It’s a global phenomenon, already exerting a profound social and economic impact in both rich and poor countries. So why are so few development professionals talking about population aging? Our planet’s rapidly shifting demography has profound implications for our development plans, yet the two issues seem to be linked consistently only by those specialist organizations that have a particular focus on aging. This needs to change. If our post-2015 development framework is to be effective and legitimate, evolving population dynamics will need to be taken into account across the board.
The era of our new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is also the era of the “age bulge.” By 2030—the deadline for achieving our development vision—there will be more people over the age of 60 than children under the age of 10. By 2050, for the first time in human history, there will be more adults over 60 than children under 16 and, of these 2 billion older people, the majority will be women1 and around 80 percent will be living in developing countries. If our development plans do not include a comprehensive understanding of these new demographic patterns—if they fail to take into account up to 20 percent of the world’s population—they will most likely be doomed to fail.
But it need not be so. Indeed, I am optimistic—optimistic because the SDGs represent a bold new agenda, a radically different development landscape to that which the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) left behind. Whereas the MDGs focused on poverty reduction, our new development vision is much broader. The SDGs set out a comprehensive road map for achieving a number of interconnected public goods, from ending poverty to reducing inequality, tackling climate change, and providing humanitarian relief. Fundamentally, the goals represent an attempt to envision the quality of life that every human being should enjoy by 2030. They pave the way toward enshrining the right to a minimum standard of living, the construction of a global social floor. This collective, universal vision of what a good-quality life for people and planet might look like represents a significant departure from our previous individualistic, nation-based development strategies.
Perhaps most importantly, the SDGs are intended to be a people’s agenda—a practical tool to empower people all over the world to usher in a new age of mutual accountability. Citizens can make governments fear the political price, and businesses the commercial cost, of failing to make good on their commitments: the goals gift power into the hands of the people. For development is no longer about the world’s rich countries attempting to fix the problems of the world’s poorest. The SDGs are about what we all need to do to achieve the needs of people and planet. A true test of their efficacy will be how the United States and Europe change their policies and practices to achieve the vision the goals lay out; how the private sector adapts the way it consumes and produces; how civil society organizations look up from their areas of specialist focus to the big, systemic changes that are now required.
Not only does this new development agenda call on all stakeholders to play their part in bringing the 2030 vision to fruition; at its heart, the agenda aims to “leave no one behind.” The goals aim to tackle inequality and exclusion in all its forms, seeking to ensure that individuals can participate fully in their societies regardless of age, disability, or gender. The economic growth sought by the SDGs is an inclusive growth, one that means decent employment, social protection, and access to essential services for all members of our communities.
Of course, if we are to have any hope of achieving this new vision, robust new metrics, fed by nothing less than a data revolution, will be critical. The MDGs entrenched the idea of measuring progress through metrics—measuring effectiveness for donors, but more importantly, to promote accountability. The SDGs follow in this tradition, yet their requirements in terms of volume, complexity, and breadth of data go far beyond anything the development sector has previously attempted. SDG metrics are still in their infancy, but already there is widespread consensus that significant investment in the capacity of all development actors—including citizens—to generate, use, and curate data will be crucial. Data disaggregated by age, gender, and disability, for example, cannot be considered an expensive, optional add-on to the SDG framework; this kind of more nuanced data collection must be at the very foundation of our decision making. Without the ability to measure and monitor progress in this way; to understand how lifetime inequalities of income, education, employment, health, disability, and gender evolve with age; to capture gaps within and between population groups, we risk investing in the wrong areas and undermining accountability.
Sustainable development de-pends on how many people will inhabit the planet in the years to come, where and how they will live, and what resources they will require and produce. For these reasons, any sound development plan must take into account the profound effects of population growth, aging, and migration. And I do believe that, properly understood and effectively implemented, the SDGs lend themselves to this life-course approach to development. Still, there is little doubt that we need to build a more consistent and informed narrative—one that involves all development actors—around what sustainable, equitable development will look like for people of all ages and how we can achieve that goal.
1 UNFPA [[define]United Nations Population Fund] and HelpAge International, Chapter 1, in Ageing in the 21 Century: A Celebration and Challenge (London: UNFPA and HelpAge International, 2013), 27.
about the author
Dr. Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is secretary general of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation. His previous roles include director of the Royal Commonwealth Society and deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. Dr. Sriskandarajah holds an MPhil and DPhil from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. In 2012, he was chosen as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.