suffering from serious illnesses such as cancer or full-blown AIDS, asked whether they should be classified as persons with disabilities.

Ms. MBOGONI, responding to that question, said disability was typically measured from the perspective of how an individual was able to function. If persons with cancer or AIDS had difficulty functioning, they could be classified as having a disability; however, today many people with HIV/AIDS were living fully functional lives.

Ms. DEVANDAS AGUILAR, responding to the questions posed by Romania’s delegate, said UNHCR had published several reports on the different forms of discrimination facing persons with disabilities, as well as on their intersection. However, much more work remained to be done in those areas.

Ms. CROCK applauded the inclusive measures outlined by many delegates. Calling on them to consider including non-citizens � those who were not normally counted in censuses � she also urged them to consider the concrete and specific needs of individuals with disabilities, stressing that one size does not fit all.

Ms. ZHANG said big data was the most important tool available in the collection of data on persons with disabilities. In China, the numbers are astronomical, and big data could help locate them and identify their needs, she said.

Also speaking were ministers, senior Government officials and other representatives from Sudan, South Africa, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Nigeria, as well as the European Union.

A representative of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, along with several non-governmental organizations, also participated.

Source: United Nations