Social policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is in urgent need of reform. Critiques of current social policy models point out their deficiencies in terms of coverage of population, entitlement to services, fragmentation of support for different groups and inadequacy of services provided, and above all a wasteful generalized/untargeted subsidy structure. The answer to these shortcomings not only lies in the redirection of resources from generalized subsidies towards targeted sectors and populations, but also in a broad rethinking and democratic dialogue on a new social contract and social policy models in order to improve coverage, entitlement, and the quality of services.
In 2019, mass popular protests shook several countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as protesters demanded an end to authoritarian rule and corruption and called for democracy and a decent life. The call for a decent life was not just a protest against the failure of states to alleviate poverty and improve living conditions, but was also seen as an opportunity for a change in the social contract. The protests illuminated a desire to move away from patronage and clientelism that eroded post-independence universalist ideals and social policies.
Some of these protests were triggered by a sudden jump in the price of basic goods (e.g. of bread in Sudan or petrol in Iran) that released the pent-up frustration with repression, corruption, a lack of accountability and deep-seated economic and social problems that have simply been cracked over by the ruling elite. People all over the MENA could easily identify with the Sudanese slogan of ‘freedom, peace and justice’ used in the protests, which would eventually topple the dictatorship of President Omar al-Bashir. Freedom, peace and justice are not only important for their own sake, but are also needed for a national debate on social policies that could meet people’s aspirations for better education, health, social protection, etc.
In MENA, social policies have been developed mainly as an integral part of the broad social and economic development agenda in the post-colonial period. Oil income provided resources to pay for healthcare, education, and extensive subsidies for the provision of food, fuel and energy to consumers. Non-oil producers also benefited from the oil income through labour remittances, foreign aid, and investment by the oil-rich countries. But in the 1980s, a low growth rate and the decline in oil revenues put the finances of the MENA countries to test. The region was ill equipped in terms of a skilled labour force and social insurance policies to compete internationally and diversify its economy. The existing social programmes mostly covered formal sector employees including those in the civil service. Large numbers of informal sector workers, rural residents, and agricultural workers had to rely on poor publicly provided services or fall back on meager family resources and charitable handouts of non-state providers in an informal security regime. The formal and informal social provisioning were based on a male-breadwinner household with negative implications for gender equality in law and in relation to entitlement to welfare and social support that was exacerbated by the low labour force participation rate of women.
In addition, state expenditures on social policy programmes are constrained by expenditures on generalized indirect subsidies, inter alia, to fuel, public utilities, water, and staple food sources. According to one estimate, fuel subsidies account for nearly 75% of the total subsidy spending in MENA (Silva et al 2013). The higher income groups in general benefit most from these indirect subsidies except staple food, since the latter takes a larger share of consumption expenditure of lower income groups.
The existing social policy model of generalized indirect subsidies has failed to provide a solution to increasing poverty and vulnerability in the region, especially in periods of social and economic crisis. The reform of the subsidy structure should not only take note of differential impact of the indirect subsidies, but also has to be part of a broad social policy agenda.
The current debate on social policy in the region is about the reform and reduction of the indirect subsidy structure and moving away from a universal rights-based approach to social provisioning towards targeting poverty and improving social protection. Whilst cuts in indirect subsidies and strengthening of social protection are needed, it is essential that any targeting and social protection do not undermine the broad rights-based social policy agenda of public provisioning of health and education and rules governing the labour market to support employment that will improve the economic foundation of household economy.
There is also the all-important concern with the role of households and families to support themselves. In the absence of adequate family resources, there is a need for social policy measures that would supplement family resources and support the broad developmental agenda and ensure societal and macro-level inter-generational support. In this context, the most basic objective of any state intervention is to maintain and increase the resource base of households. This is particularly important if we take into account the changing demographics of the region: the lowering of fertility and ageing of the population. The MENA societies and families are ill prepared for an ageing population.
The Arab Spring and its counterparts in Turkey and Iran have been much more than a cry for freedom and democracy. It has also been a cry for social justice and against corruption that has aggravated capitalist inequality. The use of and access to public office for private accumulation, lack of accountability, and poor governance have all contributed to a sense of desperation and alienation of the population, especially the young. The region is in need of a new social contract. Social policy should play an important role in the design and implementation of this social contract.
What MENA needs is a return to the universalist social policy ideals of a developmental state but within a democratic political environment that promotes genuine popular engagement and participation, as well as transparency and accountability, in order to arrive at an inclusive and new social contract. The details and boundaries of this new social contract would be country specific and depend on the national political and economic developments.
This blog is based on the author’s recent publications:
Messkoub, M. (2017). ‘Population ageing and inter-generational relation in the MENA: what role for social policy?’ Population Horizons, 14(2): 61-72.
Jawad, R., Jones, N. and Messkoub, M. (eds) (2019) Social policy in the Middle East and North Africa: the new social protection paradigm and universal coverage. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar publishers.
Messkoub, M. (2020) ‘Social Policy in the MENA’ in Hakimian, H. (2020) Routledge Handbook on Middle East Economy. London: Routledge.
Silva, J., Levin, V. and M. Morgandi (2013) ‘Inclusion and Resilience: The Way Forward for Social Safety Nets in the Middle East and North Africa’. Washington DC: World Bank.
About the author:
Mahmoud Meskoub is senior lecturer at the International Institute of Social Studies (Erasmus University of Rotterdam), teaching and researching in areas of social policy and population studies. As an economist he taught for many years in the UK (at the universities of Leeds and London). His current research interests are in the area of economics of social policy and population ageing, migration and universal approach to social provisioning. His recent publications on MENA are related to social policy, the impact of recent financial crisis on the region, poverty and employment policies. He has acted as a consultant to ESCWA, ILO, UNFPA and the World Bank.
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