HomeResourcesBlogsSetting the Way Forward for Older People in the Arab Region

Setting the Way Forward for Older People in the Arab Region

On the 2nd of June, the United Nations Economic and Social Council for West Asia (ESCWA) published a most welcome report setting clear steps for building forward better for older persons in the Arab Region. The MENARAH network lead, Professor Shereen Hussein, has worked closely with the ESCWA team to produce the report. Taking a collaborative and co-production approach, the team worked with stakeholders in three countries in the region (Syria, Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) to develop viable policy and practice recommendations that ensure the dignity and wellbeing of older people in the region. Within the structure of the care ecosystem, the analysis and presentation of findings highlight the crucial role different societal groups play in addressing older people’s priorities and needs. The care ecosystem acknowledges the importance of a strong policy direction while mobilising and harnessing the community and individual efforts. The report focuses, in particular, on two strands of such structure: Social protection and the long-term care economy.

It is well-known that the Arab region is at the cusp of a significant demographic transition occurring considerably fast. On average, the whole region will complete its ageing transition within 36 years, where the percentage of people aged 65 or more will constitute at least 14 per cent of the population in each country in the region. Such change carries opportunities if met with well-prepared policies and practices and far-reaching economic and social implications. However, this is happening against a situation where, despite progress, only 38 per cent of people above the retirement age were receiving a pension in 2020. This level of coverage is significantly below the world average of 78 per cent. On a good note, basic health care coverage across the Arab countries has seen considerable progress, yet such coverage is far from universal. The evidence shows that up to 70 per cent of older people are not covered by health insurance in some countries. These dynamics increase the vulnerability of older people and the reliance on informal networks, especially families, for financial and practical support.

Women in the family usually provide long-term care (LTC). However, with increased urbanisation, social change and dynamics coupled with increased demand for LTC, such support does not appear viable or sustained. The report initiates a vital dialogue about developing LTC markets and economies in the region. Thinking beyond the medical needs of a person and considering the importance of social support to ensure independent and meaningful lives, the LTC market has a pivotal role to play. Furthermore, with high female unemployment rates, developing a range of well-structured LTC services will generate new labour participation opportunities for different segments of the population. The latter will generate fiscal incomes through increasing system contributions and reducing the reliance on social welfare benefits. The experiences of the three case study countries provide clear examples of an emerging LTC market despite the continued importance of the family in aged care.

The report also provides a novel analysis of the fiscal implications of ageing and provides, for the first time, estimates of LTC cost as a percentage of GDP in the three case study countries. The modelling of LTC costs elaborates on previous work conducted by MENARAH core members Mohamed Ismail and Shereen Hussein to estimate the LTC cost in Turkey. The current estimates appear modest compared to those observed in OECD countries; however, they reflect a swiftly shifting picture with expected higher costs in the coming few decades. According to these estimates, in 2019, current LTC spending by the state should have been around $320K, $15M, and $442M per annum each for the Syrian Arab Republic, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to have met the LTC demand. These figures are above any spending on social protection schemes. However, with no data on state spending specific to LTC, it isn’t easy to assess the level of current spending. Furthermore, these figures are expected to change dramatically year on year as countries progress through their ageing transitions. Improving the collection, access and analysis of data on all aspects of ageing beyond national indicators is an area of paramount importance, which Mohamed Ismail has recently discussed in further detail.

The COVID19 pandemic has exasperated the effect of inadequate care ecosystems on older people, from increased rates of mortality and co-morbidity to high levels of social isolation and loneliness to loss of cognitive abilities and onset of dementia. The magnitude of the effect was tremendous, especially on already vulnerable groups of older people. These adverse effects were also pronounced in the availability and accessibility of LTC support, with disruption to both formal services and informal support with limited access to extended families and communities.

The publication of this critical report and the current review and appraisal of the MIPPA provide a catalyst for countries to accelerate their policy and practical responses to ageing while capitalising on their resources, especially the youth bulges. Such response requires acting in multiple directions from collecting and utilising comprehensive data and research, adopting a life cycle approach, building meaningful partnerships with non-governmental organisations and private investors who can provide adequate LTC services and learning from the pandemic.

The report is accompanied by three policy briefs focusing on Ageing Trends, Social Protection and Long-Term Care.

Read the full report here.

+ posts

Founder and Director
Shereen Hussein is a Health and Social Care Policy professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), United Kingdom.
Shereen Founded the MENARAH Network in 2019, through an initial grant from the Global Challenge Research Fund, UKRI. She is a medical demographer with expertise in ageing, family dynamics, migration and long-term care systems. Shereen regularly collaborates with the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and the World Bank in policy and research focused on ageing in the Middle East and North Africa Region.
Shereen received her undergraduate degree in statistics and a postgraduate degree in computer science at Cairo University. She completed an MSc in medical demography at the London School of Hygiene and a PhD in quantitative demography and population studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, United Kingdom.