Beirut, 19 April 2022– Social protection systems in the Arab region suffer from weakness, fragmentation and a lack of inclusiveness and transparency. Innovative mitigation responses to the COVID-19 pandemic provide an opportunity to address these challenges and transform these systems in a sustainable way. This was the main message of a report entitled “The COVID-19 pandemic in the Arab region: An opportunity to reform social protection systems”, published today by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia. (UNESCWA), the UNESCO Regional Office for Education in the Arab States and Policy Press of the University of Bristol.
The report highlights that before the pandemic, most social protection programs in the region were funded by public budgets or external aid instead of contributions from beneficiaries or employers. They were expensive and unsustainable, suffered from underinvestment and excluded vulnerable populations.
“During COVID-19 and despite the disparities, the region has shown strong political will to address the needs of vulnerable populations and include the ‘missing middle’, such as informal workers who often received no social protection benefits. before the pandemic,” ESCWA Executive Secretary Rola Dashti pointed out.
The report highlights that pandemic mitigation responses vary across Arab countries, especially in terms of the level of spending. The Gulf Cooperation Council countries alone spent about $70 billion, while other Arab countries collectively spent some $25 billion. However, the regional average remained well below 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, those affected by conflict relied primarily on humanitarian aid and donor funding. In countries like Tunisia and Morocco, the private sector has been a major contributor to the COVID-19 response.
Despite adverse circumstances, according to the report, Arab countries have excelled in the use of innovative technologies for the implementation of social protection programs, especially cash transfers which were delivered to beneficiaries in just a few days through of newly created points of sale, electronic wallets and digital check-in. The unique constraints imposed by COVID-19 have inspired innovations in the design and delivery of education, health and social protection, which have not only protected access to services under extraordinarily difficult conditions, but also facilitated more inclusive outreach.
However, as most COVID-19 response measures 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, broadening the contributory base and other sources of funding are needed,” Dashti said. “A transition period will also be needed between the current and reformed systems, and solidarity funding may be needed to bridge the gap. In the meantime, contingency planning can help deal with potential future crises,” she concluded.
ESCWA, one of the five regional commissions of the United Nations, supports inclusive and sustainable economic and social development in the Arab States and works to strengthen regional integration.