Social protection

ILO releases first-ever dedicated report on social protection in the Arab States region

The report explores how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated gaps in the region’s social protection, while also providing opportunities for sharp improvement.

News | 30 November 2021
BEIRUT (ILO News) – The ILO has released the World Social Protection Report 2020–22: Regional companion report for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. This new publication is the ILO’s first-ever report dedicated specifically to social protection in the Arab region. It acts as a companion piece to the ILO’s wider study on social protection around the world, ensuring that stakeholders can place the region’s opportunities and challenges in their proper, international context.

The report’s release coincided with the convening of the Arab Ministerial Forum 2021, which brought together the region’s ministers with portfolios covering social protection issues. The Arab Ministerial Forum 2021 was coordinated by UNICEF and the ILO, in collaboration with UN-ESCWA, and with support from the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) as well as the platform. Guests at the online event also included representatives of employers and workers’ organizations, civil society actors, and regional social protection experts.

The publication highlights key developments, challenges, and priorities for social protection that apply in the Arab States region. It notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing shortcomings in various countries’ social protection systems, resulting in the most vulnerable community members suffering disproportionately.

The COVID-19 pandemic sounded a clear, unmistakable warning for Arab States about the long-term future of social protection. “As the report reveals, even before the COVID 19 pandemic, most countries in the region fell short of providing comprehensive and adequate social protection to a large share of their populations,” observed Ruba Jaradat, ILO Regional Director for Arab States. She highlighted key findings to support this grim reality: only 4 every 10 people in the Arab States enjoy effective coverage in at least one area of social protection, significantly less than the world average (46.9 per cent).  Furthermore, Jaradat highlighted that  only 17.1% of people with severe disabilities have access to regular cash benefits, compared with a global average of 33.5%. And while 77.5% of retirees worldwide access pension disbursements, that figures plummets to 40.5% regionally. When it comes to children, slightly more than one in five children (23 per cent) are covered by social protection benefits, as opposed to one in four (26.4 per cent) globally.

The effectiveness of social protection systems in the Arab states region is limited because investment in social protection is remains insufficient. As Luca Pellerano, senior social protection specialist at the ILO explains: “Social protection spending is heavily concentrated on contributory benefits, especially retirement pensions, and disproportionately favours public-sector workers. Arab countries spend on average 6.2 per cent of GDP on social protection, excluding healthcare and price subsidiy, under half the global average. Most countries in the region allocate less than 1.5 per cent of their GDP to non-contributory social protection schemes for poor and vulnerable segments of the population. As a result Overall, tax-financed social assistance schemes provide income support to less than a third [26.4 per cent] of vulnerable people across the region”

Yet, as argued in the report, the pandemic may have also created momentum for much-needed social protection reform. In response to the crisis, many Arab countries have made extensive use of both contributory and non-contributory social instruments to mitigate the pandemic’s worst effects, and especially its impacts on the vulnerable. In this way, the calamity of COVID-19 could provide policymakers with the impetus to generate strong, universal social protection systems where they did not exist before.

These investments in social protection, says Jaradat, can “serve as a springboard for accelerated reform and lay the foundations for stronger national systems.”

The report concludes that Arab states can work towards providing social protection for all, but only by accepting a fundamental shift in thinking on the topic. The COVID-19 pandemic has created momentum for governments and other stakeholders to address current gaps in social protection coverage, adequacy and comprehensiveness. The report stresses that countries should urgently begin crafting policies that provide effective and efficient social protections across society. At the same time, governments should avoid focusing exclusively on cost containment, which will jeopardize progress and forfeit gains derived from investment in social protection.