Osan for the old

Pensions. Probably one of the least sexy topics on the face of the earth.

But if we are interested in economic growth, poverty alleviation, and not pushing a cynical double standard, then we need to consider the power of social pensions. (Xanana in his recent interview with Al-Jazeera attacks those in the international community that would have the State buy banks, but would criticize him for social spending. And he is on to something.)

And the model of “development” that the “international community” pushes is one based on work. It implicitly assumes people in poorer economies are lazy and must be made to work. Think about the lexicon: the emphasis on “livelihoods”, “cash for work”, and training programs.

And yet, is there a major OECD nation that did not use a pension system to consolidate the state during the tumultuous 20th century? These systems were in fact based on the notion that each individual citizen has rights, irrespective of his or her ability to work. And just look, even in an country like the US with huge mistrust for ‘big government’, the social security system is essentially untouchable. It is a compact between the people and the state.

While the AMP government is busy being battered for its belief that money can buy the peace, I think it is correct to point out that cash transfers to the oldest and most vulnerable can have a major impact in alleviating poverty propelling Timor.

I am a little worried that Timorese officials have been visiting Brazil for best practice. Brazil has a quite complex system that seems far from what Timor hopes to do, which is transfer about $20/month to older people. Perhaps an example like Lesotho (watch this interesting documentary by Dutch NGO World Granny) would be more appropriate.

Well-designed pension systems take into account all of the social contours and dynamics in a country.

I remember a trip we took to Baguia to deliver rice to an older woman, to find out later that it had been stolen by the neighbors.

It will not be easy for the government to roll out a pension scheme for older Timorese. I hope that the politicians give the Ministry of Social Solidarity the time, space and resources it needs to design something effective.

I fear, given the current political climate, that this will not be the case. And I would hope that FRETILIN also investigate, as opposition, what kind of social pension scheme it would implement if in power.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that the Petroleum Fund Law is untouchable, and that Timor should stick to withdrawing what it is allowed by law and nothing more. But a pension scheme is still possible in Timor if it’s possible in Lesotho.

If you need any more convincing about the feasibility or effectiveness of social pensions, take a moment to read Helpage International’s quite digestible materials.

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