Talking about the Human Rights of Older Persons

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The twelfth meeting under the theme of ‘Talking about the Human Rights of Older Persons’ took place online on April 17, 2023 with Mr. Eduardo Klien. Mr. Klien is the Asia/Pacific Regional Director for HelpAge International.


As an academic, Mr Klien has been a lecturer in international economics at the University of Mexico and in 1997 was appointed as Research Fellow at the International Development Center (QEH) and at the Oxford Institute of Ageing, the University of Oxford. Throughout his career, Mr Klien has performed senior roles in international organisations in Latin America and Africa. For the last 20 years he has been in Asia, holding different directive positions in Laos, Vietnam and regionally. Mr Klien has taken part in, and frequently led, several international conferences on the subject relating to promoting social and economic adaptation to population ageing.


During the meeting, Mr. Klien shared the main insights he has gained from his long career working at the intersection of population ageing and social and economic development, the challenges global ageing is posing and the prospects of protecting and promoting the human rights of older persons at national, regional and international levels.  


1. The Development Paradigm and Dominant Approaches to Population Ageing 

Mr Klien has worked on population ageing for the last twenty years. His starting point is the fact that we cannot discuss population ageing without framing it within the dominant development paradigm. For most of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, development has been understood as the quest for unlimited economic growth. This has resulted not only in huge levels of social and economic inequality, countless societal contradictions, but also the depredation of natural resources jeopardising the habitability of the planet.


It is in this context of a questionable paradigm that population ageing and climate change are unfolding as two key mega processes shaping the 21st century. Climate change requires two courses of action in parallel, one is to adapt to and prepare for the unavoidably forthcoming extreme weather events; the other is to move out of fossil fuel usage and decarbonize the economy to mitigate global warming. The other mega process is population ageing, which implies changes in the demographic configuration of the world. The main difference with climate change is that population ageing only has the option of adapting its social and economic systems and structures, but not that of mitigating. In climate change one can gradually mitigate global warming by developing alternative sources of energy and decarbonizing the world. In the case of population, by contrast, the only ways to mitigate would be to either reduce longevity, which by definition is out of the question, or drastically increase total fertility rates, which is also hard to achieve. In spite of enormous efforts and incentives as seen in Japan, Sweden, China or South Korea, fertility rates stay low. Adaptation is therefore the only realistic option available to humanity when it comes to population ageing.


A main step in the direction of adapting economies and societies to population ageing is changing the prevailing narrative that assumes that older people are a burden to societies. For instance, the International Monetary Fund referred to population ageing as a ‘population bomb’ or ‘tsunami of ageing’. This perception derives from understanding population ageing and the growth in proportion of older people as a phenomenon associated with the loss of economic dynamism and the decrease in the proportion of population in working age. This narrative highlights the growth in healthcare costs due to the extended longevity and the rise of noncommunicable diseases, the vulnerability of older persons needing social protection and an increase in the number of people receiving pensions for longer periods. This negative narrative is frequently shared among governments and some international organizations. This perception is also not infrequent amongst policymakers in the Asia Pacific region. They regularly associate older persons with those above 60 or 65 years old who are passive, vulnerable, inactive recipients of state welfare and support.


2. Alternative and positive narratives in population ageing

But a positive narrative does not necessarily present a “rosy” image, making abstraction of the multiple obstacles and difficulties presented by such deep change in demographic configurations. The challenges are clear and the solutions are still in the making. The key message of this alternative narrative should be that if ageing societies fail to adapt, the social and economic tensions might threaten the very foundations of these societies. But if appropriate policies are enhanced, and if the benefits of demographic changes are well understood and utilized wisely, the challenges and opportunities are to be created for sustainable, healthy ageing societies, for all generations. However, this adaptation needs social innovation as well as leadership, capable of taking a longer-term perspective.  


Policy makers should face up to the challenge of making society perceive population ageing as something positive, asserting that living longer is a blessing, and because of population ageing, our society can now invest in each child much more than before. Population ageing is also creating more opportunities for women, which in turn benefits the economy as a whole. Furthermore, a decrease in population can have a positive impact on the environment, especially if it is combined with a change in the currently dominant mode of development. As there is no option other than adapting to population ageing, we need to make sure it is recognized as something positive and beneficial to society.


Adaptation to population ageing requires a comprehensive approach: it has to do with working age issues, women’s rights and participation, life-course impact on healthy ageing, income security at different levels, long-term care strategies, revaluing communities, enhancing lifelong learning and fostering social innovation. However, few countries are taking a holistic approach to the question of population ageing. Some confine it to a problem of health and long-term care, others see it as a problem of social protection or of providing new work skills to older people. Most countries are expanding, not without resistance, the mandatory retirement ages in the formal sector. However, segmented, isolated and sectorial interventions/policies will not solve the problem.


There have been some notable attempts to establish alternative and positive narratives around population ageing. One illustration of such moves can be found in the Vienna Institute of Demography of the Austrian Academy. It introduced a new perspective of ageing called ‘prospective ageing’, which sees later life not as the time lived, but time ahead to live. This is seen both in individual and societal terms. This vision puts the concept of ageing upside down, using different metrics like Healthy Life expectation after 60, for example, or levels of functionality. Similarly, an internationally acclaimed book titled The 100-Year Life (Lynda Gratton and Andrew J. Scott, 2016) emphasized the importance of changing the narrative of longevity, seeing greater life expectancy as a gift and not a problem. They highlight that concepts for analysing a life course that were valid in the 20th Century, such as a 3-staged-life (study-work-retire), are now unable to explain the convergence of multiple perspectives defining a life course in the 21st century. This leads us to reconsider the increasingly blurred distinction between who is old and who is not, and concomitantly, between who is in working age and who is not. At least in Asia, this demarcation is not set in stone.


 There are a few different yet interrelated ways of countering this negative narrative. One is to realize and popularize the reality that challenges this negativity. The examples provided by real life show that those who are typically defined as ‘older people’ today are better educated, in better health, and more aware of their rights than any generation before them. Over 60% of people in Asia work in the informal sector, where there is no set retirement age, and/or social protection schemes hardly exist. People reaching old age in this sector continue to work sometimes by choice and other times by need. In South Korea, for example, about 40% of those over 65 years old are still working. A large proportion of people over 65 years old continue to work in countries of South Asia and Southeast Asia. Older people in communities throughout the region are active in their older people associations, frequently enhancing community life and general well-being of their communities. Real life shows us that older people are hardly the passive, inactive and vulnerable segment of population.

Another way of countering the negative narrative associated with population ageing is from the human rights perspective. A negation of the right of older people to be active members of their societies and to have their voices heard and their dignity respected is a clear violation of the basic premises of the human rights charters. And such violations do not stem from a hypothetical covenant on the rights of older people, but from our basic understandings of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other internationally agreed covenants on women or people with disabilities. So, the human rights perspective contributes to changing the narrative from both, the ethical and legal perspectives.


Mr. Klien suggests that humanity needs urgently to rethink or reshape our growth strategy. The prevailing neoliberal approaches to economic development in the last decades have led to a huge increase in the levels of inequality and a voracious destruction of the planet. GDP metrics distort the views on development. For instance, while the Japanese economy has been seen as stagnating for the last two decades or so, given its population flattening and decreasing, its GDP per capita stays stable, at levels similar to the USA. Mr Klien suggests that we need a new perspective on economic development, and that GDP and economic growth need to be put in the perspective of population ageing and a sustainable world. 


3. Social Connections and the Rights of Older Persons

Humans are social beings by definition. Whoever is deprived of social connections is deprived of the meaning of existence and a key source of happiness. In Vietnam, particularly in rural areas, population ageing has been intense. To respond to this, older people are organizing themselves in Intergenerational Self-Help Clubs (ISHCs) – the government is involved in supporting the national replication and scaling up as a matter of policy and strategy. The ISHCs are multifunctional community-based organizations that promote healthy longevity through a variety of inter-generational activities, from health-related, support for home-care, income-generating, social connections, engagement in community affairs, ensuring their rights and multiple other ways of connecting people. The ISHCs have been expanding throughout Vietnam, currently reaching 5,000.  There is appetite in Asia for sharing this experience, and pilots have been developed in other countries in Asia, such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, India or Cambodia. Some of these countries are already adapting the ISHCs model to their specific contexts. The ISHCs are a great example of social innovation, demonstrating how society and older people can organize themselves to adapt to population ageing at the community level, with older persons at the helm, as active participants, expressing their voice and ensuring their rights.


In this respect, the ISHCs are highly meaningful from the perspective of the rights of older persons. They have not only contributed to the enhancement of the rights of older persons as an outcome but the organization itself is based on a rights-based approach. The ISHCs define the priorities of action collectively, not being imposed by the government from above, demanding that local governments act in a way that respects older persons’ views and decisions. If an important indicator of the rights of older persons is whether or not they are channels to make their voices heard, or to influence the practical issues that affect their lives, then the ISHCs demonstrate that they serve the rights of older persons in practical and concrete terms. 


4. Limits and Prospects of an International Convention on the Rights of Older Persons

There has been a debate in Asia on whether the rights of older persons are best promoted by the adoption of an International Convention on the Human Rights of Older Persons. While an international convention is something that the international community should aspire to, it seems unlikely to be adopted in the near future. An important question then is how to advance the implementation of the human rights of older persons in reality and on the ground, while pursuing, in the longer term, a Convention. In fact, there are regional conventions in place such as the ‘Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons’ and the ‘Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Older Persons’. However, these are not mandatory and would need to be approved and ratified by national governments for their implementation.


A main limitation of an International Convention thus lies in the fact that the main duty-bearer is the state/government: it is dependent on the governments’ engagement with, commitment to and willingness to adopt a convention. However, the human rights of older persons do not cease to exist even without a convention and need to be advanced and implemented regardless. In this context, the rights of older persons can be practiced and promoted through different governance, for instance by focusing on the right to long-term care, the right to social organization, the right to access to universal health care, the right to social protection and income security. This view suggests that we should not be solely focused on the question of a Convention on the Rights of Older People, as their rights can be advanced through different mechanisms at national and regional levels.  


On the question why some national governments are now reluctant to agree to adopting an International Convention of the Human Rights of Older Persons, two reasons come to mind. The first reason is related to the saturation of international conventions in the last decades. A human rights convention is a positive step towards realising the rights of a specific segment of the population, it also obligates the States to follow-ups such as regular reporting and monitoring. Together with an extended list of obligations imposed on the States after endorsing several conventions, there has been a sense of exhaustion and diminishing multilateralism in the international realm. A second reason, specifically related to a convention for the rights of older people, is the lack of clarity of the concept of “old” and the specificities of older people. Governments struggle to define the specificities of the concept of ‘older persons’. In ASEAN, the average age of political leaders is 69 years old and eight out of the ten richest individuals are older people. In fact, people in their 40s are more homogenous than those who are over 60 or 70 years old when it comes to the level of physical strength, income and wealth. At the same time, levels of poverty in old age tend to be higher than in the total population. The Republic of Korea, for example, has - despite its enormous economic growth- the highest level of poverty in old age of all OECD countries.


Finally, Mr. Klien shared some key lessons that he draws from his long experience in the field. First, an effective and important way to advance the rights of older persons is to recognize them as active members of society and to make sure that their voices are heard rather than talking about their voices. Second, Asia’s experience with the ISHCs shows that being rich is not a pre-condition for ensuring a dignified life for older persons, and that older persons themselves can help to realize the human rights of older persons by taking part in community organisations as active members. This can help shifting the narrative of older persons being a burden, passive recipients of help to one of them as active members of society, a societal resource. This is one of the core elements of realising and practicing the rights of older persons.