Is it time for a new social contract based on universal social protection in the Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) region? A recent webinar hosted by Lebanon Support posed this very question. The webinar, “Towards universality: social policy and social protection beyond charity in the SWANA region”, featured Dr. Ghada Barsoum, Associate Professor at the American University in Cairo, and Dr. Stephen Kidd, Senior Social Policy Specialist at Development Pathways.
The experts explored the potential – particularly in the context of COVID-19 – for shifting the paradigm in the region from one characterised by charity and fragmented state interventions, to one centred around the notions of universality and citizenship. Dr. Marie-Noelle AbiYaghi, who moderated the webinar, argued that this “question sociale” (the “social question” as it is known in the French tradition) goes well beyond the logic of poverty alleviation that has dominated the international development agenda for decades and instead gets to the heart of what citizens can and should expect from their governments.
According to Barsoum, five key dynamics are at play in the majority of countries in the SWANA regions, particularly in middle-income countries, that pose challenges for universalism. First, the strong legacy of charity and almsgiving in the region means that non-state actors play an outsized role in social protection provision, leading to unequal access and a lack of accountability due to a “weak culture of documentation”. Second, systems are characterised by a high degree of fragmentation that exists both between state and non-state provision as well as across state-provided programmes, all of which is exacerbated by poor data management infrastructure throughout the region. Third, significant coverage gaps persist, and indeed Barsoum asserted that coverage has actually declined in recent years, despite a proliferation of new “social assistance” programmes. At the same time, there has been almost no progress toward improving coverage under contributory schemes through formalisation, despite economic growth. Fourth, the highly gendered nature of social protection systems in the SWANA region cannot be ignored, where women are under-represented in contributory systems and over-represented in newer poverty-targeted schemes, resulting in lower levels and quality of benefits overall for women. Finally, Barsoum noted that the region does indeed have its own version of universality in the form of fuel and food subsidies. This subsidy system, flawed as it may have been, was a crucial component of the previous social contract. High degrees of social unrest stem, in large part, from breaking this contract – through the reform of subsidies – without offering a substitute.
Universal social protection could provide a long-overdue replacement – forming the basis for a new social contract in the region, argued Kidd in his presentation.Investing in benefits that reach everyone, not just the “poorest” or those in formal employment, would go a long way toward quelling unrest in the short term and fostering stronger citizen-state relations in the future. When those in the “missing middle” stand to benefit from social protection, their trust in the system grows, and the social contract is strengthened.
Moreover, Kidd pointed to the experiences of European countries, which were not only much poorer before they invested in universalistic social protection systems, but were also conflict-ridden, much like many countries in the SWANA region. In the wake of the Second World War, many countries invested heavily in extending benefits to all citizens, which led to – among other things – higher tax take and further investment, creating a virtuous circle rooted in a firm social contract. In contrast, countries that continue to invest in limited, poverty-targeted programmes aimed only at the poorest, are likely to remain “trapped in a vicious circle” of low investment, low trust and low taxes. COVID-19, therefore, presents a unique opportunity to break this cycle and enter into a new social contract that delivers more equitable and prosperous societies and economies, from which everyone in the SWANA region benefits.
While strengthening the social contract is fundamentally a domestic endeavour, the role of international actors, particularly international financial institutions, cannot be ignored. Kidd noted that, despite some key figures beginning to offer more full-throated support for universalism, there is still reticence, perverse incentives, and inertia at country level, where these actors still hold sway over domestic policy responses and continue to promote limited interventions that reach very few people. Now is the time – in the face of the looming and long-lasting effects of COVID-19 – for a fundamental re-think of the current social protection model, both internationally and within each country, to lay the bases for stronger societies in the SWANA region.
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