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ISSPF Conference pushes for inclusive social security in the MENA region

The end of the highly anticipated Inclusive Social Security Policy Forum (ISSPF) Regional Conference on Inclusive Social Security brings us to a pivotal moment. With two days of interactive discussions on September 19th and 20th in Amman, Jordan, the conference cemented the need for a revolution in policymaking. It served as a dynamic platform to gather experts in social security and academia, as well as Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), activists, and researchers to collaborate on a unified, working agenda for inclusive social security in the MENA region.

During the conference, three interactive roundtable discussions explored key areas that are central to reforming social security in the region. The discussions primarily targeted the dominant poor relief model of social security that persists across the MENA region. It is a faulty, yet common, model that ignores a large segment of society, both citizens and non-citizens, and restricts essential coverage, resulting in the erosion of the social contract. Recognising the urgent need to combat these challenges, CSOs discussed ways to shift the paradigm and advocate for a rights-based and inclusive approach to social security.

Sahar Mechmech, Tunisian Observatory for the Economy (TOE), led the first roundtable discussion, focussing on how CSOs can actively collaborate to counter the impact of International Financial Institutions (IFIs). In the MENA region, IFIs have long promoted poorly designed relief schemes with problematic implementation. Poverty-targeted programmes, as often promoted by IFIs, suffer from low coverage and harmful conditionalities, routinely excluding many of the poor households they intend to reach. In response to these challenges, distinguished panellists emphasised the imperative for CSOs to work collaboratively across the region. Lea Yammine, Centre for Social Sciences Research and Action (CESSRA) stressed the restrictive spaces faced by CSOs on the ground.

The panel proposed that a paradigm shift could involve increased investment in research and advocacy projects across the region to resist IFI policies and promote alternatives. The necessity for such a shift gained support through an interactive group exercise that deliberated on alternative measures CSOs can undertake across central policy areas (i.e., health, subsidies, safety nets, pensions, and the labour market). Subsequent presentations and debates highlighted specific approaches and areas of collaboration to strengthen resistance to IFIs. A strong need for smart networking emerged in each group presentation, envisioning not only the connection and mobilisation of stakeholders, but also the establishment of cooperative networks for open door coordination across countries regarding knowledge, research, and advocacy. Participants recognised the effectiveness of forums like ISSPF and saw the potential of using online platforms or social media to coordinate advocacy and streamline CSO efforts.  

Both the panel and group exercise demonstrated that the appetite for empowering resistance against IFIs in the region is strong and critical. Ali Amouzai, Association pour la Taxation des Transactions en Aide aux citoyens au Maroc, also stressed the importance of these conversations given the annual International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings that took place in Marrakech mid-October.

In the second roundtable, Dr Maria del Mar Logrono, Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development, led a discussion where panellists emphasised the urgent need to shift away from failed poverty-targeting programs in the region. They advocated for adopting a rights-based approach to social security to strengthen the social contract across the region. Participants reiterated the necessity for a paradigm shift in the design of national social security systems, moving towards the establishment of a rights-based framework. Shatha Abou Srour, Arab Forum for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, pointed out that current systems legitimise exclusionary practices, prompting CSOs to question who speaks for the marginalised.

Shatha’s statement prompted discussions among CSOs on ways to build a more inclusive social security system, seen as foundational for fostering a cohesive society and driving stronger national growth. The panel acknowledged the role of the political economy and emphasised the importance of understanding each country’s unique context when advocating for inclusive social security. This led to a constructive dialogue on the rights and needs of refugees and how CSOs can advocate for their fairer inclusion within the social contract. The discussions highlighted that the debate on the social contract is both technical and deeply political, yet crucial for creating a robust social security system.

In the final roundtable, Shahir Ishak from Development Pathways facilitated a discussion between Dr May Gadallah, Economic Research Forum, and Dr Tareq Abuelhaj, Development Pathways. Panellists explored how CSOs can overcome present data accessibility issues in the region and discussed the role of data in implementing inclusive social security systems.  The panel sparked a discussion on the need for CSOs to be innovative and creative in pursuing data, proposing alternative routes such as creating synthetic data and publishing annual reports to pressure unwilling ministries or organisations into increasing fair access to data across the region.

While the conversation centred on access to data, it also touched upon the methodologies engaged in designing and implementing social security schemes. The dialogue mirrored sentiments from the second roundtable on the failures of Proxy Means Testing within the region. Key conversations revolved around the potential to strengthen relationships with Non-Governmental Organisations, charities, and ministries that have access to high-quality data. Attending CSOs agreed to seize this opportunity and commit to working collaboratively to promote fairer access to credible, verified data. The final roundtable concluded with the opinion that data, being a powerful yet underutilised tool in CSOs’ toolbox, should be actively leveraged.

The conference marks the initiation of a crucial dialogue among CSOs in the region championing inclusive social security. In the future, the ISSPF foresees increased smart networking among stakeholders, advocating for a human rights-based approach to social security, and recognising the role of data as a vital tool in addressing persistent challenges. To sustain this ongoing dialogue, ISSPF is crafting a detailed report on the conference discussions to shape an alternative narrative and agenda. Moreover, ISSPF will continue to promote a network and space to articulate such narratives and implement agendas in the MENA region through evidenced-based research and inclusive events, ensuring that our collective pursuit of inclusive social security continues with unwavering momentum.