The latest Globe Age Index Watch described Malawi as one of the worst countries for one to grow old. This calls for the country to begin thinking outside the box on what policies or programmes to be put in place to cushion the untold misery that elderly persons go through. Is social universal pension an answer to this? EPHRAIM NYONDO in this interview talks to Andrew Kavala, the national coordinator of Malawi Network for Older Persons Organisations (Manepo). Excerpts :
What is your organisation doing to address the economic hardships affecting older persons?
The challenges of old age and the limits of systems of family support highlight the need for strengthened social protection in old age. One of Manepo’s thematic areas is ‘income security’ for older persons. In view of this thematic area, Manepo has just carried out a joint feasibility study with the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare towards universal social pension in Malawi and the report will be out soon. However, let me hasten to say that there are strong legislative underpinnings for a more comprehensive social protection system Malawi. The Constitution of the Republic of Malawi in Article 30 recognises the right to development including economic, social, cultural and political development and the need to reduce inequalities. The Constitution also recognises in Article 13 the State´s duty to “respect and support the elderly through the provision of community services, and to encourage the participation of the life in the community”. Therefore, Manepo is exploring the possibility of engaging government and the development partners towards a more sustainable universal pension for elderly persons.
Have universal social pension schemes been successful in other countries?
In countries that have successfully made progress towards a social protection floor, pensions are commonly the biggest single component of the system. Old age pensions have emerged as a solution in a lot of low-and middle-income countries that have taken steps to building a social protection floor. In South Africa, which has been a leader on social protection policy, the old age grant is the most significant programme—costing 1.26 percent of gross domestic product [GDP]. Similar trends have been seen in other countries including Mauritius, Lesontho, Botswana and just recently Tanzania.
Do you think universal social pension is an answer to this?
Given the large remaining “coverage gap” for social protection, there is a strong logic for Malawi to explore the scope for a dedicated social pension. Social pensions are tax-financed cash transfers paid regularly to older people, regardless of whether they have formally contributed to a pension in the past.
A universal pension could lead to significant reductions in the poverty of households with elderly persons. A universal pension would also have an important impact on reducing the national poverty rate. Reducing poverty in Malawi will be a long-term process with no simple magic bullet. Nevertheless, by redistributing resources from richer to poorer people in the country, a universal pension in Malawi would make an important contribution to poverty reduction efforts. A pension for over 65s at the poverty line. A universal pension would also have “multiplier effects” that go beyond the immediate impacts. However, in reality cash transfers create “multiplier effects” within communities that further increase the impact. For example, cash transfer recipients spend their income in local shops, increasing the taking of shopkeepers, or may employ others to work on their farms.
Cash transfer is one of the social protection programmes that the country is currently implementing. Don’t you think universal social pension would be duplication?
The most significant development in social protection for elderly persons in Malawi in recent years has been the introduction and expansion of the Social Cash Transfer Programme (SCTP). The programme is all about cash transfers to ultra-poor households that are also labour-constrained. The impacts of the scheme on recipient households (including those with elderly persons) has also been found to be positive. However, coverage still remains low with fewer than one in four Malawian older people living in recipient households. Despite the gradual expansion of the scheme it still only covers 18 of the 28 districts in Malawi.
Besides, there are significant challenges in the process of targeting ultra-poor households. Targeting of ultra-poor households is very difficult in contexts such as Malawi where the vast majority of the population are either poor, or face high risk of falling into poverty.