No 48: Social policy in the Middle East and North Africa must be about more than security

A social policy focus on security in the Middle East and North Africa neglects all other forms of welfare and social security.
Boys in Jibla, Yemen, 2014. (Rod Waddington/Creative Commons)

by Rana Jawad

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has some of the worst social and economic indicators of human development in the world, which exacerbate drivers of conflict in this region. They include the highest levels of inflation and unemployment (including among women and youth), political repression and a disenfranchised middle class (as evidenced in the Arab Spring uprisings), and even environmental drivers of conflict such as water shortage and rural-urban migration (as evidenced in the Syrian conflict). Moreover, levels of child malnutrition and food insecurity are second only to India and the region has experienced a general pattern of jobless growth since the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s. This is a stark reality which is not commensurate with the wealth of the region. As the UNDP Arab human development report noted a decade ago, ‘Arab countries are richer than they are developed’. It is also the case that the policy agenda of this region is heavily donor-dependent, both in terms of funding and agenda setting, leading to an emphasis on residual forms of social policy. Is it any wonder that there is conflict, civil unrest and high migration to Europe?

For too long, issues of redistribution and welfare in MENA have been ignored by academics and policy-makers who are more likely to focus on geopolitics and terrorism concerns. More importantly, the governance of social policy systems in MENA has also been neglected as a driver of conflict and social inequalities. Shifting our focus to a more welfare-centred approach in the analysis of MENA politics will bring to the fore the vexed question of social policies there. This is because social policy is much more than the delivery of services to vulnerable social groups, rather it is a system of political organisation which takes seriously questions of social justice and redistribution in society. This inevitably sheds much clearer light on why religious forms of welfare, especially Muslim ones provided by groups like Hamas, have such political sway in the MENA region.

The arrival of the idea of social protection, through the mechanism of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, as a form of social policy intervention in the MENA region after the events of the 2010–2011 Arab uprisings is welcome. Through this set of development initiatives, MENA countries could undertake to improve poor people’s access to public services and to protect their most vulnerable populations against social risks. In this sense, MENA has now joined Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, regions which began to engage with new social assistance programmes – especially in the form of non-contributory cash transfer programmes. In the late 1990s, Latin America saw the rise of child-focused conditional cash transfers and in the 2000s sub-Saharan African countries implemented social cash transfers targeting mostly those unable to work (e.g. elderly people, the disabled, orphans and vulnerable children).

The Latin American experience, in particular, has been heralded by some observers as signalling the rise of a new paradigm of social policy in developing countries that is sensitive to local and political realities, representing a new form of ‘social organisation’ that can form the basis of more inclusive citizenship. This association between social protection and wider social policy formulation in developing countries is indeed new in international development but leads to bigger and more fundamental questions about governance, institutional change and what I term the ‘politics of entitlement’ in developing countries. By this, I mean who is responsible for what/whom? What is to be redistributed in society and how? How do social factors relate to economic growth? These are questions commonly asked in the mainstream social policy literature which I propose have become ever-more pertinent for academics and policy-makers working on the MENA region.

But to what extent are MENA countries witnessing a new paradigm of social policy provision, or has the political and economic order remained unchanged, making new social protection programmes nothing more than ‘old wine in new bottles’? There are two overarching tendencies for the social protection discourse in the MENA region, both of which fall short of universal coverage or adequate benefit levels. First, employment-based social security, which means that formally employed private sector and public sector workers are the most likely to receive protection, primarily in terms of end-of-service indemnity pay, health and education, but with some countries not having old age pension schemes. Second, social safety nets and in-kind assistance, often provided by community or family-based social networks, to vulnerable groups such as orphans or elderly people.

This has been the system in practice since the 1940s and it shows no sign of significant reform. With some minor exceptions of countries with long socialist or trade union traditions – such as Egypt and Tunisia – most countries are now adopting a strong neo-liberal stance, whereby the private sector is the main engine of social and economic prosperity. Though, often the political establishment is the main owner of capital, such as in telecommunications and industry. The current donor-sponsored reform of food and fuel subsidies that is taking place in MENA is part of this trend.

There are some major national poverty targeting programmes, such as Takaful and Karama in Egypt and Tayssir in Morocco, that manage to reach large populations, but their eligibility criteria and their assessment of poor households remain open to improvement. To this end, political stability continues to be perceived as the key determinant of social policy development in MENA. Yet, the current trend towards cuts in subsidies and the adoption of targeted services might not be received positively by the people, further undermining political stability.

Although MENA governments recognise the need to improve the quality and extend the coverage of social policies comprising both social security and social safety nets, these remain fragmented. One of the key challenges facing all countries in the region will be to establish more coherent public policies on social protection that reach not only those most in need, but can also alleviate the problems of unemployment and high living costs among their populations.

The MENASP network seeks to contribute to debates on social policy in the MENA region by bringing together scholars and practitioners to share new insights from research and policy practice. The network also hosts the UNICEF database on social policy expertise in the MENA region. The work of this network is important because, for the first time, we are able to address head-on the question of social justice in the MENA region in a manner which is sensitive to evidence-based research and more importantly, incorporates expertise in this region. This is important because, against the political impasse that we face in the Middle East, we must recognise the existence of socially progressive forces in universities, civil society organisations and the wider public who are active every day in bringing about positive social change. This is especially important if we acknowledge the fact that academic and policy interests in the MENA region have been focused for the best part of the modern era on economic growth and geopolitical issues. This has led to a misleading isolation of the region as one where social, economic and political trends are distinct to the rest of the developing world.

If policymakers were to pay more attention to social policy and social protection issues, in a manner which allows for fairer income redistribution, job creation and greater social and political protections for the working masses, we might just see some improvements in the lives of citizens.

Rana Jawad is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social & Policy Sciences at the University of Bath and Convenor of the MENA Social Policy Network. Her forthcoming publications include A new era for social protection analysis in LMICs? A critical social policy perspective from the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) in World Development; and with Nicola Jones (ODI, London) and Mahmood Messkoub (ISS, The Hague), (eds.) Social Policy in the Middle East and North Africa: The new social protection paradigm and universal coverage (Edward Elgar, Cheltenham).

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