A webinar to mark the launch of the Inclusive Social Security Policy Forum (ISSPF) for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region event took place on Thursday 29 April. The webinar explored the challenges people in the MENA region face in accessing social protection and how instituting inclusive social security systems across the lifecycle can help overcome many of these challenges.
Dr. Stephen Kidd, Principal Social Policy Specialist at Development Pathways, elaborated upon the benefits of implementing inclusive social security systems, emphasising, in particular, the role that universal public services, based on entitlements, play in strengthening the social contract between states and their citizens and broader populations.
Dr. Rana Jawad, Associate Professor in Social Policy at Bath University, provided an historical context for social security in the region and its contemporary policy implications whilst also emphasising the region’s diversity. As a region mired in conflict, Dr. Jawad articulated the need to expand the understanding of security beyond militaristic terms into the realm of inclusive social protection.
In her keynote remarks, Dr. Shahra Razavi, Director of the Social Protection Department at the International Labour Organization, explained the fragmented nature of social protection systems in the MENA region, revealing that only one in four persons enjoys effective social protection in at least one area. She highlighted that schemes are often disproportionally directed toward public sector workers and that many states lack the administrative capacity to significantly expand their coverage to the wider population.
Dr. Razavi went on to elaborate upon the exclusion of large segments of society from contributory social insurance schemes in the region due to low female participation in the workforce, persistent youth unemployment and large non-citizen populations in some MENA states, among other challenges.
Shea McClanahan, Senior Social Policy Specialist at Development Pathways, introduced the ISSPF network and called for a paradigm shift, away from a narrow focus on poverty targeting and toward a human rights-based approach to social security and social protection, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
She described the ISSPF as a space for civil society organisations in the region to access and contribute to knowledge about inclusive social security, as well as the policy options available under an inclusive and universal social security agenda. The initiative aims to de-mystify the complex concepts surrounding social protection and social security through five mechanisms: utilising its network, conducting and disseminating research, delivering free training in the region, providing social protection news and commentary, as well as offering publicly available practical tools that civil society organisations in the region can easily access.
In response to the panellists’ remarks, two discussants from Tunisia and Jordan shared their thoughts about the region’s challenges and the potential for initiatives like the ISSPF to improve awareness of the value of inclusive models for delivering social security.
Samar Muhareb, CEO of Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development, spoke about the failures of the pre-existing social protection systems to effectively mitigate the COVID-19 crisis, drawing attention to their lack of inclusivity and the importance of ensuring that marginalised groups, such as refugees and migrant workers, are registered in government systems. She also touched upon the endemic corruption in the region and the widespread clientelism where public resources are frequently awarded to groups that support the government.
Chafik Ben Rouine, Co-founder and President of Tunisian Observatory of Economy, defended the use of food subsidies in Tunisia, in a context of severe economic challenges in the country since the Arab Spring of 2011 and the austerity measures imposed by the international financial institutions. He noted that these subsidies can produce more progressive outcomes than poverty-targeted social protection schemes and that, culturally, food subsidies form part of the Tunisian social contract and are consistent with the fundamental human right to food.
All of the panellists agreed on the importance of improving the coverage and effectiveness of social security systems in the MENA region. The impact of COVID-19 has brought the inadequacies of the current systems into sharp relief as large populations are excluded from assistance despite being deeply affected by the crisis. Therefore, the speakers emphasised the need for systems to achieve universal coverage across the lifecycle, whilst still taking into account the regional, and country-specific contexts.