At the end of 2016, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development has launched a new research project aimed at re-shaping possible welfare policies in the Middle East: Redrawing the Welfare Map: New Directions in Social Policy in the Mena Region. Such Report, however, is one amongst many attempts of understanding and building upon the recent events that lead to the so-called Arab spring and, more generally, in and around a region historically characterised by major tensions, often resulting in bloody conflicts.
It was precisely the surge of such ‘springs’, accompanied by important migratory flows and by the consequent interest of trans-national developmental agencies, that has led to an increment in research projects grounded upon the awareness of the limits of traditional populist approaches designed to target short-term poverty-related issues rather than to address structural national inequalities.
According to a research project published by the British University of Bath, an institution renowned for its keenness in studying the MENA Region, “governments and international development agencies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are taking a greater interest in issues of social welfare and social protection. The turbulent events of the “Arab spring” have only served to heighten the need for this. Yet, there is little clarity as to what social protection might mean or how it might be organised in a region which has, so far, not developed a clear political rationale for equality and social rights”
Doctor Rana Jawad, Senior Lecturer of the University of Bath and founder of the MENA Social Policy Network, explains how “the welfare systems of the region have historically either been employment-based social security favouring male and public sector workers; or a combination of in-kind and in-cash social assistance for vulnerable social groups that are dominated by female-headed households and orphans. As a result, two-thirds of MENA populations do not have any form of formal social security. Kinship ties, community and religious organisations play a key role in providing emergency social assistance to those who have no recourse to formal state-based welfare benefits. They also run large networks of hospitals, health clinics, schools and universities which charge fees. Most governments in MENA favour policies that emphasise economic and human capacities development through mainly private-sector investment. This means that social welfare considerations are mainly focused on alleviating the symptoms rather than the causes of poverty”.
The trend, however, seems to be changing even if attention for universal social protection schemes in the Arab region remains quite small, with the singular exception of an overreliance on ineffective food and fuel subsidies: “GCC states have made the biggest strides in extending health insurance while various other countries such as Yemen, Jordan and Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territories have focused more on improving social assistance programs”.
“Recently – concludes Doctor Rana Jawad - international development agencies have begun to promote an agenda around social protection in MENA which has been met with greater interest by MENA governments in part due to the concerns posed by the Arab uprisings but also as a result of the need to propose new policy objectives in the post-2015 MDGs era. New policies are appearing which include the extension of employment-based health insurance, unemployment benefits for university graduates, reform of food and fuel subsidy programs and unconditional cash transfer programs. These do not constitute a revolution in social policy but are a step in the right direction”.