Social pensions are key to addressing poverty in Uganda and across Africa. They give older people financial independence, improve access to healthcare and restore dignity through financial independence. But without accoutability and effective systems to support them, social pensions will not maximise their impact.

Social pensions and accountability in Uganda


(c) Ben Small/HelpAge International

Oto Augustino dismounts his bicycle as he arrives to deliver information to a community in his local village

Across Africa, millions of older people live in poverty. Without access to pensions and eroding traditions of family support, many have no choice but to continue working into older age doing small-scale, low-paid farming or petty trade. For those who have disabilities or are in ill health, they may have no option to work. Without reliable incomes, older people lead precarious lives on the brink of poverty.
Social pensions are key to addressing this. They have great potential to reduce poverty, improve older people’s access to healthcare and restore dignity through financial independence.

Social protection in Uganda

In 2011, the Uganda Government, in partnership with the UK Department for International Development, Irish Aid and the United Nations Children’s Fund, launched the Senior Citizens Grant as part of the wider Social Assistance Grants for Empowerment (SAGE). It is a non-contributory social pension of 25,000 Ugandan shillings (US$7) a month.
In the first districts it was introduced, all older people above the age of 65 were eligible for the scheme, except in Karamoja where the age of eligibility was lowered to 60 years to reflect the lower life expectancy. After reaching more than 100,000 older people, the Government rolled it out to an additional 40 districts, although in these areas only the 100 oldest people in each sub-county are eligible. As of June 2019, more than 160,000 older people had been enrolled onto the scheme.
We have continued to advocate for the pension to be universal across Uganda, and in July 2019 this became a reality. Everyone 80 and over in Uganda is now eligible. Although the age is too high to effectively reach all older people in need, it does mean 365,000 Ugandans will now have a regular, reliable income, and it provides a foundation on which to campaign for a lower eligibility age. All existing recipients of the pension under 80 will continue to receive it.

How do social pensions help older Ugandans?

While the amount of money is modest, it has made a big difference to those it reaches.


(c) Ben Small/HelpAge International

Longora Charles uses his pension to buy supplies for his grandchildren

“[The pension] has been instrumental in my life. When I get the money, I become happy. I have used it to buy a goat for my family to rear. I use it to pay school fees and buy books for my children,” said Longora, an older man in Napak, Uganda.
Loucho Alice, an older woman also from Napak who cannot see well and previously relied on handouts from people in her community to get by, told us: “It has helped me in many ways – to buy a mattress, to buy clothes to wear, to buy food to eat when I am hungry, to pay school fees, to buy plates and saucepans. It has helped me to buy chickens to rear, and when I am hungry I can sell them.”


(c) Ben Small/HelpAge International

Visually-impaired social pension recipient Loucho Alice is led around her yard by her grandchild

Findings have shown that the social pension has had deep impact. Among households receiving the grants, poverty reduced by 19 percentage points and household expenditure increased by 33%. Development Pathways found that many older people and their families use the income to further boost their income, such as investing in livestock. Children who live with older people receiving the grant were found to have better educational attainment and less likely to be involved in child labour.

The challenges implementing social pensions

Uganda is not the only country in the process of expanding social pensions in sub-Saharan Africa. South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Mauritius, Kenya and Zanzibar have all introduced similar universal social pensions, while Mozambique is planning to introduce social protection system across the whole life-cycle, which includes a social pension.
But these programmes are not without challenges:
  • Older people can be excluded due to errors made determining eligibility or because they do not have access to the necessary documents.
  • Mobility challenges or a long, expensive journey may prevent them reaching the pay point.
  • A lack of information on the scheme may mean older people are unaware and never enrol.
  • Late payments often mean older people wait months for their money.
  • Financial abuse, such as pay agents asking for a portion of their money or family members stealing it, prevents older people getting their entitlement.
  • Local businesses, such as motorcycle taxis or market vendors, may inflate prices on payment days.


(c) Ben Small/HelpAge International

Older citizen monitor Agatha Ethin in her village in Karamoja

How voice and accountability can put pressure on governments to take responsibility

Addressing these challenges is key to the success of social pensions, and older people have a key role to play. By empowering them to speak out, to debate with others and have their opinions heard, they can better influence the decisions that impact their lives and hold their governments to account on how the services are delivered. This helps to ensure social pensions meet necessary standards. It can reduce errors, fraud and corruption, and ensures those eligible receive the right amount of money regularly, reliably and accessibly. And it means older people can demand changes to pension programmes that specifically benefit them.
Voice and accountability improves relationships between citizens and the state because it encourages older people to get actively involved and to see policies and services as an entitlement that must meet a decent standard. It builds confidence and helps older people to identify problems and act to address them.
From 2015-2018, HelpAge International, with financial support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, set out to strengthen voice and accountability across four countries. We did this through older citizen monitoring, an approach rooted in older people’s community groups that harnessed the enthusiasm and altruism of older people leaders to:
  • inform older women and men about social pension schemes
  • mobilise people to register
  • help recipients lodge complaints
  • collect evidence about issues with the schemes
  • advocate with government officials for policy change and improvements in service delivery.


(c) Ben Small/HelpAge International

Pension receipient Ojao speaks with his family

Voice and accountability through older citizen monitoring in Uganda

Our voice and accountability programme in Uganda supported 23 older people’s associations (OPAs) in 13 sub-counties in northern Uganda. We work together with our partners Caritas Gulu and the Karamoja Agro-Pastoral Development Programme, who are key to the success of the programme thanks to their good relations with the communities.
We collaborate to train OPA members in how to effectively teach older people about their rights and entitlements, and to carry out older citizen monitoring. The older leaders are familiarised with social protection policies, taught how to collect data, how to advocate with government, and even how best to communicate and interact with those they visit.


(c) Ben Small/HelpAge International

Older citizen monitor Aber Helen Uma uses her bike to travel around her community to deliver information

The enthusiasm of the leaders is key. Not only does Aber Helen Uma, an older citizen monitor in Gulu’s Unyama sub-county, ensure the payday is announced on the radio, after the information is out she goes around her community to ensure everyone knows. “The moment I hear, I go straight to mobilise them so that when the SAGE staff come, the older people are first at the pay point,” she said.
The radio is not just used for announcements either, older people’s associations host chat shows during which they invite questions or concerns about the social pensions from listeners. This provides another accessible way for recipients to give feedback.
One of the key problems they found was the distance recipients had to travel to pay points, with one-in-four people travelling four to six kilometres and one-in-10 travelling seven to 10 kilometres. This means older people typically need to pay for transport, which can eat into their pension.
“When we first received the payments, it was only at the sub-county centre, which is very far away. So, we went back and reported that and so, more pay points have been created. Now in Unyama sub-county, we have three pay points,” Aber said.
Indeed, their advocacy led to the maximum distance between an older person’s house and the pay point being reduced from 18 kilometres to seven kilometres. And after raising complaints, the pay points have become better organised and older people are provided with drinking water and somewhere to rest in the shade while they wait.
For some older people with mobility issues, even getting to a nearby pay point can be difficult or even impossible. While there is a proxy system in place for alternative recipients to collect the money, very few older people or government officials knew about it. Older citizen monitors sought to raise awareness about this provision and encouraged people to use it.
“There was one disabled person who could not reach the pay point,” Loru Max, an older citizen monitor in Napak told us. “She had to be pushed there in a wheelbarrow. When the staff saw the situation, I was able to convince them to allow her daughter to collect the money.”


(c) Ben Small/HelpAge International

Older citizen monitor Loru Max speaks with people in his community in Napak

In these scenarios, older leaders are key mediators with government officials. Typically, older people are reluctant to speak up for themselves, and literacy and mobility challenges only compound this. By having a confident and skilled communicator to stand up for them, their complaints can be heard.
There are limits to what local voices can achieve when decision-making on social protection policies and operations is centralised. This means local officials do not have the power to implement changes themselves and the community leaders must rely on those they raise their complaints with taking it to their superiors. Yet, there has been work to link local older people’s associations with Uganda’s National Council of Older Persons, which can ensure their voices are heard at the sub-national and national levels. But for older people who live in areas where no one is available to help make these connections with local government, their complaints are likely to be left unheard.

Where do we go from here?

Older citizen monitoring has been instrumental in increasing older people’s access to social pensions not only in Uganda, but in Kenya, Mozambique and Zanzibar too. Although this is important, it should be stressed it is each government’s responsibility to ensure their citizens are informed about social protection schemes and that there are inclusive, accessible and effective complaint mechanisms available. Older citizen monitoring should not be a long-term solution to fill the gap left in the existing weak systems.
Older people’s associations and the work of older citizen monitors should remain independent and focus on advocacy, working in partnership with the government to ensure social protection programmes reach their targets as effectively as possible.

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