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Within the next 50 years, in the greatest demographic change ever seen, the number of people over 60 years of age will outnumber the people under 15, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Nitin Desai, said this afternoon, as he briefed correspondents on the Second World Assembly on Ageing, which will take place from 8 to 12 April in Madrid, Spain.

Also participating in the press conference at Headquarters were Ambassador Milos Alcalay of Venezuela, representing the "Group of 77" developing countries and China, and Odile Frank, Chief, Social Integration Branch Division for Social Policy and Development, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Paul Hoeffel, Spokesman for the World Assembly, was moderator.

Mr. Desai said that nowadays, compared to the first World Assembly on Ageing (Vienna, 1982), there was far greater recognition of the ageing issue's importance. In the developed world, changes in age demographics have taken place over the last 100 years, allowing for adjustments in economy, health care, housing and social relations. In the developing world, those changes will take place the next 25 years, allowing a much shorter period of adjustment. The resources available for that adjustment were far less than those of developed countries. He thus expected great focus on the problems of the developing countries during the Assembly.

He said the Assembly's outcome would look at the problems not in isolation, but as part of an effort to build a "society for all ages", [the theme for the 1999 Year of Older Persons]. During preparatory negotiations, a lot of attention had been paid to issues of older persons and development, health and well-being in old age, among other things. The cross-cutting issues of human rights, gender and poverty also played a role. There was 80 per cent agreement on the outcome text, which was still being negotiated. Mr. Desai announced that the Secretary-General will be present at the Assembly, as well.

Mr. Alcalay said ageing was also part of the development agenda for which the Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico, had been the starting point. The problem for developing countries was that increasing longevity meant that people lived longer in poverty. That problem had not existed in the past. The situation in which older people were living in developing countries was a problem that had to be tackled. The Group of 77 was very optimistic that solutions could be found during the remaining negotiations, even if they had to continue during the Assembly.

He hoped that some solutions would address the rising external debt and human rights for older people. The Secretary-General had said that when one older person died in Africa, a library disappeared. Ways had to be found to give new generations the dimensions of experience of the older generation. That was not only necessary to build a new economy, but also a humanitarian society, which was "the name of the game" of the Millennium Declaration. He looked forward, therefore, to a plan of action that would address that human dimension.

Ms. Frank noted that, since the first Assembly on Ageing, the needs of the ageing and the knowledge of ageing problems had changed considerably. People were living longer everywhere and people had fewer children, so that the proportion of older people in society was growing. In addition, older people nowadays were better educated, more productive and had a clearer voice than ever before. For the United Nations it would be a great opportunity to once again respond to and call attention to the changed global profile of ageing and to the remarkable contribution of older persons. Policies across the board needed to be redrawn. Madrid would bring together many experts who would bring their analysis and perspective on global ageing and on the achieved and future potential for the successful ageing of all humankind.

In answer to a correspondent's question, Mr. Desai said that the outstanding 20 per cent to be negotiated for the outcome document concerned some issues of financing and funding, but also health care for older persons and human rights. Ms. Frank said the starting situation was so different for developing and developed countries that finding common ground was difficult. In the health area, there was a need for infrastructures to be in place in developing countries before health care could be offered. The starting situation in retirement issues was also very different between the two groups.

Addressing another question, Mr. Desai said that in Africa the AIDS epidemic had created a situation in which older people suddenly had to take care of a large number of grandchildren. Mr. Alcalay added that the problem with health care, like with so many other problems, was financing. But, financing was not the only problem. A fundamental point in Madrid would also be finding new ways to approach the problems of older people. The Group of 77 was therefore striving for South-South cooperation. He announced a South-South Summit in December in Caracas, Venezuela, to tackle those problems.

Asked about the proportion of people older than 60 years living in developing and developed countries, Ms. Frank said that, by 2050, 80 to 85 per cent of the older persons would probably live in developing countries. The proportion of older persons in developing countries was doubling, but in absolute numbers it was quadrupling. Mr. Desai added that in 2050 there would be several million centenarians.

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Last Updated: 1 April 2002.   Comments and suggestions: sidorenko@un.org