Uganda plans to raise age for el­derly wel­fare ben­e­fits to 80

The min­i­mum age for the So­cial As­sis­tance Grant for Em­pow­er­ment cur­rently stands at 65 years

The East African - - FRONT PAGE - By BERNARD BUSUULWA The Eastafrican

Uganda plans to in­crease the min­i­mum age for el­derly peo­ple to join the coun­try’s wel­fare ben­e­fits scheme by 15 years in the next fi­nan­cial year, in a dras­tic move that threat­ens to lock out many poor and aged peo­ple.

The min­i­mum age for So­cial As­sis­tance Grant for Em­pow­er­ment (Sage), will be in­creased from 65 to 80 in the 2019/20 fi­nan­cial year, even as se­ri­ous ques­tions sur­round­ing the im­pact of in­fla­tion against monthly ben­e­fits have also emerged.

A pen­sion in­dus­try re­port pub­lished last month by the Uganda Retirement Ben­e­fits Reg­u­la­tory Au­thor­ity (URBRA) shows how the change in the min­i­mum qual­i­fi­ca­tion age will af­fect po­ten­tial ben­e­fi­cia­ries in new dis­tricts tar­geted for in­clu­sion in the scheme in the next fi­nan­cial year. How­ever, the change will not apply to ex­ist­ing ben­e­fi­cia­ries.

The Sage scheme is a so­cial wel­fare pro­gramme whose pi­lot was launched in 2010. It is in­tended for poor and el­derly peo­ple who lack sta­ble sources of in­come, fam­ily sup­port struc­tures and live be­low the poverty line.

The scheme cur­rently of­fers ben­e­fi­cia­ries a monthly up­keep al­lowance of Ush25,000 ($6.7) in 57 dis­tricts.

In 2010, scheme ben­e­fi­cia­ries re­ceived a monthly al­lowance of Ush23,000 ($6), while seed fund­ing was pro­vided by the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment, of­fi­cial records show.

The amount caters for food and other liv­ing ex­penses.

The over­all num­ber of dis­tricts in Uganda has grown to roughly 131 but the to­tal value of funds re­ceived by ben­e­fi­cia­ries over the past eight years re­mains un­clear.

Ef­forts to ver­ify the ac­tual amount dis­bursed with rel­e­vant gov­ern­ment min­istries and agen­cies had not suc­ceeded by press time.

The num­ber of Sage ben­e­fi­cia­ries stood at 190,466 peo­ple by the end of March 2018, URBRA data shows.

Whereas changes in the qual­i­fi­ca­tion age point to grow­ing fi­nan­cial pres­sures faced by the Sage pro­gramme, this rad­i­cal move is bound to leave many old, needy cit­i­zens be­tween 65 and 79 years of age out in the cold, with no ac­cess to monthly ben­e­fits to pur­chase food and other per­sonal items.

A rise in the num­ber of poor, el­derly per­sons is likely to swell the coun­try’s poverty lev­els. It is es­ti­mated that more than eight mil­lion Ugan­dans live be­low the poverty line out of a to­tal pro­jected pop­u­la­tion of 37.7 mil­lion peo­ple as at the end of 2017, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment data.

Find­ings gen­er­ated from the 2014 cen­sus re­vealed that only 2.7 per cent of Uganda’s pop­u­la­tion are el­derly peo­ple aged 65 and above.

Higher death rates

The rise in the num­bers of the poor could also es­ca­late risks of early death, ob­servers say.

“Rais­ing the min­i­mum qual­i­fi­ca­tion age for the Sage scheme ben­e­fi­cia­ries will re­duce the num­ber of el­i­gi­ble peo­ple, but it does not solve the vul­ner­a­bil­ity ques­tion fac­ing this coun­try,” ar­gued Julius Mukunda, co-or­di­na­tor of the Civil So­ci­ety Bud­get Ad­vo­cacy Group.

Mr Mukunda blames the gov­ern­ment’s in­abil­ity to take care of the el­derly poor partly on pri­ori­tis­ing high ex­pen­di­ture po­lit­i­cal projects at the ex­pense of more de­serv­ing sec­tors, and wastage.

For ex­am­ple, the Na­tional Agri­cul­tural Ad­vi­sory Ser­vices pro­gramme re­ceives Ush2.5 bil­lion ($669,333) ev­ery year, but 40 per cent of the amount is lost through pur­chase of poor qual­ity seeds dis­trib­uted to lo­cal farm­ers.

De­spite steady up­keep al­lowances paid to se­lected el­derly peo­ple, strong in­fla­tion pres­sures ex­pe­ri­enced since 2010 have di­min­ished pur­chas­ing power lev­els as­so­ci­ated with Sage ben­e­fits.

Prices of house­hold prod­ucts, kerosene, ba­sic medicines, cloth­ing and trans­port fares have in­creased steadily over time, leav­ing lit­tle or no room for ad­di­tional spend­ing among poor, el­derly cit­i­zens.

For ex­am­ple, the cost of sugar has risen to around Ush4,500 ($1.2) per kilo­gramme while a litre of kerosene sells for Ush3,500 ($0.9) on av­er­age. One Panadol tablet cur­rently goes for an av­er­age of Ush200 ($0.05), while one kilo­gramme of ti­lapia fish sells for Ush25,000 ($6.7).

“In­fla­tion pres­sures re­lated to medicines are prob­a­bly the big­gest worry for many el­derly peo­ple liv­ing in the ru­ral ar­eas; food driven in­fla­tion poses a lesser headache be­cause it usu­ally reg­is­ters neg­a­tive out­comes on the eco­nomic charts,” said Joseph Areu, a re­tired fi­nance man­ager for­merly em­ployed by the In­ter­na­tional Fi­nance Cor­po­ra­tion, the pri­vate sec­tor fi­nanc­ing arm of the World Bank Group.

Other re­tirees are equally dis­turbed by the state of Uganda’s so­cial wel­fare sys­tem.

“The lo­cal vil­lage coun­cil sys­tem should be used to iden­tify el­derly, needy peo­ple who are not el­i­gi­ble for Sage ben­e­fits but are help­less. Such in­di­vid­u­als can be looked af­ter by well to do, char­i­ta­ble peo­ple in their com­mu­ni­ties,” said Fred Tumwe­si­gye, a re­tired em­ployee of Bri­tish Amer­i­can Tobacco Uganda and a non-ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at the com­pany.

There is also the ar­gu­ment that some el­derly peo­ple can be taken care of by their fam­i­lies in­stead of the gov­ern­ment.

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