Universal pensions can protect older persons from poverty, says UN expert

4 June 2010

It is essential for States to set up social protection measures, such as universal pensions, to protect older persons against poverty, an independent United Nations human rights expert said today.

“Societies are abandoning traditional care practices for older persons, who are left stranded in rapidly increasing numbers,” warned Magdalena Sepúlveda, the UN Independent Expert on the question of human rights and extreme poverty.

Presenting her report to the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, Ms. Sepúlveda noted that investment in social pensions is crucial to protect the rights of the elderly.

“Conventional family structures cannot cope with the pace at which the world population is ageing without more support from States,” she stated, noting that the elderly population is one of the fastest growing segments of society – the number of persons over 60 is likely to double by 2050.

“What is not changing is that older persons leave or are pushed out of the workforce, that people become frailer as they age and that their need for health care services increases. It is essential that States take older persons into account during policy-making.”

While States have traditionally used contributory insurance schemes for the elderly, only one in five persons today is protected by social security.

As such, she recommended that States set up universal non-contributory old-age pensions, which can play a key role in protecting older persons against poverty, citing success stories in countries such as Bolivia, Timor-Leste, Namibia and Nepal.

In addition to prioritizing the creation of universal pensions to ensure everyone’s access to social security, Ms. Sepúlveda also stressed the need for States to take special measures for women, and ensure participation, transparency and accountability.

In her presentation to the Council, the expert also reported on her August 2009 visit to Zambia. “The authorities have recognized social protection as a key tool to tackle the high levels of poverty and vulnerability, but commitments to support social protection must be translated into adequate budgetary allocations,” she said.

Ms. Sepúlveda drew attention to a number of initiatives already in place in Zambia, and said that the positive experience with pilot social cash transfer schemes which benefit households unable to undertake any income-generating activity must be recognized and strongly supported.

“Even small cash transfers can make a significant difference to the lives of people living in poverty,” she stated. “Without cash transfers, many older people, women and children would be virtually abandoned to their fate.”


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