The promise of peer learning was recently put to the test during a visit by members of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Community of Practice (CoP) on Employment and Social Safety Nets (SSNs) to Tbilisi, Georgia. The delegation consisted of officials from seven MENA countries, including Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories, Tunisia, and Yemen. They were afforded an up close look at Georgia’s poverty-based targeting methodology (Proxy Means Testing/PMT) for beneficiaries of social assistance through an intensive schedule of meetings, briefings and internal discussions. 
For the process to work and the visit to deliver maximum benefits, the selected country had to be a success story that all participants could relate to. It also had to satisfy the learning needs of seven diverse countries with different income levels and with social assistance programs at varying levels of development. After much debate, Georgia was selected because: (i) it had introduced social assistance reforms not so long ago and is still fine tuning their application; (ii) it is a lower middle-income country, and so right at the middle of the income spectrum of the participating countries; and (iii) similar to most MENA CoP countries, it has gone through rather volatile political, economic and social circumstances, making reform difficult and placing extra pressure on service delivery.
Gathering the right crowd for the visit was also a challenge. The learning visit was meant for the ‘Birds of a feather to flock together’. The idea was that the participants would learn from one another as much as from their Georgian counterparts. And so we reached out to colleagues and local partners and succeeded in gathering twelve officials who proved to be true social assistance enthusiasts. They came from central and local governments, worked at policy and programs levels, and were involved in their countries’ reforms. While the group was mostly male, the one female member happen to be the Executive Manager of the Palestinian Cash Transfer Program; a double bonus that provided both diversity and a powerful example to learn from given the program’s superior performance in the region. We used Arabic throughout the visit to ensure maximum interaction and were able to secure the only Georgian- Arabic translator in Georgia. Our crowd did not only speak Arabic, but also the language of ‘social assistance’.
In Tbilisi, my anxiety over numerous potential pitfalls vanished as soon as I saw how quickly our group bonded and how well they interacted with Georgian officials. The delegation met with officials at the Ministry of Health Labor and Social Protection (HL&SP), Social Service Agency, Tbilisi Municipality, and a range of other institutions. It was immediately clear that they related to the Georgian experience,despite the cultural differences. Those who already use PMT found answers to their program’s gaps, and those who are contemplating change benefited from Georgia’s road map for reform. When the former Georgian Minister of HL&SP who had introduced his country’s reforms shared his experience with the participants; the resistance he faced, the risks he took and, eventually, his taste of success, they crowned him as a hero. With the various dialects of Arabic, the high energy and eagerness to learn, it felt as if I was on the set of Arab Idol (an Arabic television show based on the popular British show Pop Idol, in which singing talents from across the region compete). Only in this instance the idols were not Arab pop stars, but rather Georgian officials!
Following the daily program, the participants continued their discussions over Georgian Khachapuri (cheese bread) and Lamb Shisklik (Lamb Kebab). Having adopted PMT, the Palestinians and Yemenis exchanged reports and operation manuals and requested the CoP team to facilitate official visits to each other’s countries for more detailed understanding of each other’s systems. Group interaction was great and when the participants were asked about the value added of the group’s diversity, their responses were overwhelmingly positive.
When it comes to managing expectations, the Georgians did a fantastic job. They shared their experience plain and simple and passed on the message that PMT is not a cure for poverty. Yes, it helps in identifying the poorest but: (i) more than cash assistance is needed to help the poor exit the vicious cycle of poverty; (ii) a national, unified registration system is vital for efficiently managing resources and prioritizing services; and (iii) a grievance handling mechanism is necessary to capture those who fall between the cracks and rectify system errors. These were only a few of the messages the Georgians shared with the participants. We can repeatedly communicate such messages in our presentations and reports, but they will always sound different coming from a practitioner and they will for sure have greater resonance. At the end of the visit, all participants indicated that they would consider adopting PMT. At least four of the seven participating countries do not use PMT and I would like to believe that the visit has contributed to a national revaluation of their social assistance policies and programs.
Thanks to the MENA CoP, the initiative that made this learning experience possible, and Didi madloba (many thanks) to Georgia; a true MENA SSN idol!
 The learning visit was co-lead by Samira Hillis (Senior Operations Officer) and Rania Atieh (Social Protection Consultant) from the Social Protection and Labor team at the Middle East and North Africa Region at the World Bank.