Published on Arab Voices

Social protection for all in need: Lessons from the COVID-19 response in MENA



In the months after the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), countries across the region acted quickly to limit the spread of the virus. Lockdowns, curfews, and social distancing undoubtedly saved lives, but these necessary actions also constrained businesses and economies. Communities suffered from the loss of jobs and livelihoods, the closure of schools and markets, and the damage to businesses, many of which may never recover.  

One year later, it is clear that the pandemic has disproportionately affected the poor and vulnerable, in large measure because of the historically limited coverage of social safety nets and deteriorating situation even before COVID-19. Crises largely emanated from drops in oil prices, institutional fragility, and conflict in several countries especially in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Iraq. Internally displaced persons and refugees have further been exposed to extreme vulnerability because of illness and the loss of job opportunities in the informal sector.  

Extreme poverty (defined as living on US$1.90 per day) in the MENA Region was already increasing: to 7.2% in 2018, up from 3.8% in 2015 and 2.4% in 2013. The World Bank estimates that COVID-19 has pushed an additional 8 million people in MENA into extreme poverty and an additional 18 million people into living on less than US$5.50 per day.   

Social safety nets have proven to be very effective in mitigating the impact of the crisis and building resilience even among the poorest households. In MENA, 21 countries had formally announced various social protection measures to cope with the impacts of COVID-19, which have spanned social assistance, social insurance, and labor markets programs. Several of the measures draw from, and build on, existing social protection policies, strategies, and programs. Increased coverage is implemented either through vertical expansion, where existing beneficiaries get additional benefits, or horizontal expansion that involves targeting additional beneficiaries. 

The World Bank has supported social safety net measures through fast, flexible, and adaptive financing and technical assistance. Our support to social protection operations more than doubled, allowing the number of beneficiaries to increase from 2 million to a projected 16 million.  This magnitude demonstrates that social protection systems in MENA were responsive and scalable. And the emergency response pushed the frontier of social protection system, forcing the use of technology for payments, setting up and expanding the use of social registries, horizontal and vertical expansion of coverage and benefits, and several other interventions.  

The ongoing vaccination effort will play a critical role in spearheading recovery in the region; however, social protection will be just as important in the months and years ahead. Even as the recovery takes hold, governments will face tight budget constraints, leading to tough decisions about spending and policy choices. For the poor and vulnerable households, communities, and small firms, returning to the new normal will depend on policy choices that address their needs. 

Rethinking Social Protection in MENA is, therefore, even more important moving forward. It will be critical to help countries strengthen and boost policy reforms and innovations that provide adequate social protection coverage for informal sector workers, reform regressive subsidies to create fiscal space for targeted social safety nets, strengthen delivery systems, and invest in institutions that can champion the social protection agenda to help guide policy and implementation.  

The COVID-19 pandemic created a huge crisis, but also an opportunity for MENA countries to build more adaptive, resilient, inclusive social protection systems. There are many lessons to draw from MENA countries’ social protection response to the global pandemic. Containment measures, by and large, remain in place in several countries in the region due to second or third waves, and emergency response for relief is still crucial. For most countries, globally, cash transfers to bridge the emergency period averaged as short as 3 to 4 months.  

As countries develop strategies to recover and emerge from the crisis, social protection programs will be even more important for the extremely poor and vulnerable, and to help people who slipped into poverty lift themselves out again. Innovations in social protection will need to build synergies with other investments in education, health, and jobs to have more lasting and significant impacts. The continued innovation, learning, and sharing of experience in designing and implementing social protection measures will be vital in shaping the new normal across MENA in the years to come. 



[Event] The Future of Social Protection Systems in MENA

The World Bank in MENA

This blog is the first in a series that will share experiences and document early lessons from the MENA Social Protection and Jobs COVID-19 Response. 


Ferid Belhaj

World Bank Vice President for Middle East and North Africa

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