Burundi, located in Central Africa, is one of the least developed countries in the world. According to the U.S. Department of State, more than 85% of its population lives in poverty, with 80-90% of people living in rural areas where agriculture is the main source of livelihood.
Although there is limited data on elderly poverty in Burundi, the country’s life expectancy in 2020 was 62, significantly lower than the 2020 global average of 72. Yet, in 2019, the age dependency ratio — the ratio of unemployed elderly dependents to working-age people — in Burundi was 95.2%, a value significantly higher than the 85.1% global average. The country’s high dependency ratio reflects the inordinate financial stress that its working population, and the economy as a whole, face in supporting the elderly. Factors compounding this stress include a high level of food insecurity; a steadily rising population; poor access to health, education and clean water; and susceptibility to climate-related devastation.
The Concerns of Burundi’s Elderly
As early as 1999, Cécilie Siboniyo, an 80-year-old woman living in the Buraniro Refugee camp, expressed concern that children were becoming less well-educated and losing their sense of community responsibility. She noted that increasing distractions and a growing lack of respect for elders were making it difficult to teach social values. She was hopeful that directing media attention to this problem would help pave the way for a brighter future.
Still, Abtwahi Al Hajj, a 77-year-old man living in Ngozi, Burundi, feared for the future. He worried that young people no longer felt a duty to care for the elderly.
Such concerns are valid. A comparative analysis of ageism in Belgium and Burundi found that, while both Burundian and Belgian adults living in Belgium valued the elderly, Burundians living in their own country saw the elderly as poor and weak. The study correlated this perception to a lack of social and economic resources and a “lack of government spending on older people (pension and health care systems)” in less developed countries like Burundi.
Need for Action
Land shortages, changing weather patterns and overpopulation in Burundi are making survival increasingly difficult for a population that relies upon agriculture for food and income. With more than 60% of the population undernourished, malnutrition is one of the leading causes of death in the country.
To ensure progress and a better life for Burundi’s elderly, social and economic resources must go toward helping the many who live in poverty. According to a World Bank report, targeting pensions to support elderly people who are responsible for households and children would also have a significant impact on reducing poverty in Burundi overall.
Positive Impact of Organizations in Burundi
Despite the severity of the situation, numerous organizations have partnered with the Burundi government to provide help for the elderly who face poverty and food insecurity.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has partnered with the United Nations to support the Burundi government in providing immediate and long-term assistance for the elderly and vulnerable. In 2022, WFP and its donors assisted 995,651 Burundians in need, an act of service that the organization has committed itself to continue.
The World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have also helped negotiate policies to make the country’s most valuable crop, coffee, more lucrative. Now, European and U.S. companies purchase coffee directly from Burundian producers. USAID is also working to help improve the country’s agricultural resource base. In addition to providing better seed varieties, it is helping to advance crop and livestock production, provide guidance for soil preservation and ensure that the most vulnerable have access to a healthy, diversified diet.
Additionally, USAID is working to build social welfare in Burundi, emphasizing food security, democracy, economic growth and health care. It has strengthened the health system by ensuring access to quality maternal and child care, medications and other basic necessities.
Finally, the African Union has developed the Maputo Protocol to promote human rights and the rights of women, with specific provisions for protecting women who are elderly. In late 2022, the African Union Commission and Gender, Peace and Security Programme concluded a joint mission to Burundi to advance the implementation of the Maputo Protocol, which the Burundi government signed in 2003. The hope is that the country will fully adopt and enforce the protocol by July 2023.
A Brighter Future
Although elderly poverty remains a growing problem in Burundi, the Burundi government and numerous international organizations are working to ensure a better future for the country’s elderly and population at large. Such a clear commitment to this goal is sure to inspire hope and positive change.
– Chidinma Nwoha