In the context of multiple crises – economic, political and most recently the coronavirus pandemic, there is a pressing need for all citizens and residents to have access to social protection in the Middle East and North African countries. Social protection encompasses not only essential health and education services but also the income assistance that members of the population need at various stages of their lives when they may be out of work or unable to earn a decent wage. These issues, which were very urgent in the MENA region after the Arab Spring Uprisings in 2011, have become even more urgent now during the COVID pandemic, which has exposed the social and economic vulnerabilities of populations across the region, as well forcing millions more into unemployment and deprivation.
In our recently published book Social Policy in the Middle East and North Africa Region and the New Social Protection Paradigm: From Social Assistance to Universalism, we support the term universalism which goes beyond a concern with the delivery of public services to all members of the population. Universalism is also a social value, a moral commitment to social solidarity, equality and citizenship. It is based on a notion of social rights, which alongside civil and political liberties, emphasises collective responsibility for individual well-being. “Its achievement requires social policies that foster social cohesion and coalition building among classes, groups and generations, working against different types of divisions in society”, according to UNRISD (2010:136–7). In this sense, social policy reminds us of the basic question governments—and the international community—must face: how and to whom are resources distributed in society to ensure social justice and equality? (Dean, 2012). Most fundamentally, social rights speak to fundamental questions of citizenship and residency status (migrants, refugees and others), which ensure equitable access to services and opportunities regardless of ethnicity, religious identity, gender or age difference.
Many of these ideas draw from the Western European traditions of political and social thought that emerged after the 18th Century. When it comes to considering these ideas in the MENA context, it is evident that here is a context where ideas of liberal Western social policy are challenged. A key reason for this is because the state is itself a partisan actor in the MENA region and this situation became so post-Second World War independence with states tending to represent particular political interests such as the military (Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iraq), private corporate interests (Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia) or royal families (the emirates and kingdoms in the south of the Persian Gulf, Morocco and Jordan). In addition, state budgets in most MENA countries do not priorates state-led universal coverage of social policy, which has led to a system of social welfare that relies on a combination of private and public—and in contexts with significant proportions of the population affected by forced displacement UN agency and INGO- provision. But we are now at a point when this model of reliance on private, philanthropic, bilateral and multilateral activities as well as the generosity of the state to public sector workers is at breaking point in most MENA countries.
It is not premature, therefore, to consider the MENA region and social policies there under this light, even if debates around social rights and citizenship have centred on Western Europe traditions, afterall all societies have social policies. MENA politics, as in other developing countries, combine hybrid discourses around citizenship, group identity and sectarianism. MENA populations access public services according to various ideational logics and therefore have different and often competing avenues of entitlement to social and public services. It follows that the legal and political choices that MENA countries make in relation to issues of membership and allocation lead to particular institutional configurations around social policy provision. These “political settlements” represent the varying processes of bargaining, negotiation, conflict and compromise that social and political actors in the MENA region take part in, in order to expand or decrease access to social and public services. Trade unions, women’s movements, civil rights movements and so on, all play a role in holding states accountable and lobby for greater freedoms and rights to social services. As was made clear through the slogans of the Arab Spring uprisings, notions of social citizenship, expressed through calls for bread, dignity and justice continue to be a site of struggle not only for assimilation and exclusion but also for recognition and rights.
Indeed, to support the above argument, there are historical precedents in MENA. Social and independence movements in the interwar period made important strides in developing notions of social and political rights in countries such as and Syria (Thompson, 2000). But with time, weak institutional structures were replaced by relations of paternalism and patronage. It was not only labour rights that expanded in the 1930s, but other forms of claim-making were advanced too, couched in the language of self-government and freedom from the mandate and colonial rule. Demands were made around the provision of schooling and education, disease prevention, and against the dismissal of parliaments and delays in the implementation of independence treaties. But with time, colonial authorities employed paternalistic constituencies such as rural landlords, tribal chiefs and religious elites to deliver social services as a way of abating political discontent among local populations, for example, in Lebanon and Syria. Populations across the MENA region are growing weary of the social inequities they face, not least in the context of the current pandemic which emerging research suggests is reinforcing pre-existing social and economic inequalities. The current pandemic has shown how pre-existing social inequalities are exacerbated by a crisis and that countries are better prepared when they have comprehensive social safety nets in place. Although MENA countries have mobilised resources to increase both the scope and level of social assistance coverage to their affected populations, these remain mostly temporary in nature and offer low levels of benefits. If we are to live up to the international commitment captured in Sustainable Development Target 1.3 of social protection systems for all, including a minimum floor, then a universalist approach is essential – the alternatives are poverty, conflict, and corruption.
About the authors
Rana Jawad is a senior lecturer in social policy at the University of Bath. She is the founder and convenor of the MENA social policy network. She has extensive academic and policy-oriented research expertise on social policy issues in the MENA region focusing in particular on the institutional and political analysis of welfare systems there. In addition, she has an interest in current debates around social protection and non-contributory social assistance programmes, as well as the wider influence of religion on social policy.
Mahmoud Meskoub is a senior lecturer at the International Institute of Social Studies (Erasmus University of Rotterdam), teaching and researching in areas of social policy and population studies. As an economist, he taught for many years in the UK (at the universities of Leeds and London). His current research interests are in the area of economics of social policy and population ageing, migration and universal approach to social provisioning. His recent publications on MENA are related to social policy, the impact of the recent financial crisis on the region, poverty and employment policies. He has acted as a consultant to ESCWA, ILO, UNFPA and the World Bank.
Nicola Jones has a PhD in Political Science and specialises in research and advisory work on gender, childhood and youth, social policy, and social protection. She has carried out work for a range of funders (AusAID, DFID, EU, FAO, UNICEF, UNDP, IDRC, GAVI Alliance, Oak Foundation, Plan International, Save the Children, UN Women and the World Bank) and her country expertise is broad, having worked in East and West Africa, Asia, Latin America and more recently in the MENA region. Nicola is currently Co-Director of the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) programme, a nine-year DFID-funded longitudinal research programme building knowledge on good-practice programmes and policies that support adolescent girls in the Global South to reach their full potential.
The opinions expressed in the guest blogs are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Middle East and North Africa Social Policy (MENASP) Network or the University of Bath.