Harnessing the press to get Malawi talking about its forthcoming universal pension
In October 2015, HelpAge was asked by our partner the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare in Malawi to carry out a universal pension feasibility study in collaboration with the Malawi Network of Organisations for Older People (MANEPO).
Nearly a year later, with the report almost ready for launch, the partners who worked on the study were attending a UNDESA workshop in Malawi. We took the opportunity to call a press conference to share the findings of the study and trigger a national discussion on the issue.
In Malawi, HelpAge does not have an office, but instead works in partnership with a local network of organisations for older people, as part of the Southern Africa Regional Age Network, to deliver our work to help older people.
Calling a press conference
HelpAge and MANEPO worked with Malawi's Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare to call a 45-minute press conference to announce the outcomes of the study to the press and the nation.
As the Malawi Government owns the pension feasibility study, we agreed that Felix Sapala, the Director of the Department for Disability and Elderly Affairs, would address the journalists. We briefed him on the key talking points and then, after he had spoken, played an active part alongside MANEPO in the discussions about the study.
After the announcement, the press had an opportunity to ask questions and were given a copy of the study's executive summary to take away for reference. Important queries were made about when the pension would be implemented, how committed the Government is on delivering the pension, and how involved older people will be in the process.
Handling a press conference such as this is always challenging when working within government protocols - particularly as you have to be well versed in procedures and sign offs.
HelpAge encouraged the ministry and other relevant government departments to engage with older people in Malawi through MANEPO so they are both aware of and involved in the delivery of a universal pension.
The role of the HelpAge team at the press conference was as experts - researchers who highlight the next steps that must be taken to achieve a universal pension in Malawi. We learned that we had to remain relevant to the needs of the government, older people and MANEPO to ensure that our work was valuable.
We brokered space for possible partnerships, for example with UNDESA and the Africa Development Bank, both of which valued the experience and expertise that HelpAge can offer to support African governments in improving the lives of their older citizens.
How successful was the press conference?
The ministry held a meeting the following day involving its counterparts in the Ministry of Planning and Finance to discuss the implications of the study. Conversations were had about where the money would come from and the level to which older people in the current cash transfer programme are covered, while partners were also asked to begin working on an official launch for the study in Malawi.
Felix Sapala commented that the press conference has "already helped facilitate engagement with the idea of a universal pension at a very senior level".
The event had an immediate impact. Radio and television stations aired the press conference soon after it happened, while print media followed up with coverage the next day. The Nation, a newspaper in Malawi, saw how important the issue is and has given space on its pages to MANEPO to place weekly updates on the study.
No publication now wants to be slow on the story of universal pensions. In the month since the press conference, there has been continued interest and multiple interviews with staff at MANEPO on the issue. By making the general public more aware of the plans for a universal pension, the media is creating demand and expectation from older men and women across Malawi that the Government simply cannot ignore.
The press conference in Malawi has truly got the ball rolling. And HelpAge will continue to work in Malawi through its network and in partnership with the Government to help secure a universal pension for the older people of Malawi.
To find out more about pensions, visit the Pension Watch site.