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Social Protection

The pandemic highlighted pre-existing weaknesses in social protection systems in the Arab region, but spurred a new mobilization of resources to extend social safety nets in response to the crisis. Arab countries have an opportunity to learn from this experience to construct stronger, shock-responsive social protection systems that provide whole-of-life coverage and resilience against future crises.

Directly related goals:

Building back better through social protection

Countries in the Arab region responded rapidly to the economic repercussions that the crisis had on individuals and households through measures such as cash transfers, wage subsidies, utility waivers and price controls on staple goods. While many of these interventions were limited in scope and duration and will not become permanent components of the region’s social protection systems, government responses to the crisis acknowledged the need to help those left behind by existing programmes. Shock-responsive expansions of support systems, innovative delivery mechanisms, efforts to improve social registries and the acceleration of long-term reform projects could result in durable improvements to social protection systems and advance progress on the 2030 Agenda.

Social protection is defined as a set of public policies and programmes intended to ensure an adequate standard of living and access to health care throughout the life cycle. Social protection benefits can be provided in cash or in kind through universal or targeted non-contributory schemes, contributory schemes such as pensions, and complementary measures serving to build human capital, create productive assets and facilitate access to employment.

Increasing benefits and their reach

What has been done

Arab countries frequently employed existing social protection infrastructure to scale up programmes in response to the crisis, either by increasing the benefits sent to recipients, or by increasing the number of beneficiaries, strategies respectively known as vertical and horizontal expansion. While many measures were temporary, some countries accelerated reform processes, made permanent changes to existing programmes, or introduced new components to their social protection systems.

Temporary expansion measures targeting women, families with children, older persons, persons with disabilities, workers left unemployed by the crisis and other vulnerable groups were introduced throughout the region:

  • Informal sector workers were made temporarily eligible for cash and in-kind benefits in many countries, including Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and the Sudan. In some cases, horizontal expansions targeted workers from particular sectors – examples were seen in the Syrian Arab Republic, Bahrain, Tunisia, the Comoros and Mauritania.[1]
  • Workers under self-isolation and quarantine orders were given temporary income protection in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.[2]
  • One-off top-up payments enhanced cash transfer benefits in Jordan and Iraq, and annual Ramadan payments to disadvantaged households were increased in Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.[3]
  • With international assistance, Somalia was able to scale up its Baxnaano national safety net programme to reach more than 200,000 households.[4]
  • Temporary programmes targeting specific vulnerable groups were launched throughout the region, including in Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon and Tunisia.[5]
  • Temporary health-care guarantees were launched in many countries in the region. In Tunisia and Morocco, insurance coverage was maintained for those who otherwise would have become ineligible due to job loss. In Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, COVID-19-related health coverage was extended to all residents, including expatriate workers.[6]

The crisis also drove forward-looking, permanent reforms of social protection regimes, and led policy makers to accelerate the launch of new programmes. Examples include:

  • The Takaful and Karama cash transfer programme in Egypt underwent a significant expansion. Coverage was extended to an additional 411,000 families, with most direct beneficiaries being women.[7] This expansion was complemented by pilots of the new FORSA programme to connect Takaful and Karama beneficiaries with economic opportunities and facilitate their sustainable graduation from the programme.[8]
  • In Palestine, 10,000 new beneficiaries were moved from the waiting list into the National Cash Transfer Programme.[9]
  • Pension benefits were permanently increased in some countries. After offering a one-off benefit payment to pensioners, the retirement pension programme in Tunisia was permanently revised to set an income floor of 180 Tunisian Dinars per month.[10] In Egypt, pension benefits were increased by 14 per cent.[11]
  • Countries also made changes to wage and tax policy, including an increase in the minimum wage in Algeria, and the creation of new tax brackets in Algeria and Egypt.[12]
  • The cabinet of Iraq approved a draft pension and social security law aiming to provide private sector workers with the same benefits as their public sector counterparts.[13]
  • In Oman, the government inaugurated a new unemployment insurance scheme. Under the contributory programme, Omani workers in both the private and public sectors will be eligible for up to six months of support amounting to 60 per cent of their insured salary, or the amount of the minimum pension provided by the social security law. Due to the pandemic, the eligibility requirement to be affiliated with the scheme for 12 consecutive months was waived, allowing affected workers to benefit immediately from the new insurance regime.[14]
  • In Morocco, the government unveiled an overhaul of the country’s social protection system. Central to this plan is a reform and expansion of health coverage, which will see beneficiaries of its targeted medical assistance programme (RAMED) transferred to a newly broadened compulsory health insurance scheme. Further expansions targeting informal workers and formal workers currently excluded from the scheme are to be undertaken in the coming years. Under the plan, the compulsory health insurance scheme in Morocco will cover nearly 22 million new adherents.[15]
Source: Slate, In the midst of a pandemic, Morocco aims to revolutionize its social protection system (French original title: En pleine pandémie, le Maroc veut révolutionner sa protection sociale), 29 April 2021 ; IPCIG, “Social protection responses to COVID-19 in the Global South: Online Dashboard”, 2021 (accessed on 15 September 2021).

What countries can do moving forward

As countries pursue reforms seeking to replace universal food and energy subsidies with targeted programmes serving the poorest households, attention must be paid to the “missing middle” who are insufficiently poor to qualify for targeted assistance programmes and are often either excluded from contributory social insurance schemes, or unlikely to sign up in cases where optional enrolment has been made possible.[16]

Those most excluded from social protection systems include informal and agricultural workers, members of the liberal professions (such as lawyers, doctors and independent contractors), the unemployed and youth not in education, employment, or training. Further, migrant workers and refugees, persons with disabilities, older persons, the ultra-poor and persons engaged in unpaid work (who are disproportionately women) are frequently left out of the region’s social protection systems.[17]

Coverage gaps are largely consequences of exclusionary contributory insurance schemes, fragmented and insufficient social assistance programmes, and underinvestment in social protection.

To implement a recovery that leaves no one behind, Arab countries must find ways to fill in these gaps to fulfil the right to social protection for all. Avenues for action include:

  • Instituting universal human rights and inclusion as guiding principles of reform.
  • Establishing and enforcing universal social protection floors that alleviate poverty, vulnerability and exclusion by providing access to essential health care and basic income security to all.
  • Adopting a whole-of-life approach to social protection that includes programmes that reach individuals at all stages of life and respond to individual needs at junctures from birth through old age.
  • Devising ways to incorporate informal workers and other excluded groups into contributory and non-contributory social protection schemes.[18]
  • Prioritizing the sustainable funding of social protection systems.

Figure 1 demonstrates that the Arab region is far behind the world average for the coverage of many vulnerable groups:

Figure 1. Social protection coverage of select groups, 2020 (percentage)

Source: International Labour Organization (ILO), “SDG indicator 1.3.1 – Proportion of population covered by social protection floors/systems”, ILOSTAT database. Available at: https://ilostat.ilo.org/topics/social-protection (accessed on 19 January 2021).

Similarly, investment in social protection remains low compared to other regions, as demonstrated in figure 2.

Figure 2. Public non-health social protection expenditure, select regions (percentage of GDP)

Source: ILO, World Social Protection Report 2020–22: Social protection at the crossroads ‒ in pursuit of a better future (International Labour Office –, ILO, 2021). Estimate for Arab States calculated using the data within the report, including all States that are members of the Arab league for which expenditure data was available. The most recent gross domestic product (GDP) data (as reported by the World Bank) were used for calculating, with a cut-off date of 2018.

Administering social protection systems

What has been done

Arab States deployed technology and demonstrated flexibility in their social protection responses to the crisis. These adaptations have the potential to permanently impact the administration of social protection systems in the region and transform how people access benefits.

In much of the region, technology-based platforms and Internet applications became important parts of the user interface of social protection programmes:

  • Online platforms connected potential beneficiaries to assistance programmes in countries including Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia and the Syrian Arab Republic.[19]
  • In Kuwait, call lines, text messages and WhatsApp were used to allow individuals to register for and check the status of payments.[20] In Egypt, social media platforms including WhatsApp were used to distribute information about benefits and eligibility criteria. In Palestine, informal workers eligible for assistance were contacted through text message.[21]
  • Mobile applications were employed to allow users to apply for benefits, as in Saudi Arabia.[22]

In some cases, the COVID-19 pandemic led policymakers to accelerate efforts to improve the administrative capacity of social protection systems:

  • World Bank programmes in the Comoros[23] and Lebanon[24] included measures to develop national social registries for collecting information on potential programme beneficiaries.
  • In Palestine, the National Cash Transfer Programme’s Management Information System was used to identify priority recipients of funds, and efforts were launched to enhance the system through a questionnaire and registration drive, and by soliciting information on vulnerability from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and relief organizations. [25]
  • In other countries, efforts were made to connect information from disparate sources such as civil registries and tax office records to better reach beneficiaries. In Egypt, for example, the “G to G” initiative facilitated the cross-checking of beneficiary databases to support inter-governmental coordination.[26] In Jordan, the National Unified Registry has continued to link data from a growing list of government institutions, including the National Aid Fund. [27]
  • Ongoing efforts to reform social registries continued during the crisis. For example, Morocco adopted the Registre social unique, which will collect socio-economic data to determine eligibility for an array of social assistance programmes.[28]

Delivery mechanisms were also adapted to the exigencies of the crisis:

  • In many cases, benefits were deposited electronically to recipients’ existing bank accounts. In the Sudan, accounts were created for recipients to receive benefits that could be collected at ATMs.[29]
  • In the Syrian Arab Republic, beneficiaries were able to access allotments of food subsidies through electronic cards issued to distribute aid.[30]
  • In several countries, benefits were distributed through digital wallets accessible via mobile phones. Tunisia launched a new digital wallet to allow benefit recipients to receive payments on their mobile phones, with plans to increase the utilization of this tool for future benefit payments.[31]
  • In some countries, such as Algeria and Morocco, beneficiaries of select programmes could appoint proxies to collect benefits on their behalf. [32]
  • The number of payment pick-up points for non-digitally delivered benefits was increased in many countries.
  • In some cases, school lunch programmes were modified to continue serving families, such as through door-to-door delivery of meals (as in Libya) or by allowing rations to be picked up for home use (as in Yemen).
  • Countries also leveraged charities, civil society groups and other non-State actors to implement social protection interventions. In Mauritania, labour unions were provided with food and disinfectants to distribute to their members’ families.[33] Charities assisted in distributing benefits and identifying recipients in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.[34]

What countries can do moving forward

  • Extend efforts to reform universal subsidy programmes in favour of more progressive social assistance measures.
  • Adopt an integrated systems approach: review the component programmes of social protection systems to ensure internal coherence and maximize their efficiency.
  • Ensure full consideration of linkages between social protection and other policy areas, including labour market, education, economic and fiscal policies. For example, social protection systems can be linked with active labour market policies to assist beneficiaries in finding jobs and facilitate a process of “graduation” for recipients to obtain sustainable decent livelihoods. [35]
  • Create institutionalized coordination mechanisms, such as inter-ministerial committees and technical working groups to conduct rationalization reviews. Some countries in the region, including Morocco and Mauritania, have already employed this approach.[36]
  • Increase digital and data capacities and develop integrated beneficiary registries with quality, up-to-date information that can be used for multiple programmes. Such registries might be enhanced through systems that draw on other administrative databases and can advance efforts to reach excluded groups and minimize targeting errors. By facilitating identification of potential recipients, such databases can allow governments to rapidly scale-up assistance during an economic downturn.[37]
  • Ensure that reform processes incorporate social dialogues that are inclusive of a wide range of stakeholders, notably marginalized groups, informal workers and civil society organizations.[38]
  • Prioritize the financial sustainability of social protection systems and define funding sources in legislation. The financial sustainability of social protection systems can benefit from improved integration with national revenue plans and with tax, budgeting, Zakat funding and economic diversification policies.

Box 1. Gender just social protection

    Women are at particular risk of being left out of social protection systems in the Arab region, even as they disproportionately bear the consequences of socio-economic crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The following trends have been observed in the Arab region:

  • Women are often left uncovered by contributory social insurance schemes. At 20.5 per cent, women’s labour force participation in the Arab region is the lowest in the world. As in other regions, women in Arab countries are more likely than men to carry out unpaid work, including childcare, cooking and household chores. Further, women are more likely than men to work in vulnerable employment and in the informal sector.
  • In many countries, considerable gaps have been observed in coverage by select social protection systems – in what the ILO refers to as the Arab States region, men are more than 4 times as likely to be covered by comprehensive social security systems, and in some countries, men are more than 5 times as likely to receive a pension than women.
  • The Arab region has relatively low benefits coverage for mothers with newborns. At 31.6 per cent coverage, Arab countries are below the lower-middle income average of 33.3 per cent, and behind the global average of 44.9 per cent.

What to watch for

  • Aging population structures and an increasing incidence of chronic diseases across the Arab region will add additional stress to health and social protection systems. Further, long-term demographic transitions will disrupt the region’s dependency ratio, with important implications for countries’ tax bases and ability to finance social protection systems. In the shorter term, however, countries in the region must benefit from demographic dividends.
  • The rise of the gig-economy risks leaving many workers unprotected by existing labour regulations and social protection systems; labour market regulations and social protection policies are potential tools to reduce the precarity that often plagues these workers.
  • The increased prevalence of digital technology, including artificial intelligence, can offer opportunities to increase productivity, but presents risks for those in jobs faced with automation, and may require governments to devise ways to retrain affected workers and provide them with income security.
  • Increased digitalization of social protection systems raises ethical and legal questions on data protection, digital equality, accountability and human rights. Social protection systems must remain human-centred, and special efforts are warranted to ensure that digitalization does not leave behind those who are digitally illiterate or otherwise lack Internet access.
  • Political instability and conflict threaten to increase the number of refugees and internally displaced persons and disrupt social protection systems in the region, increasing the number of vulnerable people while hindering the functionality of protection systems. By contrast, strong social protection can serve as a tool to strengthen social cohesion and build trust in institutions.[39]
  • Increased international mobility and migration risk leaving many uncovered by current social protection systems and necessitate agreements on portability of benefits and other means to make access to benefits available to migrants.
  • Low levels of revenue generation and increasing debt loads can limit the fiscal space available to finance inclusive social protection systems.

Regional cooperation and integration

On migration: As of 2019, the Arab region hosted more than 40 million migrants and refugees, representing around 15per cent of the global total.[40] Although humanitarian aid is often available for refugee populations, the long duration of their stays in host countries gives rise to other social protection needs, such as health insurance and old-age income security.[41] Non-refugee migrant workers in the region are also often unable to access social protection programmes, and were excluded from many emergency relief measures instituted during the pandemic. Regional and international strategies must be developed to ensure the continuity of protection across national borders. International frameworks such as the United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration can serve as useful guideposts for establishing non-discriminatory social protection systems and portability of benefits across borders.[42]

On financing: Many countries in the region – particularly the least developed countries (LDCs) and crisis-afflicted countries – fall far short of the resource requirements needed to establish effective social protection floors. Arab States could work together to make social protection an impactful focal point for international financial mobilization, potentially by establishing a regional fund for social protection to guarantee a basic standard of living for everyone in the region.[43]

On capacity-building and technical cooperation: International development partnerships can maximize their impact by responding to the long-term needs of beneficiary countries, and where possible working to enhance governments’ capacities to deliver social protection to their populations, for example, through the development of social registries. Technical cooperation initiatives, including the Expert Group on Social Protection Reform managed by ESCWA, can offer valuable platforms for information exchange. Further, regional fora such as the Council of Arab Ministers for Social Affairs can serve as platforms to exchange regional best practices relating to the coverage, shock responsiveness, financing and governance of social protection systems.

“We commit to assist migrant workers at all skills levels to have access to social protection in countries of destination and profit from the portability of applicable social security entitlements and earned benefits in their countries of origin or when they decide to take up work in another country.”

United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (A/RES/73/195).

Source: ESCWA, “SDG Data”, United Nations ESCWA Data Portal for the Arab Region. Available at: https://data.unescwa.org (accessed on 8 September 2021).


[1] United Nations, COVID-19 Stimulus Tracker. Available at: http://tracker.unescwa.org/ (accessed on 8 October 2021); World Bank, “Social Protection and Jobs Responses to COVID-19: A Real-Time Review of Country Measures”, version 15, (Washington, D.C., World Bank, 2021).
[2] World Bank, “Social Protection and Jobs Responses to COVID-19”, 2021.
[3] Ibid.
[4] World Food Programme, “WFP’s Work in Enabling Social Protection in Somalia: Highlights of the World Food Programme’s Contributions to Social Protection in a New Normal”, 2021.
[5] United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), “Role of Social Protection Information Systems in Expansion of Cash Transfer Programmes during Covid-19 Pandemic: Experience from Selected Arab Countries”, Strengthening Social Protection for Pandemic Responses, 2021.
[6] United Nations, COVID-19 Stimulus Tracker. Available at: http://tracker.unescwa.org/ (accessed on 8 October 2021); International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPCIG), “Social protection responses to COVID-19 in the Global South: Online Dashboard”, 2021 (accessed on 15 September 2021); World Bank, “Social Protection and Jobs Responses to COVID-19”, 2021.
[7] Egypt, Ministry of Planning and Economic Development, “Egypt’s 2021 Voluntary National Review”, 2021.
[8] Marina Wes, “Building Back Better: Supporting Egypt’s efforts at inclusive recovery”, World Bank, 22 June 2021.
[9] Watania, The Ministry of Social Development disbursed allocations for the month of April 2020 – Link to verify the names of beneficiaries.
[10] Gnet, The National Fund for Retirement and Social Security announces the dispersal of pension funds (French original title: Tunisie : La CNRPS annonce le versement des pensions à partir de demain, mercredi), 23 March 2021.
[11] Ahram Online, "Egypt's Sisi issues decree raising pensions 14% starting July”, 1 July 2020.
[12] United Nations, COVID-19 Stimulus Tracker. Available at: http://tracker.unescwa.org/ (accessed on 8 October 2021); IPCIG, “Social protection responses to COVID-19 in the Global South: Online Dashboard”, 2021 (accessed on 15 September 2021).
[13] Iraq, The Cabinet, “Cabinet approves draft pension and social security law, authorises signing of contract for automating customs procedures”, 18 November 2020.
[14] International Labour Organization (ILO), “Oman institutes its first unemployment insurance scheme”, 16 October 2020.
[15] Le Point, In Morocco, the implementation of generalized social protection (French original title: Maroc : la couverture sociale généralisée mise en œuvre), 16 April 2021; Slate, In the midst of a pandemic, Morocco aims to revolutionize its social protection system (French original title: En pleine pandémie, le Maroc veut révolutionner sa protection sociale), 29 April 2021.
[16] ESCWA, “Social Protection Reform in Arab Countries”, 2019.
[17] United Nations, “Social Protection Responses to the COVID-19 crisis in the MENA/ARAB States region”, 2020.
[18] ESCWA, “Social Inequalities in the Arab Region Post-COVID-19”, 2021.
[19] United Nations, “Social Protection Responses to the COVID-19 crisis in the MENA/ARAB States region”, 2020.
[20] Ibid.
[21] ESCWA, “Targeted Social Protection in Arab Countries before and During the COVID-19 Crisis”, Strengthening Social Protection for Pandemic Responses, 2021.
[22] Ibid.
[23] World Bank, “Comoros: World Bank Provides $10 Million to Support Emergency Response to COVID-19 and Recovery”, 10 December 2020.
[24] World Bank, “Lebanon Emergency Crisis and Covid-19 Response Social Safety Net Project”, 4 November 2021.
[25] ESCWA, “Role of Social Protection Information Systems”, 2021.
[26] ESCWA, “Social Inequalities in the Arab Region Post-COVID-19”, 2021.
[27] ESCWA, “Targeted Social Protection in Arab Countries”, 2021.
[28] Ibid.
[29] IPCIG, “Social protection responses to COVID-19 in the Global South: Online Dashboard”, 2021 (accessed on 15 September 2021).
[30] Ibid.
[31] Business News, In Tunisia, the launch of digital wallets (French original title: Tunisie - Mise en place du portefeuille digital), 5 May 2020.
[32] IPCIG, “Social protection responses to COVID-19 in the Global South: Online Dashboard”, 2021 (accessed on 15 September 2021).
[33] Mauritania, Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Modernisation of Administration, Distribution of food products and disinfectants to labour unions (French original title: Distribution de produits alimentaires et de désinfectants aux syndicats), n.d.
[34] United Nations, COVID-19 Stimulus Tracker. Available at: http://tracker.unescwa.org/ (accessed on 8 October 2021).
[35] ESCWA, “Social Protection Reform in Arab Countries”, 2019.
[36] Ibid.
[37] ESCWA, “Role of Social Protection Information Systems”, 2021.
[38] ILO, “Social Protection Spotlight: Extending social protection to informal workers in the COVID-19 crisis: country responses and policy considerations”, 14 September 2020.
[39] Australia, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, "Social Protection’s Contribution to Social Cohesion”, 2021.
[40] United Nations. The Impact of COVID-19 on Migrants and Refugees in the Arab Region. 2020.
[41] ILO, World Social Protection Report 2017–19: Universal social protection to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (International Labour Office – Geneva: ILO, 2017).
[42] A/RES/73/195.
[43] Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, and Magdalena Sepúlveda, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty And Human Rights, “Executive Summary: A Global Fund for Social Protection (GFSP)”, 2012.