Why Is the World Humanitarian Summit Important for Older People?

25/05/2016 09:30 | Updated 25 May 2016

"Now I'm older it feels as though I'm a burden and people aren't interested in me."

These are the words of 86 year old Mariya from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. As someone who lived through and survived the ravages of the Second World War, Mariya now faces another major challenge - the current conflict in Ukraine. And sadly, her experience is not unusual in that too many older people affected by humanitarian crises say that they feel alone and overlooked [1].

At the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, governments, NGOs and other stakeholders have put forward their views on how the humanitarian system should be improved. I hope that those present felt a responsibility to listen carefully and give special attention to the voices that can be hardest to hear: those of marginalised groups, such as older people.

There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating the need for humanitarian responders, from donors to agencies working on the ground, to ensure that the rights and needs of older people are fully considered.

The UN's own consultation in advance of the Summit found that the marginalisation of older people is a major challenge for the humanitarian system, and one that needs to be addressed [2]. Earlier this month our partner HelpAge International released two reports, Older voices in humanitarian crises and End the Neglect: a study of humanitarian financing for older people, which further highlight the need for a more age-inclusive approach to disaster response.

Older voices in humanitarian crises draws on interviews with older people affected by three of the world's worst current conflicts. Older Syrian refugees across Lebanon, displaced older people in eastern Ukraine, and older men and women in camps for internally displaced people in South Sudan, were asked about their experiences of humanitarian support. Their stories show a continued need for greater consideration of older people's specific needs and vulnerabilities.

End the Neglect, a five-year overview of more than 16,000 proposed humanitarian projects between 2010 and 2014, found that just 5.3 per cent (855 projects) of the projects proposed for funding included one or more activity intended to assist vulnerable groups including older people.

There is a pressing need for these shortcomings to be addressed at the Summit. The world's population is ageing rapidly, especially in low and middle income countries [3] where people are more vulnerable to disasters. That more people are living longer is a cause for celebration but also brings new challenges if it goes unrecognised by the humanitarian community.

Older people are disproportionately affected by natural disasters and humanitarian crises. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, 75 per cent of those who died were over 60, even though this age group comprised only 16 per cent of the local population. Filipino Government data from Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 show that 38.4 per cent of the fatalities where ages were recorded were aged over 60 although older people make up just 7 per cent of the population [4]. The same pattern was seen following the 2005 tsunami in Japan and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

Age International and our partners are showing the way through age-sensitive programmes and supporting others to develop more age-inclusive approaches to humanitarian work. One way this is done is through Inclusion Advisors, who work as part of an emergency response programme. The advisor works with other organisations and local governments via UN cluster systems and other coordination mechanisms to ensure that older people's needs are fully considered and included across the board.

Leading humanitarian agencies have drawn up a Charter for Inclusion which sets out the pressing commitments needed to ensure humanitarian assistance reaches the most affected people. This Charter provides a set of five key recommendations covering participation, data, funding, capacity and coordination, for governments, donors and humanitarian agencies.

I remain optimistic that the World Humanitarian Summit is an opportunity to lay the foundations for a reformed humanitarian system which ensures that no one, including people like Mariya, is left behind. But it can only do this if those attending make a concerted effort to listen to all those affected by humanitarian crises and put in place measures to make sure marginalised groups like older people are heard now and in the future.

1. HelpAge International, Older voices in humanitarian crises, 2016
2. World Humanitarian Summit secretariat, Restoring Humanity: Synthesis of the Consultation Process for the World Humanitarian Summit, New York, United Nations, 2015, p.40
3. Almost two-thirds (62%) of the 868 million people in the world aged over 60 live in developing countries according to: Population ageing and sustainable development, UNDESA 2014
4. 151 of the 393 fatalities (whose ages were recorded) according to: HelpAge International/Coalition of Services of the Elderly (COSE), Typhoon Haiyan one year on: older people key to recovery, Chiang Mai, HelpAge International, 2014