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A Brief Diagnosis of Social Protection Systems in Volatile MENA Region Countries

Marwan Issa

The MENA region has been in a state of high political and socioeconomic turbulence for the past few decades. While far from heterogeneous, commonalities with regard to ideological backgrounds of social policies persist. Conditions in war-torn countries such as Syria and Yemen aren’t comparable to conditions in other MENA countries, for example, despite commonalities before the deterioration of the situation in Syria. These in turn aren’t comparable to conditions in Gulf countries.

The two extremes will thus be left out of this overview of social protection systems given the disproportionate levels of economic growth and capacities of service provision. An important note with regard to the systems of governance of Gulf countries however will be highlighted due to the exclusion of foreign workers from the benefits of these economies. In conclusion, this paper is based on findings in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Gulf countries.


Almost all social protection schemes of MENA countries covered suffer from a high degree of fragmentation and a low degree of coordination and complimentary between different social protection schemes. This includes a lack of harmony in social protection on three levels:

  1. Between the social protection programs and the governments’ overall socioeconomic agenda and vision for the country
  2. Between the social protection programs themselves
  3. Within the internal programmatic features of social protection programs who are often fragmented across different stages of implementation and receive no proper monitoring, evaluation, or objective follow-up.

This fragmentation is often associated with different characteristics of ruling regimes in the MENA countries reviewed, such as the high degree of resource wastage, particularly attributable to high rates of corruption, nepotism, and clientelism, which lead to the abuse of aid or government-initiated social protection programs to satisfy political constituencies, reinforce positions of power, and disrupt short- and long-term socioeconomic visions of recovery and reconstruction (in countries previously affected by war).


In intersection with the high degree of fragmentation that characterizes social protection programs in the MENA region, SP schemes also suffer from inefficiency in attaining their objectives: alleviating risk and vulnerability, and missing the supposedly main targets of the programs: the poorest and most marginalized.

Despite a significant amount of the countries’ GDP being spent on social protection mechanisms, the region still suffers from a low rate of graduation rates, and particularly sustainable graduations (i.e. where recipients of social protection programs’ conditions have been transformed due to these programs and have acquired “long-term resilience against dependency”. Large portions of the populations remain in conditions of high risk and vulnerability relative to the amounts of public funds being spent on social policies.

Who is Benefitting?

As social protection schemes remain inefficient in their original objectives, it’s important to note that two sections of MENA countries often benefit the most: formal employees and middle-to-upper-class residents. The gap between social protection coverage between formal and informal employees is striking. It’s important to emphasize that the latter comprise almost half of the workforce in certain MENA countries, particularly informal workers working in agriculture and other productive sectors. This includes also migrant workers across all MENA countries, especially in the Gulf where they comprise even larger factions.         

Inefficient allocations of universal social protection schemes such as fuel and energy subsidies have benefitted the well-off more so than the poor. Informal social protection schemes, such as those informally provided by political parties to their local constituencies, highly prevalent in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, have continued to crowd away money from more adequate and unbiased social protection programs that don’t operate on a sectarian/ethnic discriminatory basis.

Furthermore, the schism between work benefits and social protection between formal and informal employees is highly noticeable in countries with previous socialist systems, such as Egypt, where pensions, leaves, and overall work benefits highly prioritize public sector workers while disregarding a rising informal sector. In countries with high rates of privatization and austerity measures, this distinction takes place between a well-taken-care-off private sector and a neglected informal venue such as Lebanon.

Palliative Fixes in Contexts of Rentier Economies

A dissociation between state and society has been increasingly noticeable given the governance models dominating the MENA region which are characterized by low degrees of accountability, the absence of civic rights, and low rates of potential participation by local citizens.

This is important to note when relating to the corporatist and neoliberal nature of social policies in place in the region, which has weakened public services and undermined equitable distribution while prioritizing economic growth following SAP (Structural Adjustment Program) logic.

The crackdown on civic rights and marginalized workers’ rights and the increase in neoliberalized logic of operation have allowed the regimes in place to offer only palliative fixes to conditions of poverty and vulnerability and disregard the need for more structural and systematic reforms of socioeconomic realities.

The Lack of Transformative Capacities

Overall, social protection policies are usually characterized as protective, preventive, promotive and/or transformative. While MENA countries’ social protection policies sporadically contain the first three qualities, the absence of a transformative element to social protection approaches in the region remains significant.

Borrowing from Rachel Sabates-Wheeler and Stephen Devereux’s works, transformative social protection refers to “the need to pursue policies that relate to power imbalances in society that encourage, create and sustain vulnerabilities”. Matters of participation, agency, and overall power dynamics remain largely unaddressed in the MENA region.

The systems of governance in place, which rely on autocratic exclusions of democratic participation, crackdowns on trade unions’ capacities to influence decision-making, and socioeconomic national policies that disregard equitable distribution of opportunities have translated into social protection policies that follow the same logic.

This is more obvious when observing the realities and power realities of marginalized individuals and communities, the most notable of which are informal workers, migrant workers (especially migrant domestic workers), women and queer people, rural residents, disabled people, and others. The lack of gender-sensitive policies is a reflection of an unbalanced approach to social protection policies that creates chronic and vicious cycles of risk, vulnerability, and multidimensional poverty.

This article is the first of a series of articles/as part of a project on social protection in the MENA region.

About the author

Marwan Issa is a writer and researcher specializing in socio-political analysis with a focus on Lebanon, the Middle East, and Arab-European Development Initiatives. Previous areas of work include research on social movements in Lebanon and the Arab region, humanitarian aid, refugee socioeconomic realities, and clientelism by Lebanese political parties.

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