A woman at a protest in Tunisia holds up a sign saying: "you have impoverished us, starved us, drowned us in debts" Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto via Getty Images

MENA governments must establish universal social protection systems for all

Governments across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) should work to develop, expand and fund universal social protection systems that guarantee the right to social security for all, Amnesty International said today, announcing it has signed the joint Declaration on Building Universal Social Protection in the Arab Region.

Across the MENA region, people are facing multiple, ongoing crises, including devastating conflicts, severe economic and debt shocks, and the increasing toll of the climate emergency. Yet the majority lack sufficient social protection.

The declaration, organized by the civil society-led Arab Region Hub for Social Protection, aims to build support for establishing and developing universal social protection systems across MENA that ensure that all people receive their social security guarantees. By signing the declaration, Amnesty International joins a community of civil society organizations that is working to improve socioeconomic rights in MENA, including by advocating for robust protection and fulfilment of the right to social security.

“People in MENA are losing lives, loved ones, and livelihoods while being battered by crisis after crisis. Yet, across the region, social protection systems have proved to be inadequate and insufficient, leaving large parts of the population to fend for themselves, with minimal or no government support,” said Kristine Beckerle, Amnesty International’s Economic Social and Cultural Rights Advisor for the Middle East and North Africa.

“MENA governments, with the support of donors and international financial institutions, where necessary, must work urgently to develop, expand, and fund universal social protection systems capable of ensuring that all people can live in dignity, regardless of their socio-economic status.”

Across the region, social protection systems have proved to be inadequate and insufficient, leaving large parts of the population to fend for themselves, with minimal or no government support,

Kristine Beckerle, MENA Economic, Social and Cultural Rights advisor

Social security is a human right, recognized by various international treaties and foundational human rights documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Fulfilling the human right to social security ensures that individuals and families can access essential services and income support during times of need such as unemployment, illness, or disability. Social protection systems are crucial for ensuring people are able to access and enjoy a range of other human rights, including their rights to health, an adequate standard of living, food, water, and housing.

Millions of people living in the MENA region are unable to access or enjoy their socio-economic rights. In Lebanon, Amnesty International has highlighted how the government has failed to ensure people have access to adequate healthcare during the economic crisis. In Egypt, authorities have intensified their crackdown against people who peacefully protested their deteriorating living conditions, striking workers, and people voicing criticism over the authorities’ handling of the economic crisis. Across MENA, the climate crisis combined with long-standing government failures to properly manage, distribute and ensure sustainable use of available water is gravely endangering people’s right to water now and in the future.

Effective social protection systems provide the necessary support that can protect and assist individuals and families when they experience shocks due to life’s uncertainties. Protecting people against losses due to shocks, from disasters or economic reversals, enables children to stay in education, improves healthcare, reduces poverty and income inequality, and ultimately benefits societies economically. But, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO)  only about 40% of people in MENA were effectively covered in at least one area of social protection, a rate below the global average and significantly lower than other regions like Europe and Central Asia.

The Declaration on Universal Social Protection in the Arab Region aims to address some of these gaps by creating a community of organizations advocating for universal social protection systems that guarantee basic social security to all people, regardless of their employment status or their ability to contribute financially towards particular schemes.

Governments must establish a social protection system that covers a range of contingencies and risks, including access to essential healthcare and basic income security for children, older persons, and those of working age unable to work or earn sufficient income. Social security benefits should be adequate to allow people to realize their rights, both in the amount of the benefit provided and the time period during which the benefit is provided. Social security must also be accessible to all, including to those that belong to the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups.

Social protection can serve as a crucial stabilizer during times of crisis. Lebanon’s severe economic crisis, which led to the Lebanese pound losing over 98% of its value, exemplifies the need for robust and universal social protection systems. This economic crisis, which the World Bank called a “deliberate depression,” drastically reduced household purchasing power, greatly increased poverty, and further entrenched Lebanon’s already stark inequality. Lebanon’s social protection system, which was fragmented, limited and inequitable before the crisis, was completely unable to adapt to and address the rising needs. At a time when people desperately needed support, the Lebanese government let the little support that did exist collapse.

Even during crises, governments must work to ensure that people are able to enjoy minimum essential levels of their economic and social rights, including the right to social security. Governments can often redirect government resources to fund minimum, essential levels of social protection for everyone in the country or raise funds through tax reforms, tackling tax evasion or tax avoidance, as well as identify resources through other sources such as seeking international support.

“MENA governments, donor governments and international financial institutions must heed calls from civil society organizations to urgently work towards establishing, improving, and funding universal and inclusive social protection systems throughout the region. Introducing universal social protection measures can help to ensure that all people, including those who are marginalized, living in poverty or at risk of it, are able to access an adequate standard of living, adequate health, and other human rights,” said Kristine Beckerle.