What role can social protection play in addressing the significant and interdependent social, political, economic and environmental challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA)? This report gives an overview of the provision of social protection in MENA and how safety nets and broader social protection instruments can offer partial solutions to some of these challenges. It calls for the investment of the subsidy dividend into expanded, flexible and more cost-effective safety nets that target the most vulnerable and address issues of poverty reduction and food security in the longer-term.
Five case studies (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen and Sudan) and desk reviews for a further 5 countries (Egypt, Iran, Libya, Palestine and Tunisia) complement the regional overview.
Governments in MENA spend more on subsidies, both absolutely and as a proportion of GDP, than governments in other developing countries – around 5.7 per cent vs 1.3 per cent of GDP on average. In part, this is a result of high levels of market dependence for access to food. The large scale of subsidies in the region means that despite non-poor capture of benefits and the adverse effects on households once they are lifted, subsidies tend to have a bigger impact on poverty reduction than targeted social assistance transfers.
Conversely, social assistance programmes typically receive a smaller fraction of MENA governments’ social protection budgets. To date, these programmes have had limited impact on poverty and inequality because of low coverage, low benefits, inefficient targeting, and poor or absent M&E systems. On average just 16 per cent of the poorest population quintile in MENA receive any form of social assistance. This is less than half of the global average.
The report highlights other popular social assistance instruments in the region including programmes with food security objectives prevalent in countries such as Palestine and Yemen where food insecurity is particularly high; school feeding programmes in Iran and Yemen which have aimed to address gender inequalities; and public works programmes which have targeted marginalised groups such as the Bedouins in Egypt, or supported livelihood enhancement and diversification as evident in the women-centred Safe Access to Firewood and Alternative Energy (SAFE) project in Sudan.
Special attention should be given to the large numbers of refugees, internally displaced people and migrants in the region who are forced to leave both their economic and physical access to food, and are not entitled to receive the social benefits that host country citizens receive once they’ve re-located.
The centrality of religious institutions means the boundaries between state and non-state social protection provision are fluid. Zakat is a major redistributive mechanism and faith-based organisations are a significant actor in delivering safety nets to people.
The report suggests that the persistent gaps in social protection systems in MENA present an opportunity for the World Food Programme (WFP) to further extend its support. This is particularly important in:
- strengthening national capacities to expand coverage;
- improving targeting methods – which tend to be worse in state-administered programmes;
- linking safety nets and humanitarian interventions to longer-term social protection that supports livelihoods and resilience building, as well as addressing household insecurity.
Given the focus on subsidies, the report recommends that the subsidy dividend should be invested in a substantial expansion of targeted social assistance in order to compensate the poor for their lost access to food once subsidies are reformed, and to achieve larger and more cost-effective impacts.
Effective planning and designing of social protection programmes needs to be underpinned by a vision of a sustainable system that can deliver predictable social assistance. Scalable safety nets which expand and contract during and after a crisis may be one way to bridge this gap. Further analytical work is required to enhance governments’ capacity in designing flexible and shock-responsive national safety nets.