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Last week I pointed to some significant promises that had been made to the elderly but unfortunately not been fulfilled, and said that the behaviour of various governments towards this group – which is theoretically electorally significant at about 8% of the population – is a clear indication that the political elite considers it a sector to be trifled with.
Rarely are the minimum wage and elderly pension intended to be living incomes but the situation is dire in Guyana where over 60% of pensioners depend almost solely on this income, and particularly in these inflationary times, the actual value of the pension and national minimum wage is extremely low – the former is $28,000 (US$133) and the latter $60,147 (US$286). However, in Barbados the minimum wage is $1,983 (US$992) and the monthly pension $596 (US$300), and in Trinidad and Tobago the minimum wage is $3,100 (US$470) and the maximum monthly pension which goes to the poorest is $3,500 (US$530).
In 2018, the director of social services of the Ministry of Social Protection appeared to have forgotten all the promises made in 2012 and proceeded to boast that the government intended to start from scratch and ‘will be developing a National Policy on Aging, with the aim of achieving the cultural, social and economic reintegration of older persons into the mainstream of society’ (SN: 14/03/2018). Again in 2020, the new chairperson of the National Commission of the Elderly that had been dysfunctional for years appeared to have again been starting afresh. As reported, he claimed that the commission’s first 100 days plan included conducting an inventory of the urgent needs and challenges of the elderly and institutions dealing with the elderly to provide a basis for further policy formulation, action plans and recommendations. Some of the areas to be examined included nutritional deficiencies and malnutrition, isolation, physical conditions in care institutions, and “disproportionate” COVID-19 mortality rates.
My position was and is that in a democracy independent stakeholder bodies driven by and accountable to their constituencies are a sine qua non for the success and sustainability of a programme to improve their condition. Government-appointed advisory commissions do have a role to play but are usually not sufficiently independent from the government to ensure the fulfillment of the desired agenda.
In Barbados, the Barbados Association of Retired Persons (BARP) established in 1995 is a vibrant “non-profit, non governmental organisation which actively promotes the independence, dignity and purpose in life of its members, representing and expressing their views and concerns, and taking action to bring about change.” BARP is one of the largest of such organisations in the country with some 26,000 financial members the age of forty. The Trinidad and Tobago Association of Retired Persons established in 1993 with some 35,000 members is a nonprofit organization for persons age fifty and over. It mission is to enhance the quality of life of mature citizens, promote their independence, dignity and purpose, lead in determining their role in society and improve the image of the golden years. Apart from offering their members various services such as free legal guidance, personal financial assistance, discount purchasing arrangements, health insurance plan, etc., they keep a persistent eye on the interest of their members and periodically publish their own magazine. But most importantly, the very existence of these organisations represents significant entrenched interests that democratic governments cannot easily ignore.
During my tenure as senior minister of housing, labour, human services and social security from 1992 to 1997, in keeping with the prevailing global trend of semi-autonomous expert/interest arrangements advising governments and independent bodies aggregating, integrating, articulating and representing stakeholders’ interest, the ministry worked seriously with and attempted to facilitate the establishment of institutions around the social sectors – workers, women, youth and the elderly – for which it was responsible. Trade unions and women’s organisations were already well established and a number of important pieces of legislation such as the 1997 Trade Union Recognition Act on 1997 and 1995 Domestic Violence Act were passed.
However, in my view, largely for ideological reasons although a National Youth Advisory Task Force and a Senior Citizen’s Policy Committee (renamed the National Commission of the Elderly in 2012) were established, efforts to encourage the formation of national independent youth and elderly bodies did not materialise. Today there are no significant entrenched independent national organisations representing the elderly and to make it worse they are as ethnically/politically divided as is the country. Indeed, given the tendency of individuals to become more conservative as they age, there appears no end to their political subservience.
Of course, as the Public Service Union suggested a few days ago in relation to the economic deprivation of its main constituency and pensioners, it is quite possible for autocratic governments to find ways, for example numerous arbitrary cash grants as are at presently being made in Guyana, to support whatever constituency they please. Conceptually, as a group, pensioners have the requisite numbers and interests to make themselves politically significant but instead are an example of individuals being helpless as historical ethnic/political concerns trample upon their personal and collective interests. An example of the force of social structures in human relations and why it is foolhardy to attempt to operate the entire political system pretending that such structures do not exist!