On September 1st 2021, the ILO launched its World Social Protection Report 2020-2022 (WSPR 2020-2022). This is the third report of its kind since the ILO adopted the Social Protection Floors Recommendation No. 202 in 2012, crystallising a global commitment to guarantee a basic level of social security to all, and aiming for ensuring wider scope and higher levels of protection globally.
As in previous reports, the WSPR 2020-2022 offers a robust set of data at global, regional and country levels regarding social protection coverage, the benefits provided, and related public expenditure. This time around, building on the renewed appreciation of social protection brought by the socio-economic realities uncovered and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, WSPR introduces a critical question facing states and their constituents: Will they pursue a “high-road” strategy of investing in reinforcing their social protection systems, or a “low-road” strategy of minimalist provision, succumbing to fiscal or political pressures?
To answer this question, tellingly, the report’s subtitle reads “Social Protection at the Crossroads—in pursuit of a better future” as, in the eyes of the authors of the WSPR 2020-2022, this question is a simple matter of choice for nearly all countries in the world, irrespective of their level of development.
Historically, social protection policies in the region have been fragmented, with large gaps and discrepancies in coverage across different types of programmes (social insurance, non-contributory programmes and medical care), target groups (such as employees in the public and private sector, various vulnerable groups), and public and private provision. Although some countries in the region have developed or are developing national strategies or plans for social protection (as in Jordan), with a few implementing reforms aimed at widening the scope of social protection (see, for instance, social insurance reforms in Jordan since 2010 or the Takaful and Karama programmes in Egypt), the WSPR 2017-2019 reported that effective coverage nontheless remained low.
This is largely because most social insurance schemes cover only public and private sector workers with regular contracts, with other categories of workers excluded from coverage – often legally and effectively. Added to that, high rates of informality, low female labour market participation and high levels of unemployment have contributed to low social protection coverage rates, particularly for women. A lack of ambition for developing tax-financed lifecycle guarantees (rather than small, poverty targeted programmes), stands among the root causes that explain such low coverage across the region.
Revealingly, and disappointingly, the WSPR 2020-2022 confirms that the trends reported in 2017 have not changed much, as shown in Figure 1.
Note: North Africa data for children and vulnerable persons are based on reported data below 40%.
Beyond the headline coverage figures, five key findings emerge:
- Overall social protection spending as a percentage of GDP in the region is one of the lowest in the world (Figure 2), reflecting chronic underinvestment through stubborn adherence to a "Charity paradigm" that will continue to fail to pay social and economic dividends. You get what you pay for, after all.
- Levels of social protection spending on children are amongst the lowest in the world, with at least six states spending 0 per cent – nothing! – even though children constitute a large percentage of population in the Arab States (Figure 3). Taken together with the fact that three quarters of children in Arab States are not receiving social protection benefits, the low-road strategies of the past will make for a bleak future barring a fundamental paradigm shift.
- Coverage of persons with severe disabilities is comparatively extremely low, where a paltry 7 per cent are receiving cash benefits, which puts it next-to-last in regional rankings, just ahead of South Asia (Figure 4). The complete absence of income security for the overwhelming majority of persons with disabilities and their families in the region amounts to an impressive and unacceptable moral failing, not to mention a significant economic loss. (Across 10 low- and middle-income countries, productivity losses due to not effectively addressing disability have been estimated at between 1 and 7 per cent of GDP.)
- Arab states also have the worst gender coverage gap of any region, by some margin (Figure 5), reflecting both entrenched labour market inequalities – including staggeringly low female labour force participation rates – not to mention the glaring absence in most of the region of tax-financed pensions, which are known for reducing gender inequality in pension outcomes.
- Finally, there is a notable divide in coverage levels within MENA region, with North African countries having higher total social protection coverage on average, particularly when excluding Sudan, compared to countries in the Mashreq and the Gulf. Different historical legacies have created distinct challenges across the region, and broad-brush generalisations should be treated with caution. Nonetheless, the overall story that emerges from the report, across both Arab States and North Africa, is that the baseline is low by global comparison. The flipside, of course, is that the opportunities for a “high-road” shift toward more inclusive social security are greater!
To answer the question posed by the WSPR 2020-2022, data clearly suggests that governments in the region are leaning towards a “low-road” strategy, unless fundamental policy changes take place. Even during the peak of COVID 19, the average investment in emergency social protection programmes was just 0.5 per cent of GDP, nowhere near what would be required to meet the enormity of the challenges at hand. A number of countries in the region are engaging or re-engaging in national visioning processes around the future of social protection in a post-COVID world, which gives cause for optimism. However, this is tempered by a stubbornly narrow menu of policy options being presented by powerful international actors and financiers in specific country contexts, despite global rhetorical commitments to universality.
With high levels of inequality, soaring poverty rates, and political instability looming, Arab countries are faced with a stark choice between pursuing a “high-road” strategy of investing in their social protection systems, or a “low-road” strategy of minimalist provision. As enshrined in Article 22 of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, realising the human right to social security for all is not optional but an obligation of all signatory states, and it is vital that all actors get behind a universal vision, supported by policies rooted in specific, rights-based entitlements. Pursuing a “high-road” strategy is, as the authors of the WSPR 2020 express, the “ethical and rational choice (…) that paves the way to social justice for all.”