Older Voices in Humanitarian Crises: Calling for Change

We need to listen to the very people we are failing, those who are vulnerable and unable to access appropriate help when needed. The World Humanitarian Summit is an opportunity to make that change - we must not let it slip through our grasp.

"I know that humanitarian aid might be helping but only for those who can go and get it. How am I supposed to get this help if I can't even leave the room?" said Warda, an 85-year-old Syrian woman living in Lebanon, who speaks for many older refugees caught up in one of the worst conflicts since the second world war.

Warda is one of 300 refugees from Syria, Ukraine and South Sudan interviewed by HelpAge International about their experiences of conflict and emergencies for our report: Older voices in humanitarian crises: calling for change.

A shocking 95 per cent of older people we talked to in Lebanon, 93 per cent in South Sudan and 66 per cent in Ukraine, said that no-one other than HelpAge International had consulted them about their situation, despite many older people being entirely reliant on humanitarian assistance.

While it is obviously our mission and our privilege as HelpAge International to speak and listen to older people, and to provide assistance where we can, what we really want is for all humanitarian agencies to be having these conversations themselves.

Those caught up in a humanitarian crisis need the inclusion of women and girls, older people, people with disabilities, young people and other vulnerable or excluded groups not to be seen solely as the responsibility of a plethora of niche agencies like HelpAge International. That will only extend the current fragmentation and inefficiency within the global humanitarian system.

What would have far more impact would be for the largest humanitarian agencies to set and measure inclusive responses as part of their own programmes.

Women and men change as we age. Our bodies change. We become more at risk of certain diseases like hypertension, diabetes or thyroid disorders. Many of these diseases are chronic, but can often be managed at low cost, reducing both discomfort and risk of more serious health conditions such as stroke. We become more susceptible to severe acute malnutrition, but we can also recover well from it if we receive the right treatment.

We benefit from sensitive design in camps, such as well-designed rails to hold ourselves steady and raise ourselves up from when we use latrines. As we reach more advanced years, we may struggle more with mobility, and develop serious disabilities. Our ability to carry large amounts of weight long distances, endure long periods of time standing in queues, or scramble to acquire and then hold onto relief supplies in disorderly distributions, all reduce as we age.

None of this is rocket science. It is surely not unreasonable for older women and men to expect that a sector that prides itself on its commitment to serving the most vulnerable would be able to understand the basics of including such considerations in their programmes. What it most needs is an inclusive mentality from operational agencies, and a willingness to seek specialist guidance and advice. The current situation is unacceptable.

For our report, we went to three of the largest humanitarian operations on the planet. Our interviews provided evidence of neglect, and widespread feelings of isolation and fear. Older women and men almost universally raised poor healthcare provision as a particular concern.

Our interviews are the latest contribution to a growing body of evidence illustrating the failure of the humanitarian system to adequately protect older people's rights or meet their needs, and show the limited progress made to address the neglect of older people and other vulnerable groups within mainstream humanitarian programmes.

Our dearest wishes are that the World Humanitarian Summit proves a turning point, and takes the opportunity to lay the foundations for a genuinely reformed humanitarian system - more inclusive, more efficient, one that puts people, in all our diversity, at the centre of disaster response, builds resilience to crises and really does ensure that we "leave no-one behind".[i]

Leading this initiative, HelpAge International is proud to be part of a collaborative effort from humanitarian agencies with very different mandates and constituencies that has drawn up an Inclusion Charter www.inclusioncharter.org setting out five key actions to ensure humanitarian assistance reaches the most vulnerable people in conflicts and disasters.

The Secretary-General has called for humanity--people's safety, dignity and the right to thrive--to be placed at the heart of global decision-making and said stakeholders must act to prevent and end conflict, respect the rules of war, leave no-one behind, work differently to end need and invest in humanity.

He's right, and as a start, we need to listen to the very people we are failing, those who are vulnerable and unable to access appropriate help when needed. The World Humanitarian Summit is an opportunity to make that change - we must not let it slip through our grasp.

To sign up to the Inclusion Charter go to: www.inclusioncharter.org


Toby Porter, Chief Executive of HelpAge International, will be attending the World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey when it meets on 23-24 May.

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