Now is the Time for Social Policy Renewal in the Arab World

November 28, 2012

Regional gathering of decision makers, stakeholders and international experts focuses on potential of social reform to deliver on goals of political transitions        

MARSEILLES, November 28, 2012 – Social policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) could play a vital role in achieving key goals of the current transitions but would need reform to achieve their full effect. This was the conclusion of a high-level dialogue at the Center for Mediterranean Integration (CMI) which gathered leading international experts, along with decision makers, academics and civil society representatives from across the region.

This was the right discussion, at the right time, with the right people,” said Inger Andersen, World Bank Regional Vice President for MENA, who opened the conference. “We know from past experience that transitions offer a rare opportunity for social reform, driven as they are by the demand for more social and economic inclusion. Today’s event made it very clear that this is an opportunity to be seized, and now, with no time to lose.”     

The dialogue was part of ‘Rencontre Valmer,’ an ongoing series of conferences launched in the wake of the Arab revolutions. Focused on the diverse challenges the region faces as it undergoes transition, the series aims to support the creation of more just and inclusive societies. As explained by Steen Jorgensen, World Bank Director for MENA Human Development, in delivering one of the keynote addresses at today’s conference, reforming labor markets and social safety nets (SSN) has to be an essential ingredient of current efforts. His remarks also drew on some of the conclusions of a companion World Bank report on jobs in MENA which will be released in the coming months.

For the citizens of the region, the big challenges are jobs and effective protection for vulnerable citizens,” said Jorgensen. “The region currently spends six percent of its gross domestic product on social protection. But the vast majority of this money goes to universal fuel subsidies, which have proved to be ineffective in protecting the poor in times of crisis, and which provide far more benefits to the wealthy.”

In his presentation, Jorgensen presented some of the findings of a new World Bank report Inclusion and Resilience: The Way Forward for Social Safety Nets in the Middle East and North Africa. The report evaluates the effectiveness of the region’s existing SSN in meeting the needs of the poor and vulnerable, and concludes that they fall short. The predominance of food and fuel subsidies, aimed at guaranteeing access to basic goods, not only offer weak protection against shocks, despite their high costs, but do little to help people climb out of poverty. The small percentages of SSN that are not subsidy based are under-resourced and fragmented, with many of them failing to reach those most in need.

Through reform, vital resources could be redirected to convert SSN into crucial instruments of change for the various transitions. They would need to be better targeted, to ensure they benefit the poor. And rather than guaranteeing subsistence, they should deliver the kind of support that builds resilience and promotes human development and opportunity. The report offers regional examples of successful reforms, such as the creation of a unified registry across SSN programs in the Palestinian Territories that significantly improved targeting accuracy and crisis response capacity.   

The report will have particular value for MENA policy makers as it goes beyond the need for more effective SSN programs to address the social and political challenge of the reform process itself. Gallup was commissioned by the report’s authors to conduct a survey of regional attitudes. Among the findings was that the vast majority of adults sampled in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia believed that their government bore the primary responsibility for protecting the poor. They also believed that current social programs were ineffective. In addition, they were clear that SSN design should use levels of poverty as the main criterion for eligibility, and that benefits should be in cash rather than in-kind. These results suggest that the challenging task of reform should be an inclusive process, as a majority of the region’s citizens appear ready to support the goal of better targeted SSN with benefits that promote self-reliance.  

Participants in the dialogue agreed on continued exchange across the region drawing on the CMI platform as countries move forward with their plans for establishing strong and effective social policies that protect the poor and promote inclusive economic growth.

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