COVID-19 | How exclusionary social protection systems in the MENA are making the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects worse

COVID-19 | How exclusionary social protection systems in the MENA are making the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects worse

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the majority of people living in the MENA region even more vulnerable, adding to existing structural problems that include under-resourced public health services, a high ...

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Covid-19 | Worsening inequality in the developing world: why we should say no to a ‘new normal’

As the Covid-19 pandemic drags on, many of us living in wealthy countries are still struggling to get used to the ‘new normal’ of frequent regulatory changes that affect our ...

Power to the People? The Right to Information Law in Morocco

Morocco’s recently enacted Right to Information Law is a potentially powerful tool in the hands of its citizens, but their ability to use it is still largely dependent on the government’s commitment to transparency and political will to enforce it.

With the ratification of the Right to Information Law (31.13) in February 2018, Morocco has officially joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP).1 This is a major step for the monarchy as it vows to commit to the four key principles of the OGP: public access to information, asset declarations by public officials, fiscal transparency, and citizen participation. On March 12, 2020, Law 31.13 came into force two years after its promulgation. According to the new law—and pursuant to Article 27 of the 2011 constitution—citizens have the right to request information held by the public administration, elected institutions, and public service provision organizations. Whereas the Right to Information Law promises to promote transparency and responsiveness as well as to restore public trust in state institutions, it is still unclear as to how it will benefit disadvantaged groups in marginalized regions and improve local governance. Law 31.13 has the potential to improve the quality of public services and empower citizens, but there are also major obstacles and gaps that require immediate attention—including the lack of political commitment to transparency, the prevailing institutional culture of retaining information, and, most importantly, the increasing closure of the civic space and crackdown on opposing voices.

Discussions on a Right to Information Law were initiated as early as 2007, following Morocco’s ratification of the UN Convention against Corruption (Resolution 58/4). However, it was not until the Arab uprisings and the February 20th movement when government officials and civil society actors embarked on an initiative to promote accountable, responsive, and inclusive governance.2 As a result, Article 27 was drafted and included in the 2011 amended constitution, and, therefore, access to information became a fundamental right to all citizens and legal residents of Morocco. A specialized commission composed of members of ministerial departments, government agencies, private sector companies, and civil society organizations was later established to work out the details of the law. Law 31.13 was the product of these collective efforts. It was ratified in February 2018 after years of debate and legislative battles. The law was originally scheduled to come into effect a year after its publication in the official gazette in March 2019. However, Law 31.13 was only officially enacted in March 2020, following a one-year delay due to logistical hiccups and implementation-related issues.

In a nutshell, Law 31.13 grants citizens the right to access information retained by government entities. Individuals can submit a free application to the relevant institution and request information on items such as laws, data, and reports. However, there are exceptions that apply to the type of information requested, such as those relating to homeland security and citizens’ private data. The law, under Article 29, also outlines penalties for citizens’ misuse of the requested information. Government agencies must respond to requests within twenty working days of their receipt. In some urgent cases (e.g. protection of lives or public safety), information must be provided within three days. Information officers’ failure to respond to requests is penalized under Article 19 of the law.3 Consequently, the implementation of law 31.13 relies on two main pillars: the appointment of well-trained civil servants who can adequately respond to public requests for information, as well as the proactive and timely publication of data that is accessible to the public.

Law 31.13 has the potential to be an effective tool for empowering citizens, especially those in marginalized regions, such as those in the rural margins of the monarchy. Most of these regions have witnessed intense popular unrest over the past few years, as citizens demand improved availability of basic services, such as healthcare, electricity and clean drinking water. The recent regionalization reforms introduced in Morocco’s 2011 constitution4 and the ensuing Organic Laws5 provided a significant boost toward strengthening the role of local governance and citizen participation in the decisionmaking process. However, the realization of these goals was unlikely without citizen access to relevant information. The municipal councils are now obliged to comply with Law 31.13, which will enable citizens to scrutinize their local representatives and hold them accountable. Karim El Hajjaji, co-founder of Tafra Association6, says “So far, it is extremely difficult to know what the communes [municipalities] are doing with the public resources they have in hand. Law 31.13 makes it mandatory to publish not only their budgets, but their public procurement calls and processes, spending programs, and all information related to local governance.”7

Thus far, the diminished availability of financial resources and qualified human capital are often cited as the biggest obstacles toward the successful implementation of the law. But in practice, altering societal and institutional culture is the real challenge. The law requires the Moroccan territorial collectivities (regions and municipalities) to nominate new information officers tasked with responding to citizens’ requests. These territorial collectivities are generally showing willingness to engage and are sending their newly nominated information officers to trainings. However, Ahmed Jazouli, a Moroccan policy expert involved in the training programs of civil service agents, maintains, “The main obstacle is the culture of retaining information by civil servants. They should be trained on releasing information and on the proactive publication of data. It is essential to focus on changing the dominant culture among public servants.”8

Apart from changing bureaucratic culture, it is key to foster a political culture of transparency, which is currently lacking. Most public institutions still hold back information that may show evidence of mismanagement or misuse of public resources to avoid legal scrutiny. According to the new law, it is mandatory for municipalities to make their financial data and development plans available online, yet few municipal budgets are currently accessible online. For instance, the city council of Casablanca has made significant efforts to promote dematerialized services and to keep its website updated. This example stands in contrast to other major well-endowed cities such as Rabat, which currently lacks a website. According to Karim El Hajjaji, “It is definitely not a matter of financial resources, but rather of political will.”9

Far-reaching campaigns are also crucial for raising public awareness of the law and its impact on their everyday lives. The law offers an opportunity, but it is up to citizens to exercise their rights to ensure equitable service delivery policies. Civil society organizations have a strong role to play in this regard. For example, Transparency Maroc, together with several national and international partners, organized a group of civil society organizations to lobby for a transparent and participatory budget. Similarly, referring to the Right to Information Law, Transparency Maroc is demanding more consistent information about the special COVID-19 fund, which was set up by the Moroccan government in March 2020 to compensate those who lost income due to the lockdowns.10 Indeed, the government’s management of this fund—which supports over five million households—has received widespread criticism from activists and NGOs. Oxfam Maroc, for example, is advocating for the fund to come under parliamentary oversight and be subject to checks by the Court of Audit. Others, including Tafra, called on the government to disclose the data used to develop the scenarios for the evolution of the pandemic in Morocco. However, the Haut Commissariat au Plan refused to do so, citing personal data protection constraints. This means that researchers and experts–such as those at Tafra–are not able to quality check the scenarios put forth by the government and thus cannot be part of the decisionmaking process in terms of lockdown policy and how the special fund is spent.

Finally, the potential of the Right to Information Law cannot be assessed without taking into account the closing civic space, including the restriction of media freedom in Morocco. More recently, the government used the COVID-19 crisis to pass a new emergency law, No. 2.220.292, declaring a health emergency and setting penalties of a up to three-month prison sentence and a fine of up to 1,300 Dirham (around 134 USD), for anyone breaching “orders and decisions taken by public authorities” or for anyone “obstructing” through “writings, publications or photos” of those decisions. Apart from prosecuting more than 90,000 people for breaking the law and other crimes, authorities have used it to prosecute several human rights activists and citizen journalists, accusing them of “incitement to violate the authorities’ decisions during the health emergency,” when in fact they criticized the “cronyism” and unequal distribution of aid by local authorities during the COVID-19 crisis.

The continued crackdown on journalists and opposing voices stands in stark contrast to the government’s recent efforts aimed at increasing citizens’ trust in the government and responding to calls for transparency. Such trust is arguably a pre-condition for citizens to invoke the law and make use of its provisions. In the meantime, disenchanted citizens would rather mobilize collectively and in the streets of major cities, as in May 2020, when protestors gathered to contest their exclusion from the COVID-19 fund. In short, while the Right to Information Law is a potentially powerful tool in the hands of citizens and civil society organizations, its application and enforcement largely relies on the government’s political will and commitment to genuine reforms.

This research is part of a larger project on the dynamics of decentralization in the MENA region. The project is generously funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

This blog article was first published here by the Sada Journal.

About the authors:

Marwa ShalabyMarwa Shalaby is an assistant professor in the departments of Gender and Women’s Studies and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work focuses primarily on the intersection of the politics of authoritarianism, and women in politics. Follow her on Twitter @MarwaShalaby12.

Sylvia BerghSylvia Bergh is an associate professor in development management and governance at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Hague, and a senior researcher at the Centre of Expertise on Global Governance at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. Her current research focuses on social accountability initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa region.

1 Seventy-eight countries and a growing number of local governments—representing more than two billion people—along with thousands of civil society organizations are members of the Open Government Partnership.

2 A recent report by the OECD points out that most MENA countries lacked access to information laws prior to the Arab uprisings. In the few MENA cases that promulgated such laws before the uprisings, many provisions penalized the sharing and communication of information without prior authorization by the relevant authorities.

3 The law states that officials who fail to provide citizens/legal residents with requested information will be subject to disciplinary actions, however, the specifics of such penalties remain unclear.

4 According to Article 1 of the 2011 amended constitution, “the territorial organization of Morocco is decentralized, and based on an advanced degree of regionalization.”

5 OL #113.14 outlines the authorities and responsibilities of the different local governance units (i.e., regions/provinces/municipalities) and it puts in place participatory mechanisms for citizens (Article 119).

6 Tafra Association is a research center in Rabat whose mission is to improve the understanding of Moroccan institutions to participate in the consolidation of the rule of law in Morocco.

7 Interview conducted by the author (Marwa Shalaby) in Rabat, February 2020 and follow-up email in June, 2020.

8 Interview conducted by the author (Marwa Shalaby) in Rabat, February 2020 and follow-up email in June, 2020.

9 Interview conducted by the author (Marwa Shalaby) in Rabat, February 2020 and follow-up email in June, 2020.

10 Getting access to this fund is even more important given the fact that 46 percent of the active population has no health insurance and 4.3 million households are employed in the informal sector without social security benefits.

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COVID-19 | Ephemeral universalism in the social protection response to the COVID-19 lockdown in the Philippines

Since March 2020, the Philippines has implemented one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused severe disruptions in peoples’ livelihoods. The government’s emergency social protection response, the ‘Social Amelioration Program’ (SAP), has also been notably massive, introducing one-off near-universal income protection. It is an insightful case given that the country’s existing social assistance system has been celebrated as a model for developing countries, even though it has been mostly bypassed in the emergency response. Moreover, the country’s highly stratified and fragmented social policy system has resulted in implementation delays and irregularities that have fostered social hostilities and undermined the potential for such momentary universalism to have lasting transformative effects.

The Philippine government first imposed its ‘community quarantine’ on 15 March, which has since been extended until 30 June. Thus far, the pandemic has not been severe relative to evolving global indicators, with 302 confirmed infections per million people and 11 confirmed deaths per million people as of 25 June (although at only 5,760 tests per million people, these confirmed rates are likely to be significantly underestimated). However, as elsewhere in the Global South, the lockdown has thrown the country into an employment crisis given that more than 60 percent of its workforce is informal, most in precarious situations even when earning above the official poverty line.

In response, the government rolled out the ‘Social Amelioration Program’ (SAP), comprising at least 13 different schemes and with an estimated total budget equivalent to as much as 3.1 percent of the country’s GDP [1]. The largest scheme is the Emergency Subsidy Program (ESP), which has been allocated 200 billion Philippines pesos (PhP; about 3.5 billion euros), more than three times the combined budget of all the other schemes.

The ESP was initially intended to cover 17.9 million households, while the other SAP cash subsidy schemes were to target more than 5.2 million individuals. Assuming that none of these overlapped (e.g. only one subsidy recipient per household), the SAP would have covered over 23 million households, or more than 96 percent of the roughly 24 million households in the country. This extent of coverage is effectively universal, representing an attempt to provide basic income support to all but the richest five to ten percent of households.

The ESP initially sought to provide cash transfers to low-income and vulnerable families during the months of April and May, the projected duration of the lockdown. The transfers range from 5,000 to 8,000 PhP per month (about 90 to 140 euros), depending on the minimum wage of the region of residence. This is notably more generous than the existing poverty-targeted conditional cash transfer programme, the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (hereafter Pantawid), which provides families with at most 3,450 PhP per month (approximately 60 euros). The 4.4 million Pantawid families have nonetheless been included in the ESP and the amount they receive has been topped-up to the ESP amount.

Despite these ambitions, the SAP has already been faltering. Based on our research [2], a number of problems can be discerned:

Delays and backtracking in the distribution of the ESP. While the ESP was supposed to be paid in two monthly tranches in April and May, the first tranche was yet to be completely distributed as of 15 June [3]. It was later announced that the second tranche, whose distribution only began on 11 June, would only be distributed to beneficiaries living in communities where the lockdown conditions had not been eased – about 8.5 million families – as well as to an additional five million ‘waitlisted or left out’ families, or, as explained by the DSWD, those that did not make it to the list of first tranche beneficiaries [4]. It is not clear whether either of these numbers include the Pantawid households mentioned above or why there would have been ‘left out’ families from a programme that was ostensibly universal.

Vague and fragmented selection guidelines. In addition to this lack of clarity at the aggregate level, the guidelines in the selection of ESP beneficiaries have also been vague and fragmented, which subjects them to different interpretations and discrepancies on the ground. There is no single document that describes the process in detail or provides even an overview. The social registry that is used for poverty targeting in the Pantawid – the Listahanan – was not used for the identification the non-Pantawid families, who constituted 75 percent of the ESP target beneficiaries in the first tranche. Instead, the government reverted to reliance on village-level government functionaries, who have proven decisive in identifying ESP beneficiaries and distributing assistance. This has re-politicized the administration of social protection after years of supposed attempts at depoliticization by means of the Listahanan and the Pantawid.

Failed attempts at overcoming residualism. The SAP reflects an attempt to overcome the limitations of the country’s polarised and fragmented social protection system, even while this system has rendered almost impracticable its universalist impulses. The existing system notably excludes close to half of the population at the middle of the income distribution – often referred to as the ‘missing middle’ [5]. This refers to the 40 percent of employed people working in the informal sector who are not covered by the contributory social insurance designed for those formally employed, which covers about 40 percent of employed people, while at the same time they are not covered by the Pantawid, which covers about 21 percent of the population. The Pantawid beneficiaries are presumed to be the poorest people, although there have been serious concerns regarding its accuracy of targeting, meaning that it excludes many of the poor, while including many who are not (at least, not according to the poverty lines used by the programme) [6].

Social hostilities in the face of systemic confusions. The confused and fraught implementation of the SAP has therefore exacerbated fundamental schisms entrenched within the existing social protection system, including confusions about who is in fact targeted by the ESP and contestations by local government officials over the number of beneficiaries set for their respective cities or municipalities [7]. In particular, given the perception that Pantawid families are prioritised by the ESP (in the sense that they are automatically eligible for the programme), they have drawn public attention and scrutiny, even though they only accounted for about 25 percent of targeted recipients of the ESP in the first tranche. As a result, anti-poor sentiments have proliferated on social media since the distribution of the first tranche [8].

The inadequacy of celebrated models of poverty-targeted social assistance

These confusions and tensions show how the pursuit of genuine universalism within an existing stratified, fragmented and residualist social protection system presents major in-built challenges for advancing beyond moments of crisis. While the Philippines has been able to roll out a massive emergency social protection response to the COVID-19 lockdown, with near-universal coverage of possibly more than 90 percent of the population, reliance on the existing institutional infrastructure has had the effect of fostering social hostilities and potentially quelling support for such universalism among the population.

This is particularly significant given that the flagships of this infrastructure – the Pantawid and the Listahanan – have received huge support from international financial institutions and successive governments for 13 years prior to the pandemic and have been promoted as models up to the crisis, yet they have proven to be utterly inadequate for identifying systemic vulnerabilities at such a crucial time as the pandemic. The enormity of need engendered by the COVID-19 crisis evidently pushed the government to go beyond its conventional focus on poverty-targeted social assistance. As it scrambled to do this, it mostly bypassed the targeted system that had been so carefully groomed and adulated by donors, which has been neither fit for the purpose of actualizing universalistic aspirations, nor politically facilitative for their perpetuation.

[1] https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/downloads/2020/03mar/20200328-JOINT-MEMORANDUM-CIRCULAR-NO-1-S-2020.pdf

[2] This work builds on our ongoing research that we have been conducting since 2015 into the political economy surrounding the institutional evolution of the Philippine social protection system, as part of ERC-funded research project entitled ‘Aiding Social Protection: The Political Economy of Externally Financing Social Policy in Developing Countries’ (grant agreement No 638647). Our current research on the COVID response has been based on deskwork ¬– by necessity given that all three authors have been in lockdown in Europe – and has involved the collection and analysis of official documents (including relevant laws, presidential reports, and other administrative edicts) and media coverage concerning the Philippine government social protection responses to the pandemic, and selective remote interviews with  social workers from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) who have been involved with the COVID-19 response at various levels of government.

[3] https://public.tableau.com/views/SAPMonitoringDashboardforEmergencySubsidyunderAICS/Dashboard1?:display_count=no&:showVizHome=no

[4] See https://news.mb.com.ph/2020/06/11/1-3-m-4ps-beneficiaries-get-sap-2-cash-aid-reports-dswd/ and https://www.dswd.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Annex-A.-Media-Based-SAP-FAQs-Part-3-ver-june-1-8pm-final.pdf

[5] Cf. Fischer 2018, 2020; ILO, 2017; Rutkowski, 2020.

[6] The rampant inaccuracies of the Pantawid are detailed in our forthcoming article currently under review. Also see Kidd and Athias (2019). 

[7] For instance, see https://www.rappler.com/nation/257316-reinstate-original-beneficiaries-metro-manila-mayors-dswd

[8] E.g., see viral posts on Facebook like this and this, and news reports like this.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

About the authors:

Emma CantalEmma Lynn Dadap-Cantal is a PhD student at ISS. Her dissertation is a comparative case study of the political economy of social protection in Cambodia and the Philippines, with particular emphasis on the role of external donor influences in shaping the social protection systems in these two countries.

Charmaine G. Ramos

Charmaine G. Ramos (c.ramos@luc.leidenuniv.nl) is a lecturer at Leiden University College, Leiden University, The Netherlands. Her current research focuses on analysing social policy and resource governance, as a means for exploring how political economy dynamics constrain and structure institutions for social transformation and productive expansion in developing economies.

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Andrew M. Fischer is Associate Professor of Social Policy and Development Studies at the ISS and the Scientific Director of CERES, The Dutch Research School for International Development. His latest book, Poverty as Ideology (Zed, 2018), was awarded the International Studies in Poverty Prize by the Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP) and Zed Books and, as part of the award, is now fully open access (http://bora.uib.no/handle/1956/20614). Since 2015, he has been leading a European Research Council Starting Grant on the political economy of externally financing social policy in developing countries. He has been known to tweet @AndrewM_Fischer


Title Image Credit: Asian Development Bank on Flickr