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By senior social policy specialist Shahir Ishak

The Inclusive Social Security Policy Forum (ISSPF) recently led training in inclusive social protection across the MENA region and ‘national days’ – workshops addressing social policy with key actors in Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia. The event, held in November, explored the key arguments and policy proposals for shifting the paradigm towards more inclusive social security and social protection systems in the region. 

The current paradigm around social protection in the region made the ISSPF Signature Event timely. COVID-19 has seen social protection rising on the agenda as a key response mechanism in the government’s toolbox. But constantly, I’ve been hearing in policy discussions that social protection matters only for those deemed ‘poor’ by governments, ignoring that everyone can be vulnerable to income insecurity at different points in their lives. Or governments arguing that there are not enough resources (i.e. limited fiscal space) to invest in a social security system for all: it’s a luxury that only developed economies can afford. 

Many people often accept these ideas without questioning them, guided by a poorly substantiated, deep-seated belief that the MENA region is fundamentally unique and can’t be informed by other models that challenge these ideas.

At the Signature Event, experts from Development Pathways delivered evidence-based training modules exploring why existing social security and social protection systems in the MENA region have largely failed to alleviate poverty and promote sustainable economic growth and stable state-society relations. 

Charity versus citizenship

During his lecture, senior social policy specialist Dr Stephen Kidd explained the key concepts of social security and social protection while stressing the difference between a Charity and a Citizenship paradigm in social security. According to Stephen, in a Citizenship paradigm, there is a recognition that all citizens are vulnerable to income insecurity across their lifecycle and ought to be entitled to a guaranteed minimum income during these periods of vulnerability. Europe made this shift after the Second World War, by investing in inclusive social security for all citizens to help rebuild the economy and stave off future conflict. This also explains why some rich countries invest a high proportion of the GDP – on average 12% – on social protection (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Level of investment in social protection in rich countries. Source: OECD social expenditure database.

The MENA region finds itself at a similar critical juncture, where poor investments in social security systems fail to address and may even exacerbate conflicts, widespread low incomes, inequality, informality and unemployment. Yet unlike in Stephen’s example of post-war Europe, poverty-targeting schemes are cropping up around the region. They offer minimal accountability to the recipients of these schemes and are steeped with narratives that shame and hold those experiencing poverty responsible for their conditions (Figure 2). 

Figure 2 – Poverty Narratives

A human-rights based approach

In fact, as senior social policy specialist Alexandra Barrantes showed in her training session, conditionalities, sanctions and punitive tools in social protection schemes are ineffective, ethically questionable and can even increase exclusion. Importantly, they often run counter to the guiding principles of a human rights-based approach (HRBA). In this approach, eight principles have to be guaranteed: equality and non-discrimination, accessibility, adaptability, adequacy of benefits, dignity, the right to privacy, accountability and participation.

Yet, participants were still wondering: How can we afford schemes for all citizens? Doesn’t poverty targeting ensure scarce resources are concentrated on the poorest?

Failings of poverty targeting

While targeting may be appealing to cash-strapped governments, it makes little sense when most people in middle income countries in the MENA region are living on low incomes (Figure 3). Again, Stephen Kidd confronted participants with resolute evidence on how poverty targeting fails to reach those classified as poor across the globe, where even the best performing programmes exclude at least 44 per cent of intended recipients. This is despite huge efforts to improve on existing tools, including through the development of sophisticated statistical methods like the proxy means test.

And the reason to him is simple, since poverty is a dynamic phenomenon, trying to target the poor is like hitting a moving target. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, these programmes can be very expensive, disincentivise work, stigmatise the poor and create a sense of resentment among those left out. 

Figure 3- Percentage of population in low-income in the Jordan and Tunisia. Source: Povcalnet, World Bank.

In addition, poverty-targeted schemes fail to provide an adequate basis from which to respond to large-scale shocks, as the arrival of COVID-19 has made abundantly clear. According to social policy specialist Anh Tran, the COVID-19 response is proof that shocks of this magnitude need a social protection system that caters for all citizens, where countries with more universal social protection systems have been shown to be more adept at responding. According to our recent study of social protection responses to the COVID-19 crisis in the MENA region, 88 per cent of the MENA countries surveyed covered less than one-quarter of the population through their emergency social protection responses, despite a universal crisis (Figure 4). 

Figure 4- Percentage of the population reached by emergency COVID-19 social protection response in MENA region

Political economy and social security

In fact, much of the success of more inclusive social security systems – as compared with their exclusionary counterparts – is down to the political economy of social protection and its implications on the social contract, as expert Chad Anderson explained. He reminded participants of the political dynamics behind fiscal questions, and how the designs of social security schemes are influenced by the more powerful groups in society, as long as social security schemes benefit only ‘the poor’. 

In contrast, schemes that include the majority of the population, including those on middle incomes, are more likely to be politically popular, financially self-sustaining and, more importantly, strengthen citizens’ trust in government (Figure 5). 

Building on this, economist Bjorn Gelders offered concrete routes for financing inclusive social systems. In his session, he explored the rationale behind the value of tax-financed transfers and demonstrated how, over time, inclusive social security systems increase tax revenues, contribute to economic growth and can be achieved progressively. 

Figure 5- Comparison of outcomes to poor relief versus inclusive social security 

Costing inclusive social protection

The Signature Event also presented an opportunity to officially launch the ISSPF Costing Tool, which allows participants and others across the region to visualise the level of investment required to implement an inclusive social protection system in their own countries, including through progressive expansion. The tool provides easy access to knowledge for everyone, which was previously only accessible to a few people in a closed circle. 

Core lifecycle schemes over flashy ‘anti-poverty’ programmes

To help participants envisage an inclusive social security system, senior social policy specialist Shea McClanahan highlighted the fundamental importance of re-orienting social protection systems away from so-called “flagship” anti-poverty schemes that promise the moon but fail to deliver for the majority, and toward core lifecycle schemes – such as old-age pensions and child benefits, which can be tax-financed, contributory or a combination (Figure 6). These basic elements are tried and tested solutions driving the impacts of successful, rights-based social security systems around the world and provide the underlying policy framework necessary for shifting the paradigm. 

Figure 6- Lifecycle social security schemes

Challenging the status quo at the national days

Deeper questioning of the existing paradigm resumed at the national days in Amman (hosted by Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development), Beirut (hosted by Centre for Social Sciences Research and Action) and Tunis (hosted by Tunisian Observatory of Economy). 

In the presence of stakeholders from government, civil society and international institutions, experts presented global evidence and working drafts of in-depth studies on social protection systems in TunisiaLebanon and Jordan. The discussions identified shortcomings of existing social protection systems and offered alternatives for more inclusive systems. Several media outlets in these countries captured these discussions and stakeholders had fruitful debates challenging the existing paradigm while considering alternative routes to achieve inclusive social security in these countries.

Final thoughts: an appetite for an alternative vision 

Overall, the Signature Event provided an open and innovative space for civil society to confront some of the key debates in social protection in the MENA region and to gain exposure to concrete solutions for designing more inclusive social security systems. The national dialogues demonstrated that there is appetite for a paradigm shift in the MENA region for inclusive social security system, and civil society actors and organisations, including through initiatives like ISSPF, are poised to play a leading role in articulating an alternative vision. 

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