Global Coalition on Aging  

The Silver Tsunami and Other Vulnerable Groups

October 25, 2010 | The InterDependent

The large aging population could undermine the world's financial recovery now and in the foreseeable future. “Global aging is the single most consequential issue of our time,” said Michael Hodin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former pharmaceutical executive.

Hodin was one of four panelists at a luncheon held on Oct. 13 by the Business Council for the United Nations and sponsored by Pfizer. The event, which took place at the Delegates Dining Room at the UN, brought together leaders from the private and public sectors to discuss new vulnerable groups and whether they are part of the international agenda for economic recovery.

Besides Hodin, the other panelists were Park In-kook, permanent representative of Korea to the UN; Carsten Staur, permanent representative of Denmark to the UN; and Robert Kirkpatrick, director of the UN's Global Pulse initiative, an online aggregator of information about the UN.

Ed Elmendorf, the president and chief executive of UNA-USA, was the moderator. Elmendorf is a former staff member of the World Bank, where for 30 years he was instrumental in work on health strategies and policies in developing countries, among other projects.

The panelists identified the “silver tsunami” aging population as the most important emerging vulnerable group, which is a result of the increased longevity of people across the globe. Issues related to aging are bound to affect the current financial recovery and future economic conditions.

Take Alzheimer's disease, which costs approximately 1 percent of global gross domestic product, or $684 billion, according to Hodin, enough to make it equivalent to a Group of 20 economy. Moreover, the disease is expected to affect 1 in 2 people over age 85 and 1 in 3 people over age 65, leading, he said, to “massive devastation of global financing” from the sheer costs of the disease.

The new middle age now extends from age 55 to 75.

Despite these statistics, the UN and other international organizations like the G-20 have done little to address the aging problem, Hodin said. He criticized the Millennium Development Goals for failing to include noncommunicable diseases and aging among the 2015 goals and faulted the G-20 for not putting the issues in its agenda as well.

Hodin called for governments, the private sector and the UN “to find innovative solutions to turn these people into working, contributing members of society" as "they can work and be productive, but not if they walk around with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's.”

Ambassador Carsten Staur from Denmark argued that some countries cannot afford to deal with problems like aging and that it becomes “a question of political prioritization.” Staur said that Liberia, for example, had a budget of about $100 per person per year to spend and that children and maternal health take priority.

Staur highlighted the need for “creating a basis for higher government income that would allow these governments to expand their budgets through private investment and trade,” thus making investment in aging more feasible.

He also defended the Millennium Goals and their role in helping such vulnerable populations as children and pregnant women, saying that “despite the economic crisis the recent summit reconfirms that the MDGs are still achievable.”

He suggested that the private sector could contribute more toward development programs and emphasized the need to ensure that “the private sector will benefit from achieving the MDGs” as well. The UN's role in creating a political framework and providing analysis in addressing the problem of vulnerable populations has been valuable, he added, reminding the audience that the UN is a convener, assembling leaders to address specific agendas and find solutions.

As a host of this year's G-20 summit in November, Ambassador Park In-kook of Korea said that development would be included in the agenda for the first time. While G-20 summits have mainly focused on the international financial system, Park noted that the Seoul summit will feature outreach activities that look at the “social responsibilities of cooperation.”

Robert Kirkpatrick of UN Pulse presented the UN's point of view on vulnerable populations, saying that it includes no fewer than 76 definitions of “vulnerability.” Such a list makes it difficult to focus on the issue as a whole, so new analytical frameworks are important in clarifying “vulnerability” in its many dimensions.

Kirkpatrick, who was formerly in charge of humanitarian systems at Microsoft, also stressed the need to use current data for development purposes. “Coming from the private sector I find it astonishing to learn that most of the development decisions being made are using statistical data that is at least two years old and sometimes five years old,” he said.

To counter this problem, UN's Global Pulse is setting up innovation labs worldwide to monitor and indicate when new vulnerable populations develop and how to immediately address them, Kirkpatrick said.

The proliferation of cellphones and the Internet were mentioned as additional contributing factors in the creation of new vulnerable groups. For example, Kirkpatrick said that social networks have made it easier for groups or individuals to prey on children and women.

Lazarous Kapambwe, an ambassador of Zambia to the UN, concurred from the audience, explaining that the introduction of cellphones to his country has made human trafficking of children and women simpler because they are more accessible.

Speaking from the audience as well, a vice president of Standard & Poor's, Michael Privitera, said that some countries were also members of the newly vulnerable. The financial downturn of the last two years, he said, has made it too expensive for many nations to borrow money, so they cut back in development programs and infrastructure. He called for developed nations to better understand current economic trends to make more informed decisions.

The event was also supported by AARP, Global Healthy Living Foundation, Alzheimer's Disease International, HelpAge International, the New York Academy of Medicine and USAgainst Alzheimer's.

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