Beirut, 19 April 2022– Social protection systems in the Arab region suffer from weakness, fragmentation, and lack of inclusivity and transparency. Innovative mitigation responses to the COVID-19 pandemic present an opportunity for addressing these challenges and transforming these systems in a sustainable manner. This was the main message of a report titled “The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Arab Region: An opportunity to reform social protection systems“, issued today by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA), the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States and Policy Press of the University of Bristol.
The report underlines that, prior to the pandemic, most of the region’s social protection programmes were funded through government budgets or external assistance instead of contributions from beneficiaries or employers. They were costly and unsustainable, suffered from underinvestment, and excluded vulnerable populations.
“During COVID-19 and despite disparities, the region demonstrated strong political will to alleviate the needs of vulnerable populations and include the ‘missing middle’, such as informal workers who often did not receive any social protection benefits prior to the pandemic,” ESCWA Executive Secretary Rola Dashti highlighted.
The report underlines that mitigation responses to the pandemic varied among Arab countries, notably in the level of spending. Gulf Cooperation Council countries alone spent about $70 billion, while remaining Arab countries spent some $25 billion collectively. However, the regional average remained far lower than the global average of 22.6% of gross domestic product (GDP), standing at 3.9%.
Sources of spending also varied: while most Arab countries reprioritized national spending or created special funds, conflict-stricken ones relied mainly on humanitarian aid and donor funding. In countries like Tunisia and Morocco, the private sector contributed substantively to the COVID-19 response.
Despite adverse circumstances, the report finds, 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.
However, since most response measures to COVID-19 were temporary, they will not contribute to the transformation of social protection systems unless major reforms are put in place. “Legislative reforms focusing on taxation, expansion of the contributory base and other sources of funding are needed,” Dashti argued. “A transition period will also be required between current and reformed systems, and solidarity funding may be required to bridge the gap. Meanwhile, contingency planning can help address potential future crises,” she concluded.
One of five United Nations regional commissions, ESCWA supports inclusive and sustainable economic and social development in Arab States, and works on enhancing regional integration.