Age-inclusive humanitarianism

Our journey in reaching and advocating for older people in humanitarian emergencies

Since HelpAge International was founded in 1983, it has worked for older people and their needs to be included whenever humanitarian emergencies happen.

Its ambition is to transform the international humanitarian system to become age-inclusive, promoting older people’s dignity, wellbeing and voice. 


Reaching older people in humanitarian emergencies 

HelpAge supported older people in humanitarian emergencies from the outset. Colleagues responded alongside Help the Aged (now Age UK) to support those affected by the 1983-1985 famine in Ethiopia, the refugees from Mozambique arriving in Zimbabwe and, from 1993, the floods that swept across Mozambique.  

In 1994, as refugees fled across the border into Tanzania to escape the genocide in Rwanda, HelpAge mounted its first unilateral response. Smart Daniel, now Tanzania’s Country Director, recalls how Tanzania, historically a stable country, was inundated by the shift in humanitarian resources from overseas. “HelpAge experts came in from different parts of Europe and Zimbabwe where there was experience of hosting refugees,” he says. 

“I was a student at the time. My housemate was travelling past the flow of refugees and noticed HelpAge doing great work there. He mentioned it to me, and we approached to see if we could help voluntarily. After graduating two years later, we both got jobs with HelpAge.”  

In Asia, HelpAge’s first response to a humanitarian emergency came in 2000 following a devastating earthquake in Gujarat, India. Godfred Paul, now HelpAge’s country director for Myanmar, remembers supporting HelpAge India’s response and how it helped lay the groundwork for HelpAge’s response to the 2004 Asian tsunami. The emergency response in Gujarat evolved into a longer-term programme that ended in 2004. 

I remember just before Christmas saying how it had been a tough year and how at last, we had a break to relax. But then the tsunami unfolded on our televisions a few days later.

Godfred Paul

The Asian Tsunami of 2004: A pivotal moment for HelpAge 

The tsunami across southern Asia on 26 December 2004 claimed more than 220,000 lives in 11 countries. Godfred returned to India from his home in Thailand to support the response there. 

HelpAge received a large grant from the UK’s Department for International Development and a further £8 million from the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC) Appeal through its UK partner Help the Aged. This was used to support more than 200,000 people in Indonesia’s Banda Aceh, Sri Lanka and India.  

According to Mark Gorman, then HelpAge Policy Director, the response to the tsunami marked a ‘real shift’ in the way the organisation worked because it was led by partners for the first time. One partner, HelpAge Sri Lanka, was among the first responders and won accolades for its work.  

In a report, From Disaster to Development, HelpAge and Help the Aged shared details of the response from meeting immediate needs to providing support so that older people could rebuild their lives and make an income for themselves.  

The report explains: “We did this with older people as older people themselves have a wealth of experience they can share and are best equipped to know what they need to rebuild their lives in the face of disaster.” 

Older people power: involvement and impact in humanitarian responses 

Older people have been at the heart of HelpAge’s humanitarian responses, whether in helping to collect data, monitoring impact or delivering assistance. Involvement has also given older people a sense of purpose and an opportunity to be heard. HelpAge’s work with Older People’s Associations (OPAs) perhaps best exemplifies this. 

Working with local partners at the local level, OPAs in some countries, including Mozambique, Ethiopia and Pakistan, carry out needs assessments to identify the assistance required, deliver the support, and monitor the impact. This frees up HelpAge staff to advocate for older people at the regional or national level and is something HelpAge would like to see more. In Ethiopia, Sofia Mohamed, Senior Programme Officer, says: “At the national level, HelpAge collaborates with the government and major agencies, while it is the OPAs (Older Persons’ Associations) who play a crucial role at the local level in identifying needs, implementing programs, and monitoring their effectiveness.” 

OPAs can also be crucial in building trust with communities and accessing those who are hard to reach. Thanks to the local knowledge of OPAs, HelpAge was able to reach a community in the Philippines that had not seen anyone since the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan that had struck 12 days before. 

The global impact of HelpAge: recognitions and challenges 

HelpAge’s work has challenged ageist assumptions and developed solutions. This includes developing rapid needs assessments to source age disaggregated data and identify both the need and appropriate response. These are also used to help shape wider plans in the sector.  

In 2012 HelpAge’s humanitarian work for older people was recognised when it won the prestigious Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. In 2022-2023, HelpAge, with partners and OPAs, responded to 28 humanitarian crises, including the war in Ukraine, the floods in Pakistan, the Türkiye Syria earthquake and the drought in the Horn of Africa. They reached 659,000 older people.  

There has also been global success with HelpAge support. In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals outlined a commitment to ‘leave no one behind’ including older people, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction also championed the interests of older people to be more inclusive. At the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, more than 40 organisations committed to better target the most marginalised, including older people, by signing the Inclusion Charter.  

The ongoing struggle: overcoming the exclusion of older people

Ageism remains a feature of most humanitarian responses, overlooking the specific needs and roles of older people. The global responses to COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine both highlight the step-change that is still required.  

Older people, identified as among those most at risk from COVID-19, were often isolated, and their needs unaddressed, despite calls from the UN Secretary General for older people to be integrated into COVID-19 humanitarian responses. In Ukraine, the world’s oldest humanitarian emergency with one in four people aged over-60, business-as-usual practices from INGOs arriving in early 2022 swept away systems designed to support older people.  

The absence of meaningful data on older people often results in generalist assumptions. This includes the idea that all older people are living with and being cared for by their families and that they have no responsibility for dependents. In HelpAge’s 2020 report If not now, when?, an analysis of data revealed that one fifth of older people embroiled in humanitarian crises lived alone. Almost two thirds cared for at least one child and four in every ten looked after another older person.  

The analysis also showed that almost two thirds of older people affected by a humanitarian crisis did not have enough to eat. More than three quarters had no income, and a quarter had no access to safe drinking water.  

Ongoing efforts and the road ahead 

HelpAge is working with the humanitarian sector to find ways to address this and make humanitarian responses more inclusive of older people. There is a level of urgency: in countries where conflict and disasters are more likely to happen, the number of people over 50 is forecast to more than double between 2020 and 2050 from 219.9 million to 586.3 million.  

Godfred Paul says: “Before HelpAge, older people’s needs were not considered as a population group with specific needs. They were lumped together with everybody else. There was no understanding of their health, shelter and protection needs.  “Now, there is more awareness due to strong advocacy by HelpAge and the global network. But there’s still lots more to be done to achieve truly inclusive humanitarian responses.” 

Celebrate our 40th anniversary with us!

HelpAge International has been advocating for the rights and voice of older people for 40 years. Dive into our history, discover our milestones, and explore our innovative solutions to complex problems.

HelpAge at 40