Source: United Nations Social Development Network

Why we need to broaden the debate about social protection in the MENA region

Much progress has been made in recent years in the field of social protection across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Since the 2011 uprisings, and in light of the post-2015 UN Social Development Goals, a new set of development initiatives have helped MENA nations advance reforms aimed at improving people’s access to public services and protecting the most vulnerable. After years of advocacy, these reforms are now beginning to make a tangible difference in the lives of citizens from Casablanca to Cairo. However, there is more to be done.

In working with UNICEF, staff members at the University of Bath recently developed a new public database  that provides the MENA region with social policy advice and expertise to fill the existing gaps in the field of social protection. For the first time, data has been gathered on experts in social policy issues such as poverty and decentralization, which draws attention to the existence of an underutilized resource for policy-making.  

 Up until now, discussions on social protection for MENA nations have taken two distinct forms: employment-based social security and social safety nets and in-kind assistance. The former offers support to former employees from the public and private sector, who are most likely to receive social protection in the form of end-of-service indemnity pay, as well as health and education benefits. Social safety nets and in-kind assistance grants additional support to vulnerable groups such as orphans and the elderly through community or family-based social networks. Both of these forms of social protection are beneficial in preventing poverty and vulnerability, but they tend to fall short of universal coverage or adequate benefit levels.

A lack of universal or adequate benefits is a major problem, because the MENA region has some of the highest rates of inflation and unemployment in the world, as well as high levels of female and youth unemployment, and environmental degradation and water scarcity.

The reforms to social protection in the MENA region have mirrored ones seen in Latin America in the late 1990s and in sub-Saharan Africa in the 2000s. These “moments” of reform take the form of non-contributory cash transfer programs, which provide support to vulnerable populations such as those unable to work, as well as the elderly, disabled, and orphaned children.

As in Latin America, the arrival of new social protection schemes in MENA has been coupled with a shift in how social policy is evaluated in order to better reflect sensitivity to political realities. Though vulnerable populations do stand to benefit, many programmes still do not have effective means of targeting or otherwise have complicated eligibility criteria. They also do not make it easier for populations to access public services or gain meaningful jobs at a later stage. However, there are some major national programmes that tackle and advocate for poverty reduction, such as Takaful and Karama in Egypt and Tayssir in Morocco. These programmes have managed to reach large populations, although their eligibility and poverty assessment criteria remain open to improvements.

The old system, which has been in practice since the 1940s, has shown minimal tendencies to reform. With some minor exceptions of countries with long socialist or trade union traditions like Egypt and Tunisia, many countries are now adopting a strong neo-liberal stance, whereby the private sector is the main engine of social and economic prosperity despite the political establishment being the main owner of capital. An evident part of this trend that has shown its face in the MENA region is the current donor-sponsored reform of food and fuel subsidies.

Political stability continues to be perceived as the key determinant and end-point of social policy development in the MENA region, yet the current trend towards cuts in subsidies and the adoption of targeted services might not be received positively by the general public, which risks further undermining of the political stability.

Although governments recognise the need to improve the quality and expand the coverage of social policies comprising both social security and social safety nets, policy implementation remains fragmented and is often left isolated.  

One of the key challenges facing countries in the MENA region is the ability to establish more coherent public policies tackling issues of social protection that not only reach those in need, but also alleviate the problems of unemployment and high living costs amongst their populations.

Academics and policy-makers interested in the MENA region tend to focus their research on economic growth and geopolitical issues, which has led to a misleading isolation of the region as one where socioeconomic and political trends are incomparable to the rest of the developing world. However, we can only touch on enhanced living standards when both local and international policy-makers pay better attention to social policy and social protection issues, in a manner which allows for just resource distribution, job creation, and impactful social and political protection schemes.