Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, social protection systems in the Arab region were weak, fragmented, not inclusive and non-transparent. They were also costly and unsustainable. Underinvestment in these systems and exclusion of vulnerable populations were key challenges. Less than 30 per cent of the population in the Arab region were covered by social protection programmes.
Most social protection systems were funded through Government budgets or external assistance and not through contributions from beneficiaries or employers. The COVID-19 crisis spotlighted the problems of the social contract between people and Governments and presented a historic opportunity to address some of the challenges facing social protection systems. Lessons learned in various countries were identified as useful examples for change, in addition to certain innovations.
The Arab region witnessed a policy shift from targeting only the poorest population to also including the “missing middle”, such as informal workers who often did not receive any social protection benefits prior to the pandemic because they were not deemed eligible (for example Egypt, Jordan and Morocco). This shed light on the extent to which this group of workers was neglected pre-COVID-19 and the connected structural challenges.
Arab countries excelled in using innovative technologies for the delivery of social protection programmes, especially cash transfers that were delivered to beneficiaries in just a few days through newly created outlets, e-wallets and digital registration. The unique constraints imposed by COVID-19 inspired innovations in the design and delivery of education, health and social protection, which not only protected access to services under extraordinarily challenging conditions, but also facilitated more inclusive outreach.
In many Arab countries, the pandemic accelerated stronger partnerships and greater collaboration between different stakeholders. This was especially demonstrated, among others, through collaborations between different governmental parties at the national level, the sharing/using of databases of beneficiaries (civil registry, vital statistics, tax and social insurance database) and e-platforms such as Government-to-Government (G2G) sites in Egypt.
The Middle East is the most unequal region in the world, with the richest 10 per cent and 1 per cent of the population, accounting for more than 60 per cent and 25 per cent of total regional income in 2016, respectively .
Despite significant improvements in the extension of social protection coverage in the Arab region during the last few years, many gaps and challenges still exist.
The response of Arab Governments to the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted these disparities, even if some measures were effective in the immediate term. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up an opportunity to both assess previous social policy reforms, their effectiveness and impact, and to learn from global experiences not only in addressing repercussions of COVID-19 but also in the broader realm of social policy interventions.
Two main points are to be taken into account in terms of the conceptual framework used in this report.
The life-course approach adopted by the United Nations aims to ensure that all people have access to social protection when needed at all times throughout their lives, from birth to death. This also embodies the principle of leaving no one behind as stipulated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as it minimizes exclusion from benefits and social exclusion as a whole. A common categorization of life-course stages is the following:
The aim of this level of analysis in the report is to provide deeper insight into the key decision-making processes that are taking shape during the pandemic by Arab Governments and whether these are indicative of more fundamental restructuring of social policies. Given that most countries in the Arab region have a mix of social policy and protection actors comprising State, market, community, civil society, and family, the report highlights which actors are at the forefront of this provision, which is the basis of entitlements and whether the interventions are providing adequate benefits. This will help to analyse the likely consequences on income inequality and poverty in the longer term.
The two key concepts guiding this report are social policy and social protection. Social policy is concerned “with the ways societies across the world meet human needs for security, education, work, health, and well-being”. It addresses how “states and societies respond to national, regional and global challenges of social demographic and economic challenges and of poverty, migration and globalisation”.
Social protection can be broadly defined as “the set of programmes and interventions designed to preventing or alleviating poverty, vulnerability and social exclusion by supporting and protecting individuals and their families in the event of adverse income shocks, and by providing access to basic social services. Social protection instruments are a key element of social welfare policy.”
Social protection is also fundamental to achieving the 2030 Agenda. Through its contribution to the social and economic pillars of sustainable development, it is reflected directly or indirectly in at least five of the 17 SDGs (see box 1).
Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable.
Archieve universal heaith covarage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all.
Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.
By 2030, acieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women ana men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value. [social protection is one of the four pillars of decent work]
Adopt policies, especially fiscal,age and social protection policies, and progressively achieve greater equality.
Despite significant improvements in the extension of
social protection coverage in many parts of the world,
progress in building social protection systems pre-
COVID-19 was still lagging behind in other parts.
In the Arab States, the lack of data allows only a partial
assessment of effective social protection coverage. It is
estimated, however, that pre-COVID-19 only less than 30
per cent of people in the Arab region were covered by some
form of social protection. The social protection systems
in the Arab region were characterized by fragmentation
and lack of inclusiveness and transparency. The system
also suffered from underinvestment.
Figure 1 shows the share of social spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP). The graph shows that social protection spending reached its highest values in Egypt (9.5 per cent), Jordan (9 per cent), Algeria (8.9 per cent) and Tunisia (7.5 per cent), whereas levels of social spending in Qatar, Yemen, the Sudan, and the Syrian Arab Republic represent less than 2 per cent of GDP.
A more detailed view of social assistance spending by programme type is provided in figure 2, which shows heavy reliance on unconditional cash transfers across all countries and on food and in kind support in conflict-afflicted countries such as the State of Palestine and Yemen, but also in Egypt and Mauritania.
Figure 3 shows health expenditure as a percentage of GDP by country and in comparison to the subregional averages. For the latest available year (2018), spending ranges from a low of 1 per cent in the Sudan to a high of 4.4 per cent in Kuwait, with an average of 2.9 per cent.
In the Arab region, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of social protection measures demonstrated strong political will with the substantive disbursement of funds to alleviate the needs of vulnerable populations, and social solidarity through the innovative use and creation of solidarity funds, thereby drawing assistance from the private sector and other stakeholders to feed into these governmental social protection programmes.
Arab countries excelled in using innovative technologies for the delivery of social protection programmes, especially cash transfers that were delivered in few days to beneficiaries through newly created outlets, e-wallets and digital registration.
Despite all efforts exerted during the pandemic in the area of social protection programmes, overall coverage of these interventions in the region (except for Morocco) was low. Also, adequacy in terms of benefits in percentage of household expenditure and household income, namely, the adequacy of these interventions to meet households’ needs, was low in many countries such as Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia.
In-kind services and public procurement would be better suited to withstand the impact of fluctuating supply chains or prices that might make in-cash assistance less reliable (for example, in Lebanon).
The determination of targeting impacts the capacity of the COVID-19 response to incorporate a life-course approach (sociodemographic or economic indicators). The recalculation of cut-off points in the eligibility criteria in some countries in the Arab region yielded positive results, and needy people benefitted more from governmental social assistance programmes.
Governments may be able to leverage all programmes simultaneously to achieve a more effective COVID-19 response.
The global COVID-19 pandemic, and the measures
introduced by Governments to contain the spread of
COVID-19, created a series of shocks that affected
hundreds of millions of people.
By 20 July 2021, there were 190 million confirmed cases and 4.1 million deaths from COVID-19 worldwide. Although the majority of cases were in the Americas and Europe (123.3 million), no region escaped, and 11.9 million cases were recorded in the Eastern Mediterranean region by July 2021 (figure 4).
Social protection contributed to the social policy
response to COVID-19 in a potentially positive way. On
the one hand, since increased hardship was triggered by
Government-imposed lockdowns that stifled economic
activity and created (temporary) mass unemployment,
these Governments felt obliged to provide income
support to compensate affected citizens for their lost
income. On the other hand, most countries already
had a set of instruments in place, in the form of social
protection instruments and delivery mechanisms, that
could be mobilized to deliver support.
Across Arab countries, social assistance interventions were most prevalent in least developed countries (LDCs) standing for 62.5 per cent of the social protection-related support while GCC countries constituted the highest share of active labour-market programmes (figure 5).
Although most countries in the world implemented COVID-19 responses, the amount of protection relative to per capita income varied dramatically between countries and across regions, correlated mainly to national resource availability. The Arab region spent 0.5 per cent of per capita income, nearly similar to the spending of Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and the Pacific, and South Asia, compared to the global average of 1 per cent of per capita income. Latin and North America showed a higher share than the global average, at 1.4 and 2.5 per cent, respectively (figure 6).
COVID-19 has created a global public health crisis, and responses to the pandemic have created economic and humanitarian crises at the national level.
Some middle-income countries used ‘shock-responsive’ mechanisms, temporarily increasing benefits paid to beneficiaries of existing cash transfer programmes and/ or registering new beneficiaries, at least for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.
As per figure 7 and in terms of diversification of interventions, Egypt tops the list, followed by Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco. Lebanon undertook the least diversified measures among middle-income countries, followed by Algeria.
Existing humanitarian relief programmes were used where available as was the case in Yemen. In Palestine and the Syrian Arab Republic, responses to COVID-19 included expanding support to existing platforms such as e-payments and sharing databases across ministries to identify eligible beneficiaries. In terms of diversification of measures in conflict-affected countries, Iraq tops the list followed by Yemen and Palestine (figure 8).
The three LDCs in the region have a limited set of social protection programmes in place, the majority of which is donor-financed. Mauritania, Somalia and the Sudan set up special programmes to deliver financial assistance to COVID-19-affected groups, using, at times, innovative platforms. As per figure 9 and in terms of diversification of measures, Mauritania tops the list, followed by the Sudan, with Somalia having undertaken the least diversified measures.
Social protection in the six GCC States is dominated
by religious charity such as zakat and Ramadan
payments. In Kuwait, for instance, Zakat House
beneficiaries received additional payments, and a
new cash transfer programme was set up; and in
Bahrain, social assistance beneficiaries received
As per figure 10 and in terms of diversification of measures, Kuwait tops the list, followed by Oman and Bahrain.
Arab countries have responded rapidly to the economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis on firms and households and to keep their financial markets in operation. By May 2021, most Arab countries committed to fiscal stimulus packages. The GCC showed the highest spending, at $69.9 billion, compared to $24.78 billion spent by the other subregions. These stimulus packages are mainly based on foregone or re-allocated funding and do not involve major reforms in the tax base.
Among Arab countries for which data as at June 2021 is available, the private sector in Tunisia contributed $410 million as a response to the pandemic and, in Morocco, attracted $104.5 million. Philanthropies have played a major role in raising some $2.2 million in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.
By making clean energy transitions central to their recovery plans, Arab oil-producing countries can pave the way for more robust structural changes to support economic recovery that is environmentally sustainable as much as it is financially sustainable.
A major lesson learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is the importance of further investment in the emergency preparedness of the social protection system. Jordan is a noteworthy example showing crisispreparedness despite regional volatility, fiscal constraints and economic shocks.
Investing further in social protection and diversifying the range of financial resources, in particular, through equitable tax collection (for instance, progressive and corporate taxation) are all important lessons for Arab countries who are struggling with fiscal deficits and conflict.
Investing further in social protection and diversifying the range of financial resources, in particular, through equitable tax collection (for instance, progressive and corporate taxation) are all important lessons for Arab countries who are struggling with fiscal deficits and conflict.
This section outlines the sources and types of financial
measures undertaken by the Arab countries and provides
an overview, by subregion, of key sources of finance.
Arab countries have responded rapidly to the economic effects of the crisis on the private sector and households and to keep their financial markets in operation. The target beneficiaries of the COVID-19 interventions have been vulnerable groups such as women, the elderly, children, and informal workers using a mix of social assistance and tax-relief measures.
The pandemic measures thus present risks for macroeconomic stability, with the increases in fiscal deficits and governmental debts in all Arab countries in 2020 posing an important challenge for the introduction of a sustainable life-course approach to social policy. Fiscal deficits of Arab countries have increased in 2020 as a result of a decline in oil prices amidst the COVID-19 pandemic (figure 13).
Out of the total fiscal support in the Arab region of $94.8 billion, $70 billion were provided by GCCs whereas middle-income countries, LDCs and countries affected by conflict spent only $19.4 billion, $4.1 billion and $1.3 billion, respectively (figure 14). The total global fiscal support was $18.7 trillion, most of which came from high-income countries.
This section highlights successful regional and global experiences to learn from or to further develop. Success is measured in terms of governmental capacity to reallocate spending for more effective social protection during the pandemic rather than the introduction of a life-coursebased approach to overall social protection.
In line with the current thinking, this chapter has
highlighted the immense fiscal efforts of Arab countries
in combatting the economic impact of COVID-19. This
statement applies for high-, middle- and low- income
countries in the Arab region. Most countries
in the region will likely recover their GDP during the postrecovery
In terms of the main implications for the future sustainability of resource allocation and financing of social protection, most Arab countries have deployed short-term measures to smoothen consumption such as tax relief and cash transfers. This means that such measures are not permanent especially given fiscal deficits.
Although COVID-19 has created immense hardship for millions of people in the Arab region and across the world, it has also generated innovative responses and important lessons for Governments that should not be forgotten once the current crisis is over.
All the innovative efforts by Governments to ensure citizens’ uninterrupted access to basic social services in health care, education and social protection that were introduced during 2020 should be sustained and built on post- COVID-19 because they represent a minimum provision of essential services in line with the international human rights law.
Investments that were made in innovative solutions (such as online learning and telehealth applications) must be supported through investments in digital infrastructure and reduced costs of access to mobile and online technologies. Regional Innovations in Social Policy.
Innovative strategies must be developed and underpinned by legislation, either to incorporate migrant workers, foreign residents and refugees into domestic social protection systems or to ensure the portability of benefits across national borders.
Health insurance, or free and equitable access to health care, needs to be provided to all citizens and residents as a fundamental human right. The case of Morocco provides an instructive example of how this might be achieved.
Many Arab countries established partnerships with ministries of communication to facilitate access to services and increase the speed of the Internet.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history. UNESCO estimated that, by end-March 2020, 165 countries had closed schools, universities and other learning spaces nationwide, affecting 1.5 billion children and youth or 94 per cent of the world’s student population, and 99 per cent in low- and lower-middle income countries. With a view to supporting the development of teaching and learning materials to enhance the capacity of instructors delivering online, UNESCO has made available openly licensed tools that can be used by Governments and institutions.
In the Arab region, 13 million children and youth were out of school due to conflict pre-COVID-19. Due to the pandemic, more than 100 million learners across the region have been affected by school closures. Since the outbreak of the pandemic and the national lockdown measures, countries in the Arab region implemented a variety of solutions. Online learning gained ground as most countries introduced online platforms for continued learning.
Preventing the learning crisis from becoming a generational catastrophe needs to be a top priority for world leaders and the entire education community.
In this regard, decision makers are encouraged to pursue the following recommendations and actions:
Limited access to health care is a major contributing cause of poverty. Every year, an estimated 100 million people fall into poverty because of unaffordable healthcare expenses.
Almost all countries allocated additional fiscal resources to their national health services in 2020, under COVID-19 stimulus packages that aimed to ensure accessible, quality health services for COVID-19 patients while protecting frontline health workers. Countries with well-functioning health systems and health insurance schemes in place that already covered all or most of the population were better able to respond to COVID-19 in a quick and inclusive manner. Examples of innovative responses include the following:
Four main areas of innovation in social protection have been observed in recent years. All of these were highlighted by COVID-19 in 2020, which provided an impetus to accelerate ongoing trends.
By exposing the glaring gaps in social protection
provisioning across the world, especially in low- and middleincome
but even in high-income countries, COVID-19 has
given fresh impetus to advocates for universal – or at least
more inclusive – social protection systems.
The world’s first basic income grant was piloted in a rural town in Namibia for 24 months in 2008-2009. Food poverty decreased dramatically, economic activity and earnings increased due to local income multipliers, access to education and health services improved, levels of indebtedness fell, crime rates also fell, and child nutrition indicators improved.
“At the level of the Arab region, there has been ‘accommodation’ of social protection into existing political and institutional frameworks which fall short of the more transformative potential hailed in the literature.” Social protection efforts in this region have instead been dominated by a reverse trend, namely, pressure from international agencies such as the World Bank to dismantle universal food and fuel subsidies and replace these with targeted cash transfers. A notable exception is Morocco, which committed to implement a progressive expansion of coverage of family allowances and health insurance, to achieve universal coverage by 2024.
There is a growing consensus on the need to extend social
protection coverage to informal workers who are eligible
for neither social assistance (which mostly targets nonworking
vulnerable groups) nor social insurance (which
targets formally employed workers who pay contributions
into social security funds). COVID-19, which has affected
more than 1.5 billion informal workers, highlighted this
gap and gave renewed impetus to this issue.
Apart from informal workers, other vulnerable categories that are often excluded from social protection include migrants, refugees and IDPs. The Arab region currently hosts the highest numbers of refugees and forcibly displaced people in the world.
An estimated 1.6 billion children in 197 countries faced
disrupted education during 2020 due to school closures,
and 370 million of these children lost access to their daily
meals at school. Many countries with school feeding
programmes adopted a variant of WFP’s ‘school feeding
School feeding at home takes several forms (see box 2).
Libya: While schools were closed due to COVID-19, the Ministry of Education continued its teaching programme through distance learning. The World Food Programme (WFP) supported the Ministry by providing 2 kg boxes of mineral-and vitamin-fortified date bars as take-home ration to 18,000 learners in southern Libya, enough to cover 30 per cent of the family’s daily nutrition needs for five days.
Colombia: After schools were closed in April 2020 because of COVID-19, 112,000 learners lost their access to school meals. For 86,000 of these children, meals at school were replaced with take-home rations. One family member collected the food rations – a nutritious package that included cereals, dairy products, cooking oil, and fruits.
Congo: When schools were closed due to COVID-19, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education delivered an ‘education at home’ programme on the radio and television. At the same time, WFP launched ‘school feeding at home’, providing rice, peas, vegetable oil, salt, and sardines as take-home rations.
Cambodia: With support from WFP, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport gave 10 kg of donated rice to more than 100,000 learners at over 900 primary schools, to protect their families against the livelihood shocks associated with COVID-19 restrictions. As a one-off transfer that would be consumed by the entire family, this intervention probably had only limited impact on child nutrition outcomes.
Honduras: The National School Feeding Programme, which delivers hot meals to 1.2 million children, was suspended when schools were closed. School feeding committees prepared food parcels (including rice, beans, cornmeal, and oil), following COVID-19 safety protocols developed by WFP and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The parcels were collected from schools by adult relatives of each learner. In some areas, to avoid crowding at schools, teachers delivered the parcels door-to-door as take-home rations, using bicycles and motorbikes.
COVID-19 accelerated an ongoing process worldwide,
namely that of transitioning from manual delivery
of social services to delivering certain components
of these services via digital platforms, such as the
Internet, television, mobile phone, and social media
As seen in the cases of Colombia and Pakistan, financial inclusion is a secondary benefit of several programmes that deliver income support through digital platforms. Another example is the case of Brazil, which created bank accounts for millions of new beneficiaries in 2020 (box 4).
Brazil’s Single Registry was used to deliver income support to three categories of beneficiaries in 2020, under the Emergency Aid (EA) and Extension of Emergency Aid (EEA) provisions of the Government. These categories are as follows: (a) households already receiving cash transfers from the Bolsa Familia programme received additional support; (b) households already registered in the Single Registry but not benefiting from existing programmes were added to beneficiary lists; and (c) informal workers, self-employed and unemployed people applied through a digital registration platform and were processed on the Extra Single Registry. The new digital platform (application plus website) was created by a State-owned bank. Successful applicants received payments into a digital savings account, which was also the modality used to pay other social protection beneficiaries during the lockdown. The Extra Single Registry prompted large-scale financial inclusion, as 48.6 million new savings accounts were set up for EA and EEA cash transfer recipients.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, social protection systems in the Arab region were weak, fragmented, costly, unsustainable, and not inclusive. They were marked by underinvestment and exclusion of vulnerable populations. The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the problems and presented a historic opportunity to address some of the challenges in social protection systems. It also provided many lessons learned in various countries worldwide and instigated some useful innovations.
In the Arab region, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of social protection measures demonstrated strong political will through the substantive disbursement of funds to alleviate the needs of vulnerable populations, and social solidarity through the innovative use and creation of solidarity funds. This effort drew assistance from the private sector and other stakeholders to feed into these governmental social protection programmes.
In addition, COVID-19 spending varied according to different areas, including social assistance (cash transfer, school feeding and others), loan and tax benefit (tax exemption, interest rate waivers and others), social insurance (unemployment waiver, sick leave pensions and others), labour markets (wage subsidies, paid leave and work from home), health-related support (free vaccines, testing, health-care systems, and others), financial policy support (soft loans and credit support, tax exemption and others) and general policy support (creation of funds, digital solutions and others).
Most Arab countries have provided temporary consumption smoothing programmes such as cash assistance or tax relief to vulnerable groups, including the unemployed, women and children, rather than extending social insurance and life-course programmes. The reason for this is the absence of an adequate tax base and reduced fiscal space resulting from high levels of debt, poor economic performance and reduced oil revenues. These factors account for the gap in social protection coverage during the pandemic and recovery period.
During the pandemic, instead of putting in place new legislation, most countries relied on extrabudgetary funds or executive decrees to deliver the spending packages. While these measures promptly facilitated spending on social protection programmes, they undermined accountability mechanisms of fiscal policy decisions in Arab countries.
Overall, the initiatives analysed in this report show that, whilst examples of small-scale measures exist that may lay good foundations for a life-course approach in Arab countries, challenges still remain in terms of the longterm financing and reformulation of social protection beyond targeting low-income groups. Therefore, a transition period will be needed between current and reformed systems that may require solidarity funding to bridge the gap. Meanwhile, contingency planning can help in addressing potential future crises.