This blog was first published on MENA SP Network.
The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in unprecedented shocks to economies, food systems and labour markets globally and in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, threatening the income and food security of millions of people. UN ESCWA estimates that 8.3 million people in the region could fall into poverty and an additional 1.9 million are at risk of becoming undernourished (based on pre-transfer estimates) (ESCWA 2020). The consequences of the pandemic have highlighted the crucial importance of inclusive, comprehensive and stable social protection systems that respond to the needs of different population and income groups, and that can be scaled up rapidly in times of crisis.
What Have the Social Protection Responses in MENA Been so Far?
Many countries in the MENA region have responded rapidly to the consequences of the crisis. In a recent Note (IBC-SP 2020), the Regional UN Issue-Based Coalition on Social Protection (IBC-SP) in partnership with the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) mapped a total of 195 measures provided by governments and UN agencies across the three main fields of social protection, namely social assistance, social insurance and labour market.1
One of the most common measures is related to cash transfers (adopted by at least 16 countries in the region). This includes vertical expansions of existing programmes (i.e. increased benefit amounts), as done in Bahrain, Jordan or Tunisia, as well as horizontal expansions by including, for instance, people who have been already on the waiting list of programmes, as done in Egypt or Palestine. Some countries have also introduced relatively large temporary emergency cash schemes, mostly for those previously not covered by any social protection schemes, such as informal workers, as in the cases of Egypt, Jordan or Morocco. All these countries used online platforms to register beneficiaries. Wage subsidy schemes were less common in the region but Jordan stands out with its Tadamon programmes, which also covered companies previously not registered in the social insurance system, and hence contributed to formalisation.
What are the Main Remaining Gaps and how can they be Addressed?
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the MENA region hard, with particularly severe consequences for those who are already vulnerable and socially excluded. Despite considerable efforts, some of the key remaining challenges include:
- Reaching those not previously registered in social assistance or social insurance programmes (especially informal workers);
- Difficulty in reaching conflict-affected areas and a high number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), often living in crowded camps and hence more susceptible to the virus;
- Exclusion of non-nationals from national social protection schemes (especially informal non-national workers are particularly affected by job losses);
- Limited fiscal space (oil-exporting countries were already facing challenges before the pandemic and with the further decrease in oil revenues, these will be further intensified).
To effectively protect those in need and in light of these challenges, the Note recommends governments and development partners in the region to consider the following:
- Ensure free healthcare and testing for COVID-19 for all, including non-nationals;
- Extend wage subsidies and include migrant workers in employment retention schemes to maintain jobs during the crisis and ensure economic recovery;
- Extend existing unemployment benefits or establish emergency funds;
- Improve the registration of informal, daily and self-employed workers and continue providing cash support to them;
- Provide cash and in-kind transfers as well as WASH interventions for refugees and IDPs, especially in camps, and make sure at least IDPs are included in governmental social protection responses.
While some of these measures have already been implemented, many were thought only as short-term responses. Yet, given that the crisis is still ongoing, and will continue for some time, it is key that these measures are continued, taking into account the lessons learnt from the first phase of responses in the region and beyond.
The mapping of the responses taken so far has also shown that design tweaks and innovative technologies, such as online registration platforms and digital payment mechanism, are key for a quick and ´corona-safe´ response. While those need to be further enhanced, alternatives must be provided to those without or with limited access to technologies and the internet. Moreover, these different measures require coordination among different stakeholders, including non-State actors, such as NGOs, religious organisations and workers’ organisations, which have also shown to play a key role in identifying those who are most in need and disseminating important information. The latter does not only include information about the virus but also about available social protection schemes and their requirements, highlighting the need for effective and context-adapted communication strategies. It is worth noting that grievance redressal mechanisms have received somewhat less attention in this first phase. However, those are crucial for all interventions to ensure no one is left behind, requiring investment in call lines or online channels.
The fiscal space needed for these responses remains the ´elephant in the room´, requiring governments to explore options that were previously considered inadequate or sensitive. While in some countries international support will be required, in others increased indebtedness must be followed up with progressive tax reforms, together with improved social protection systems. Finally, the crisis also provides an opportunity, allowing countries in the MENA region to enhance the shock responsiveness of their social protection systems now and in such a way that new features can also be used in the future.
This blog post is based on a Note developed by the Regional UN Issue-Based Coalition on Social Protection (IBC-SP) in partnership with the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG). The IBC-SP gathers regional experts from ILO, UNICEF, ESCWA, FAO, IOM, UNDP, UNHCR, WHO, UNRWA, WFP and the RCO to share knowledge, think and work together on the development of effective and inclusive social protection systems, including floors, in the MENA/Arab States region, as a key pathway for reducing vulnerabilities and building resilience to shocks and stresses, reducing poverty and achieving the SDGs. The IPC-IG is a global forum for South-South dialogue on innovative development policies, result of a partnership agreement between the Government of Brazil and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
 Annex 2 of the Note entails a more detailed description of the measures. Note that measures for refugees and IDPs were mapped separately.
ESCWA (2020) ‘Poverty and Food Insecurity in the Arab Region’. Policy Brief No. 2. Mitigating the Impacts of COVID-19. United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia https://www.unescwa.org/sites/www.unescwa.org/files/en_20-00119_covid-19_poverty.pdf
IBC-SP (2020) ‘Social Protection Responses to the COVID-19 Crisis in the MENA/ Arab States Region’. Issued-based Coalition on Social Protection https://socialprotection.org/discover/publications/social-protection-responses-covid-19-crisis-mena-arab-states-region