The forgotten


The government always points out to the tremendous growth the country is registering in the last few years. That certainly is the fact, but the standard of living of the people hasn’t grown at a proportional rate. What with the exorbitant increase in prices of practically everything, ranging from food costs to extremely high rent, the effects are especially manifested on the elderly denizens of our country.


Sergeant Major Getachew Bekele, 85, joined the army when he was 17 years old and served for 38 years without respite and utter dedication. When Somalia invaded Eastern and South Eastern Ethiopia in 1977, Getachew, as an artilleryman at Karamara contributed his share to turn the invader back.  
The man, who spent his life in the service of his country, currently lives on the streets of Dire Dawa, a federal city 513km east of Addis Ababa.  He has lost all his family and has no one to live with him or help him out, except for the marginal support he receives from Dawit Elders Center.
“The center provides us with rice, pasta and ‘kinche’ once a day and offers us clothes when individuals donate whatever they have in excess and through Disaster Risk management and Food Security Sector” he informed Capital.
About five million or 4.8 percent of the population are believed to be elderly. In Dire Dawa alone, there are more than 16,000 among a population of 342,000, according to the Ethiopian Central Statistics Agency’s (CSA) census in 2007.
Such people have contributed their share, but now they are too old and need a lot of care. “No matter how big their contributions were, it is becoming the norm to tend to forget this portion of society,” said Erna Mintesinot, Communication Officer at HelpAge International, an NGO that works on the healthcare of elders. “They are often forgotten in policy making, plans and programs.”
Zerubabel Elias, a Policy and Program Expert at the Social Welfare Development Promotion Directorate of the the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MoLSA) agreed with Erna that elders haven’t especially been the beneficiaries from the development and growth the country is registering like in other societies. “The government has been allocating very little resource to the issues concerning the elderly of the country. In fact, the ministry which handled their affairs was placed 17th, from a list of 20 ministries, in accordance to the level of importance given to them.” He attributes this to a number of reasons, among which lack of information about their rights among elders, a wrong attitude of the society towards them and an acute lack of comprehensive data on elderly people to undertake the necessary intervention based on their behalf, as some of the basic problems.
It is not only the government that has failed to pay due attention to elders, according to Erna. The community also, including their own family, is partly responsible for what is happening to them. In the near past, one could hardly see as many elders on streets of towns and cities in Ethiopia as is observed today, because the deterioration of the extended family structure, which used to take care of their own can’t or rather will not, support these old people like they used to, a cultural norm in old days. Helping our elders in their old age was also one of the very few unique qualities that Ethiopians used to be proud about as equally as being welcoming to guests.
Because of the ever increasing cost of living and economic insecurity people feel, Elders are becoming the victims of these phenomena. “Almost 50 percent of these elders are even faced with taking care of their grandchildren whose parents died of HIV/AIDS and other diseases,” Erna notified Capital.
The Ethiopian government is trying to help them become involved in associations and communities and supporting their unions. 
However, the reality on the ground remains precarious as there are only a few community-based rehabilitation and institutional care and support centers throughout the country like Abriha Bahta in Harar, Dawit and Assegedech in Dire Dawa and Kaliti, Mekedonian and  Kibre Aregawi in Addis Ababa, and  Debre Libanos and Bet Selihom in Oromia. Most of them, lack resources and are short of funds and there are fears that they might stop functioning in the very near future.
Nevertheless, Zerubabel is hopeful that the future of Ethiopia’s elderly will become brighter as the government is gearing up for a brand new initiative in taking good care of them, especially those who are over 70 years.
Through this program, the government would strive to relieve the plight they are in through community-based rehabilitation and institutional care and support centers it is willing to set up and support. “Those who have no one to support them and who are over the age of 70 will be offered the required amount of money, which will be ample to address their basic needs,” he said. “A policy, which will also increase their pension and health insurance, has also been drafted into the program and is due to be ratified by the Council of Ministers very soon so that it can be operational at the beginning of the coming Ethiopian year,” Zerubabel said.  “A strategy is thereby being developed towards achieving this.”
According to Zerubabel, lack of money will not deter the government from realizing the program, as the government is planning to allocate up to 3 percent of the country’s GDP [aside from potential donors’ assistance] for the realization of the program. “But social engagement on such a program still remains the headache. But the structure of this program will be extended to the grassroots level- the woreda and kebele levels,” he stated. 
Zerubabel thinks the newly applied social security program for employees of the private sector and an increase in the production capacity of the whole country will also play a vital role in brightening our elders’ future.