Press Releases

    9 April 2002


    NEW YORK, 8 April (UN Headquarters) -- The following is the text of the address by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as delivered to the Second World Assembly on Ageing in Madrid:

    In Africa, it is said that when an old man dies, a library vanishes. The proverb may vary among continents, but its meaning is equally true in any culture. Older persons are intermediaries between the past, the present and the future. Their wisdom and experience form a veritable lifeline in society.

    We meet today to pay tribute to the contribution of older people, and to formulate a strategy to help them lead the safe and dignified lives they deserve. In that sense, this is an Assembly for them.

    Let me also pay tribute to Spain for its generosity in holding this Assembly, and for its vision, expertise and leadership in helping us prepare for it.

    Twenty years have passed since our predecessors gathered to adopt the first global document to guide policies on ageing. Since then, the world has changed almost beyond recognition. What has not changed is our fundamental objective: building a society fit for all people of all ages.

    Today, we have vital and pressing reasons to revisit the issue. The world is undergoing an unprecedented demographic transformation. Between now and 2050, the number of older persons will rise from about 600 million to almost 2 billion. In less than 50 years from now -- for the first time in history -- the world will contain more people over 60 than under 15.

    Perhaps most important, the increase in the number of older persons will be greatest in developing countries. This is the most important observation. Over the next 50 years, the older population of the developing world is expected to multiply by four.

    This is an extraordinary development that bears implications for every community, institution, and individual -- young and old. Ageing is definitely no longer just a "first world issue". What was a footnote in the twentieth century is on its way to becoming a dominant theme in the twenty-first century.

    Such a revolution will present enormous challenges in a world already transformed by globalization, migration, and economic change. Let me mention just a few challenges we are already facing today.

    • As more and more people move to cities, older persons are losing traditional family support and social networks, and are increasingly at risk of marginalization.
    • The HIV/AIDS crisis is forcing many older people in developing countries to care for children orphaned by the disease -- of whom there are now more than 13 million worldwide.
    • In many developed countries, the concept of cradle-to-grave security is fast disappearing. The shrinking size of the working population means that older people are even more at risk of inadequate pensions and medical attention.

    As the older population grows larger, so will these challenges multiply. We need to start preparing for them now. We must devise a plan of action on ageing, adapted to the realities of the twenty-first century. Let me mention some overriding objectives.

    We need to recognize that, as more people are better educated, live longer, and stay healthy longer, older persons can and do make greater contributions to society than ever before. By promoting their active participation in society and development, we can ensure that their invaluable gifts and experience are put to good use. Older persons who can work, and want to, should have the opportunity to do so; and all people should have the opportunity to continue learning throughout life.

    By creating support networks and enabling environments, we can engage the wider community in strengthening solidarity between generations, and in combating abuse, violence, disrespect and discrimination against older people.

    By providing adequate and affordable health care, including preventive health measures, we can help older people maintain their independence for as long as possible.

    The past 20 years have brought a wealth of new opportunities that should help us achieve those objectives.

    New international commitments have been reached in the conferences of the 1990s, culminating in the Millennium Development Goals. Taken together, these form a blueprint for improving people’s lives. Building better lives for the older persons must form an integral part of that agenda.

    A good global revolution that has taken place is the use of information technology and the empowerment of civil society. This enables us to build the partnerships needed to achieve a society for all ages. While governments have the primary responsibility towards their older populations, they need to work through effective coalitions engaging all actors: from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to the private sector, from international organizations to educators and health professionals, and of course, associations of older people themselves.

    And I hope you will also send a wider message to the world: that older people are not a category apart. We will all grow old one day -- if we have that luck.

    We have been given some wonderful opportunities to strengthen those partnerships, let me suggest the issue of partnerships. We have to strengthen the partnerships I mentioned earlier, in connection with this World Assembly on Ageing -- through the parallel NGO forum here in Madrid and the international scientific forum just ended in Valencia. We can strengthen these partnerships. Again, let me thank the Spanish Government, the Spanish civil society, for helping us to make this happen.

    Given the challenges and opportunities before us, I trust you will make every effort to conclude successfully the negotiations on the outcome document before this Assembly.

    And as we do so, I hope we send a wider message that older people, as I said earlier, are not a category apart. We will all grow old one day -- if we have that privilege, that is. Let us, therefore, look at older persons not as people separate from ourselves, but as our future selves. And let us recognize that older people are all individuals, with individual needs and strengths, not a group that are all the same because of their age.

    Finally, that brings me to a confession I’d like to make to you this morning. I turned 64 today. I, therefore, feel empowered to quote a Beatles’ song and that asks, on behalf of all older persons, and I quote: Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?

    I trust the answer is yes, older people will be provided for, and yes, older people will be needed, in the twenty-first century.

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