Social protection systems can play an important role in reducing both monetary and multidimensional child poverty. This blog post summarises the findings of the recently launched study, Overview of Non-contributory Social Protection Programmes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region Through a Child and Equity Lens by the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) and UNICEF Middle East and North Africa Regional Office (MENARO).
Children in developing countries are more than twice as likely as adults to live in extremely poor households. They account for half of the estimated 767 million people living in extreme poverty worldwide, even though they only represent around a third of the population (UNICEF and World Bank 2016). Moreover, children’s experience of poverty differs from that of adults: not only are they more vulnerable to malnutrition, disease and abuse, but they are also more dependent on others for support.
Child poverty also remains a critical concern In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. A recent study in 11 Arab countries has shown that an estimated one in four children suffers from acute multidimensional poverty, meaning that they are deprived of their basic rights in two or more of the following dimensions: decent housing, health care, safe water, sanitation, nutrition, basic education and information (LAS et al. 2017).
Child sensitive social protection
An ever-growing body of research has documented the importance of making social protection programmes more responsive to the specific needs of children. Indeed, the design of social protection policies can foster synergies with other basic social services in the areas of health, nutrition and education, helping to fight multiple dimensions of deprivation faced by children.
Against this background, the Overview of non-contributory Social Protection Programmes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region though a Child and Equity Lens, provides a closer look at child-sensitive non-contributory social protection in the region. The report presents a short synopsis of the recent developments in social protection in MENA, as well as an analysis of the main design features of current programmes, paying specific attention to those programme characteristics that help to address children’s multi-dimensional poverty.
The study also includes an inventory of more than 100 non-contributory programmes across 20 countries, along with a short country profile describing the social protection system in each of them. The 20 countries include: Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In addition, the authors provide an estimation of the proportion of children covered by these programmes and whether this share is equitable — such that the poorest and most vulnerable children are covered.
Social protection in MENA – recent developments
Social protection in the MENA region is traditionally characterised by a reliance on universal food, fuel and utility subsidies and on contributory insurance schemes. However, there is growing consensus that non-targeted subsidies disproportionally favour the wealthy and have little effect on poverty reduction. Countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia are phasing out or reducing food and energy subsidies and reallocating some of the accrued savings to targeted cash transfer programmes.
Moreover, conflict and violence have deeply affected some countries in the region, while the flow of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees has revealed the limits of social protection systems in many countries: IDPs may lose access to social protection benefits due to the lack of portability of benefits, and refugees are generally not eligible for social protection benefits as non-nationals in foreign countries, nor are they legally entitled to work.
Main findings of the study
Key design features of non-contributory social protection programmes in the region:
- Unconditional cash transfer programmes are by far the most prevalent programme type in the region. They are followed by unconditional in-kind transfers, mostly in the form of food distribution programmes. Food and fuel subsidies were the third most common benefit scheme.
- Categorical targeting is the most prevalent targeting mechanism among the mapped programmes. It is commonly used to identify families without a male breadwinner or whose adult members — particularly the head of the household — are unable to work. Means-testing is often used in addition to categorical targeting to identify poor households with family members belonging to eligible categories.
- Programmes often target more than one population group. Most programmes target poor households, while children are the second most prevalent target group, flowed by people with disabilities and women.
Child-sensitive design features
The report also investigates whether the mapped programmes have any child-sensitive features in their design. It does so by looking at potential synergies the programmes may have with the health, nutrition or education sectors. In addition, programmes explicitly targeting children through at least one of its components, and those whose benefit levels increase with the number of children or household members were also classified as child-sensitive.
- At least one programme in each country and more than half of the programmes mapped present at least one child-sensitive design feature.
- Almost 70 of the mapped programmes explicitly target either children, children with disabilities and/or orphans. However, when looking at the target age group, it becomes clear that almost half the schemes targeting children are for school-age children only. Very few programmes explicitly target pre-school-age children.
- In comparison to cash transfer programmes that pay a fixed amount of benefit per household, programmes with benefit levels that increase according to the size of the household or the age/ school grade of the children are framed as child-sensitive in this mapping, as they consider higher expenditure levels of larger families (and of older children). In 17 countries, cash transfer programmes were identified with such a benefit formula.
- All countries except four have a programme that supports access to education, which includes all school feeding programmes or educational fee waivers as well as those that make the payment of transfers conditional on school attendance.
- Although more than half of all countries in the region have at least one programme that was designed to help tackle children’s malnutrition, most of them are exclusive for children attending school (commonly aged 5 or older). Yet, evidence shows that children under five are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition (see LAS et al. 2017).
- Health is one of the dimensions in which children still face high levels of deprivation (ibid), yet access to health services appears to be one area in which the contribution of social protection programmes remains smaller compared to other areas.
Proportion of children covered by social protection programmes in the MENA region
Assessing the benefit incidence of social protection programmes is still an incipient practice in the MENA region, and few — if any — assessments consider the coverage of children of different age groups (van Diesen 2017). Administrative data on programme coverage — particularly the coverage of children of different ages — are rarely readily available for this type of analysis. Accordingly, the report puts forward a methodology based on the comparison between the actual or estimated number of children covered by a programme and the number of poor children in the country.
The result of this exercise shows that programmes are often not large enough to reach all vulnerable children. Even if programmes were perfectly targeted, most of them would not cover even half of the country’s poor children. In general, non-cash schemes targeting school-age children have larger coverage levels than other types of schemes, such as cash transfer programmes.
Based on the findings of this study and the literature reviewed, governments as well as researchers and those involved in policy advocacy can contribute to strengthening non-contributory social protection in MENA and making it more child-sensitive in the following manner:
- Collect and make available data disaggregated by gender and age on all programme beneficiaries through comprehensive household surveys as well as administrative databases and integrated single registries (in alignment with SDG 1, Target 1.3).
- Strengthen the evidence base of child-sensitive social protection through in-depth and mixed-methods evaluations and assessments and share evidence across the region.
- Rethink targeting mechanisms as more rigorous target analysis is needed to better understand how current targeting mechanisms can be improved to better reach vulnerable children without generating unjustifiable exclusion errors.
- Expand existing systems. Given that programmes in the region are frequently not large enough to reach all multidimensionally poor children, there is a strong need to expand them to reach all vulnerable children, especially the youngest ones.
- Universal child allowances should be discussed as a policy option, especially in the context of subsidy reforms that call for a larger compensation base to maintain social and political stability as opposed to narrow targeting.
- Increase the fiscal space for social protection by, for example, phasing out inequitable subsidies or increasing tax revenues through a progressive system.
- Link existing social protection programmes to nutrition, health and education. More schemes linked to nutrition for lactating women and pre-school-age children should be promoted.
- Collaborate and share information across the different agencies involved, not only at different ministries and levels of government but also with international agencies promoting social protection in the country.
- Build shock-responsive measures and create comprehensive and resilient systems that can respond effectively in times of crisis.
- Improve assistance for migrant children and refugees.
The consolidation of a child-sensitive social protection system is possible and demands a change of perspective. The recent social spending reforms undertaken in countries in MENA offer a crucial opportunity for countries to enhance their systems and make them better prepared to meet the specific needs of children throughout the different stages of their life.
Blog authors: Charlotte Bilo and Anna Carolina Machado
LAS, UN ESCWA, UNICEF, and OPHI (2017). Arab Multidimensional Poverty Report, Beirut: United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. Accessible: http://www.ophi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/ArabMPI-En-1.pdf
UNICEF and the World Bank (2016). Ending Extreme Poverty: A Focus on Children, New York and Washington, DC: United Nations Children’s Fund and World Bank. Accessible: https://www.unicef.org/publications/files/Ending_Extreme_Poverty_A_Focus_on_Children_Oct_2016.pdf
van Diesen, A (2017). Social protection for children and their families in the Middle East and North Africa: where child rights meet smart economics, Policy in Focus 14(3). Brasília: International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth. Accessible: http://www.ipc-undp.org/pub/eng/PIF40_Social_protection_after_the_Arab_Spring.pdf