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Sub-Saharan Africa

The Economic Situation Of Older Africans

Though poverty was not unknown in pre-colonial Africa, it seems to have been limited mainly to persons of low social status—slaves, persons of low caste, or, sometimes, widows. Older men controlled most strategic resources, including access to housing, land, and livestock. Older women controlled food, and elders of both genders controlled the labor and reproduction of younger persons and intangible assets such as utilitarian knowledge and ritual power. In this gerontocratic system, it seems likely that most older persons in need were adequately cared for—though in fact this is an open question, as little research has addressed the issue.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Africans experienced conquest, colonial rule, incorporation of formerly self-sufficient economies into the world political economy, and the material impoverishment of Africa and Africans. Details of these transformations varied locally, but everywhere they have put pressures on African families and made the lives of many—young and old—precarious. In addition, Africans suffer from repressive dictatorships and military regimes, corruption, widespread conflict, violence, civil wars, recurrent droughts, livestock epidemics, famines, endemic malnutrition, infectious diseases, high unemployment, and very deep poverty. In 2000, Africa had about ten million refugees and internally displaced persons, including unknown numbers of older persons. By 2000, about 34 million Africans had been infected by HIV/AIDS—in that year, 2 million of them died. The economic and social impacts of the AIDS pandemic are many, including care by older persons of their dying adult children—followed by care of orphaned grandchildren—and elders left without family support. Perhaps the single worst condition affecting Africans is poverty, which affects the great majority of Africans of all ages (and African governments as well). Money would not end political repression or war, but it could alleviate many other problems.

Because of the slow pace of economic development in Africa, opportunities for formal employment are modest, with men favored in the formal economy. Men without wage employment, and most women, earn money in the informal economy, through petty trading, making and selling craft items, and various micro-enterprises. In rural areas, cash crops provide income, but scarce land and/or labor may reduce the production of subsistence crops. In sub-Saharan Africa, women do the major part of agricultural labor. Much other work is carried out almost entirely by women and children, including fetching wood and water, cooking, laundry, housecleaning, childcare, and caregiving of sick and elderly family members. All these activities are continued as long as possible, with elders thus making substantial social and economic contributions to their families.

Most older people live in rural areas and continue working as long as they are able, retiring only when forced by frailty. For those few in formal employment, mandatory retirement age is as low as fifty in some African countries. Pensions—usually inadequate and often in the form of a single lump sum—are available to very small proportions (under 10 percent) of workers, except in Namibia and South Africa, which have comprehensive, noncontributory old-age pensions. Many retirees return to their rural homes and become involved again in the rural subsistence economy.

Older Africans in urban areas, like their rural counterparts, are likely to be poor, to participate in income-generating and maintenance activities as long as they can, live with family members, and receive assistance from relatives. Their access to health care and other services is slightly better, though they are unlikely to grow food crops. Those who are foreign nationals, coming as labor migrants or refugees, may be cut off from their families. Some older persons, especially widows without land rights, may migrate to urban areas to live with children, and large cities may attract older beggars, especially widows, who have fallen through the family support network (though even some beggars receive family support).

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 4Sub-Saharan Africa - The Economic Situation Of Older Africans, The Social Situation Of Older Africans, Vulnerable Elders, Policy And Practical Implications