Retirement plans for all Africans: Is it possible? | Globalization | DW | 11.07.2013
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Retirement plans for all Africans: Is it possible?

By 2050 the number of elderly citizens in Africa is expected to quadruple, topping more than 200 million. Meanwhile Africa's governments are scrambling to find the means to support their aging community.

"For the great majority of Africans, there is no such thing as 'retirement' like we understand it in the northern countries," said Valerie Golaz, the co-author of a study by France's National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED), which explores how African countries are addressing the challenges of getting older. The Uganda-based demographer's conclusions offer insight into an ever-aging African population.

Yes, there are countries with large, structured economies on the northern part of the continent. "But even in these countries, very few people pay into a retirement fund or receive retirement benefits," said the researcher in an interview with DW.

South of the Sahara, the retirement systems are poorly developed, Golaz added. "This relates almost exclusively to those employed in the private sector or the public sector. Even within these sectors, very few people receive a pension."

Furthermore, there are striking differences between men and women. In Tunisia, the study revealed that 30 percent of men over 60 received a pension. However, this was true for only 30 percent of women in the same age group.

The informal job market

Since the 1960s, efforts have been underway in Africa to introduce a federal pension program. Institutions such as the UN's International Labor Organization attempt to facilitate the process. The pension models in question consist of contributions from both the employee and the employer. But the job market in Africa remains for the most part informal. In other words, there are hardly any functioning administrative structures in place to support such a model.

A Sudanese farmer cleans dried sorghum grain (Photo: Peter Steffen)

The job market in Africa is dominated by informal labor

The results of this situation are clear. In many countries fewer than 10 percent of the elderly receive a pension, especially in West and Central Africa. In countries like Mauritius, South Africa, Namibia or Lesotho, however, the situation is considerably better. Even in those countries though, the pension offered is generally very low.

Without a pension there are only two possibilities: work until you are no longer physically and mentally able or rely on the solidarity of family. This solidarity, however, is dwindling as the physical distance between relatives grows, and the younger generations face their own difficult financial situations.

Finding an alternative model

In Africa the population as a whole is getting older. According to UN estimates, the number of seniors over 60 will quadruple in the next 40 years, from 56 million in 2013 to 215 million in 2050.

Currently a popular model among African governments is the "unconditional basic income." This model has been particularly successful in Latin America and stipulates that the state provides an income to its most vulnerable people.

This model is presently being tested in Uganda. Until now that country had the worst reputation in Africa when it came to pensions.

"Mainly under the auspice of Great Britain, a system of 'cash transfer' was introduced to provide not only for the most vulnerable people, but also for those over the age of 65," said Valerie Golaz.

Lesotho men draped in blankets, line up as the polls open in the village of Machache, 25 miles east of the Capital Maseru Saturday, Feb. 17, 2007. Voters in the tiny southern African mountain kingdom of Lesotho go to the polls Saturday to elect a new government after 10 years of rule by the Lesotho Congress for Democracy. The election promises to be a close race between the ruling LCD, led by Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, and the 4-month-old All Basotho Convention led by Tom Thabane, the former minister of communications, science and technology (ddp images/AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Without a pension, many rely on their families in old age

In Uganda pensioners receive about $10 (about 8 euros) per month. But the current financial situation doesn't allow the Ugandan government to increase the amount, nor the number of recipients at the moment.

One drawback of this model is the financial burden placed on the state. Countries like Brazil or Ecuador can potentially afford it. Most governments in Africa can't - at least not without foreign aid.

Unions intervene

What about private retirement plans? Is the African market becoming a target for large life insurance companies? Not yet, says Tharcisse Nkanagu, coordinator for social security at ILO.

Rather, another type of supplementary pension is spreading, especially in the largest companies: the occupational pension scheme.

"It's not the employer encouraging the employee to establish pensions. It's the unions," says Nkanagu. "They think about it and negotiate with the employer to introduce such supplementary pension plans into the company."

Social security: the big picture

The ILO sees a strong link between seniors' income and other forms of social security.

"The ILO envisions two axes: access to income and access to health care," said Tharcisse Nkanagu. "These two components are inseparable. If you have an income, then you can pay for basic needs - especially health services. And when you have access to health services, then you need an income to stay healthy."

To prevent seniors from landing in poverty due to health care costs, the ILO sees a need for communities to cover different costs through national social security systems or community insurance associations.

The latter have been extremely successful, especially in Senegal, Benin, Cape Verde and Rwanda, said Nkanagu. Such groups are based on the principle that between 10 and 20 percent of their members each year must pay for the cost of care.

For now the only thing missing is adequate and modern health services. Many specialists are found only in major cities - if at all - and specific services for the elderly are not well-developed in this 'young' continent.

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