A window into the 'worrying' social protection figures in the Arab world

Citizens fleeing their homeland of Basra
6 min read
21 September, 2021

The International Labour Organization's (ILO) 2020-2022 World Social Protection Report revealed that 46.9% of the world’s population are “covered by at least one social protection benefit”, excluding health.

Arab states fall below the global average, at just 40%, leaving 60% of the population with no ability to retrieve income security from their national social protection systems. 

The Arab region is the second to lowest in the world in offering social protection coverage, being one step ahead of Africa (17.4%), and falling behind the global lead, Europe and Central Asia (83.9%).

Social protection includes access to income security, including child, disability, maternity, work injury and unemployment benefits, alongside pension programmes.

Amongst Arab states, the ILO report said that Saudi Arabia has the highest percentage of individuals covered by at least one benefit (77.8%), excluding health. This is followed by Bahrain (62.4%), making the two Arab Gulf states ahead of the global average.

"The Arab region is the second to lowest in the world in offering social protection coverage"

However, these countries far surpass their Arab counterparts, as Jordan (27.8%), the third-highest in the region, falls considerably below the world average. The countries with the lowest rates are Yemen (2.8%), Qatar (7%), Lebanon (13.9%) and Oman (16.3%) – with no data given for Syria.

The report states that the pandemic revealed “significant gaps in social protection” coverage across the world, resulting from fragmented and under-funded social protection systems, exposing “the vulnerability of billions who were not adequately protected”.

It references the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which aims to “end poverty in all its forms”, and “implement nationally appropriate social protection systems for all”. Aligned with this belief, the ILO holds that every individual should be protected or covered by social protection benefits.

Upon taking a deeper look into the Arab region, only an estimated 15.4% of children receive a social protection benefit, compared with 26.4% globally. Around 7.2% of people with severe disabilities in the region receive a disability benefit, compared with 33.5% globally.

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In addition, unemployment benefits sit at an estimated 8.7%, compared with 18.6% globally. However, the Arab region's average for workers covered by work injury benefits (63.5%) exceeds the global average (35.4%).

Upon viewing the “worrying numbers”, Save the Children’s Media Manager for the Middle East and Eastern Europe, Ahmed Bayram, called for “governments to take action now”, as he told The New Arab that filling social protection gaps means “the future of millions”.

Bayram says the organisation has been urging governments in the region to “urgently look into supporting the most vulnerable children and their families through fairly distributed cash-based assistance”.

The President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Nedal Al-Salman, told The New Arab that despite the Bahraini government’s provision of social protection being higher than other Arab states, “many issues need to be addressed”, particularly with regards to migrant domestic workers, as he says they are “excluded from the majority of social protections offered”. 

Al-Salman says governments across the region should “develop and design protection systems based on their own circumstances”, for the region to become more resilient in the face of crisis.

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A Palestinian artist paints a mural of a mask-clad schoolgirl in Gaza City on 22 October 2020. [Getty]

The ILO report had limited access to data regarding Syria, a country plagued with war following the Syrian revolution. However, Head of Communications and Advocacy at Syria Relief, a world-leading Syria-focused NGO, Charles Lawley, told The New Arab that with an almost 90% poverty rate and 13 million people dependent on humanitarian assistance, “conflict has caused or worsened economic insecurity” in the country, with the pandemic only adding to existing damage.

Lawley says for Syria to ever recover from the $1.2 trillion conflict, “social protection needs to be prioritised immediately”. 

The ILO’s Senior Social Protection Specialist for the Arab States, Luca Pellerano, also stated social protection systems in conflict and emergency contexts are “the most direct and efficient mechanism to protect living standards”, being a social and economic stabiliser.

Pellerano states it is “essential” for state formation as the “transparent and effective delivery of social protection benefits to those in need reinforces the social contract between citizens and the state”.

The ILO report also stated that the pandemic exacerbated the social protection gap between high and low-income countries, as the financing gap for building social protection floors widened by 30% since it began. Higher-income countries, and those with social protection schemes already in place, fared better during the crisis, as the IMF warned of a “divergent” and uneven Covid recovery across the world, derailing progress made towards the UN’s 2030 agenda.

"We are in a pivotal moment to harness the pandemic response to build a new generation of rights-based social protection systems"

According to the report, on average, governments spend 12.9% of gross domestic product (GDP) on social protection, excluding health, globally. However, the average expenditure in Arab states is considerably lower, at just 4.9%. Jordan was reported to have the highest percentage of GDP spent on social protection (9%), followed by Kuwait (7%) and Bahrain (6.3%). The lowest spending countries in the region were Syria (0.4%), Yemen (0.7%) and Qatar (0.9%).

The ILO’s Luca Pellerano told The New Arab that the pandemic was “a wake-up call”, stating investment into new comprehensive social protection paradigms is needed to “curb inequalities and provide opportunities for all” in the region. Pellerano added that narrow safety nets only targeting the extreme poor “do not provide an adequate response” to the region’s challenges.

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is a non-partisan think tank dedicated to the study of the Middle East. The Director of the Program on Economics and Energy, Karen E Young, voiced her concerns to The New Arab, stating that the ability to measure who needs benefits “depends on reliable population and employment data, which is generally poor across MENA” - suggesting more exhaustive data may be a pre-requisite for real improvement.

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Young adds that “access to financial services is also limited to women in the Middle East, [which] could be a key mechanism to help families recover lost income and start new enterprises as mobility increases”.

As the world begins to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the majority of the Arab region not receiving social protection benefits, the ILO Director-General, Guy Rider, has publicly stated that countries across the world are “at a crossroads”. 

He says we are in “a pivotal moment to harness the pandemic response to build a new generation of rights-based social protection systems”, which he deems essential for “social justice and a sustainable and resilient future”.

Aisha Aldris is a journalist and podcast host, accredited by the Broadcast Journalism Training Council. She specialises in social and humanitarian issues, alongside cultural identity and the arts. Follow her on Twitter: @aishaaldris