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Overview of Non-contributory Social Protection Programmes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region Through a Child and Equity Lens

Originally published



Through the definition of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), countries have acknowledged the importance of social protection for poverty reduction. Namely, target 1.3 of SDG 1, “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”, calls for the implementation of nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all to achieve substantial coverage of poor and vulnerable populations, including children, by 2030. By including childspecific indicators and targets, SDG 1 urges countries to place children at the centre of poverty reduction efforts and reinforces the need to assess the child-sensitivity of policies, incentivising countries to produce child-disaggregated and child-specific data on both poverty and social protection coverage.

Children in developing countries are more than twice as likely as adults to live in extremely poor households.

They account for half of the estimated 767 million people living in extreme poverty worldwide, even though they only represent around a third of the population (UNICEF and World Bank 2016). Moreover, children’s experience of poverty differs from that of adults: not only they are more vulnerable to malnutrition, disease and abuse, they are also more dependent on others for support.

An ever-growing body of research has documented the importance of making social protection programmes more responsive to the specific needs of children. In fact, social protection policies do not necessarily have to target children to benefit them. For example, children can benefit from social protection by having a pensioner in their family. In addition, the design of social protection policies can foster synergies with other basic social services in the areas of health, nutrition and education, helping to achieve other SDGs and to fight multiple dimensions of deprivation faced by children.

This study provides a closer look at child-sensitive non-contributory social protection in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where child poverty remains a critical concern. A recent study in 11 Arab countries has shown that an estimated one in four children suffers from acute multidimensional poverty, meaning that they are deprived of their basic rights in two or more of the following dimensions: decent housing, health care, safe water, sanitation, nutrition, basic education and information (LAS, UN ESCWA, UNICEF, and OPHI 2017).

Social protection in the MENA region is traditionally characterised by a reliance on universal food, fuel and utility subsidies and on contributory insurance schemes. However, there is growing consensus that non-targeted subsidies disproportionally favour the wealthy and have little effect on poverty reduction. While social insurance systems are in place for those in the civil service and in formal employment, they provide only limited protection for workers outside the formal labour market.

The non-contributory social protection schemes often target particularly vulnerable groups such as those who have lost the capacity to work due to old age and/or disability, or families that have lost their breadwinner or do not have one (e.g. orphans, widows, divorced women, or even women who are single after a certain age), resulting in low coverage of poor and vulnerable working families with children. Moreover, little is known about the proportion of children covered by programmes. This information, however, is crucial for enhancing the childsensitivity of social protection systems, so that they may reach all vulnerable children and respond to their agespecific needs.

In a context of growing budgetary deficits and fiscal consolidation, countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia are phasing out or reducing food and energy subsidies and reallocating some of the accrued savings to targeted cash transfer programmes. Such reforms can, in principle, offer a good opportunity to invest in children, with the introduction of missing child-sensitive components in social protection systems, which can have positive impacts on several dimensions of children’s well-being, including health, education and nutrition.