This reflection shared with me by one of the participants after the social safety nets (SSNs) course held in Kuwait from May 5–9 sums up the remarkable experience of hosting this event. The course -- sponsored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and delivered by the World Bank -- was the first of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and was delivered entirely in Arabic with presentations, case studies, and simulation activities tailored to the main issues facing the region. As shown in the picture below, it was not long before the sense of community set in and the participants -- who came from 13 different countries across MENA -- were sharing their personal experiences in the field and earnestly reflecting on ways to improve the design and implementation of their SSN programs.
Perhaps this friendly, comfortable atmosphere was to be expected since the course was part of the MENA Community of Practice on Employment and Social Safety Nets (CoP), which aims to connect regional practitioners and provide them with opportunities to learn from successful practices in the region as well as to interact with global SSN experts. However, I think the opportunity to interact in their first language throughout the course, with not only other participants, but also with most of the speakers, added to their comfort and sense of community, which in turn created a warm space to present and discuss their ideas.
One prime example of this warm, yet serious atmosphere was the virtual presentation—along with the discussion that followed it—delivered by H.E. Mohammad Abu Hammour (Jordan’s Former Minister of Finance) about Jordan’s experience with subsidy reform. This topic is both timely and extremely relevant to the region, where according to the MENA Development Report “Inclusion and Resilience ,” MENA countries spend, on average, 6 percent of their GDP on subsidies and less than 0.7 percent of their GDP on other SSN programs. In addition, universal subsidies have substantial leakages to the non-poor, with the benefit incidence of fuel subsidies reaching nearly 60 percent of the richest quintile in Egypt and over 40 percent of the richest quintile in Yemen. These figures highlight the pressing need in MENA for countries to rethink the design of their universal subsidy programs in order to divert money to more effective SSN programs.
Dr. Abu Hammour, with his personal experience leading the move to reduce subsidies in Jordan in 2003 and 2009, was in a unique position to address this topic. In fact, Jordan is one of the only countries in MENA to have successfully reduced energy subsidies. He offered a genuine perspective on the serious socio-economic problems associated with universal subsidies, speaking from one practitioner to another. This approach, coupled with a pressing topic in SSNs, captured the attention of all participants -- from high-income Gulf Cooperation Council countries to middle-income states undergoing economic and political changes. Then, in a poignant moment during the question and answer period, he cautioned the Palestinian Territories not to give into citizen demands for universal subsidies, noting that they are extremely difficult to remove and create a vicious cycle of inefficient and expensive policies. It was clear that this candid message from a fellow practitioner in the region, with first-hand experience reducing subsidies, was really reaching the course participants and provoking them to seriously discuss the pros and cons of subsidy reform.
As participants left the course, noting their satisfaction with the opportunity to engage with other MENA countries and learn from them, I could feel the tremendous potential of the region to bolster the effectiveness of their SSN programs and improve the well-being of their citizens through these frank and active conversations about their own experiences. Even a participant from Bahrain remarked that she hoped upon returning home, the course’s ideas and lessons learned would inform Bahrain’s National Poverty Plan, which will be initiated in the coming weeks.
The MENA CoP needs to continue adding more MENA countries to its ranks while sustaining this dialogue and transforming these conversations into reforms. As Dr. Abu Hammour’s presentation exemplified, there is a real opportunity for MENA countries to learn from each other, and as one of the participants from Yemen noted in the closing session “where there is a will, there’s a way.” Now, together with these practitioners from the region, the CoP must support this will and search for ways to implement it.