Department of Social & Policy Sciences

A new social contract for MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries: Experiences from Development and Social Policies

09 December 2016

On Monday 5 and Tuesday 6 December the  German Development Institute (GDI), in partnership with the Institute for Policy Research (IPR), hosted a conference entitled ‘A new social contract for MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries’. The two-day conference, which featured keynote speakers from UNICEF, the World Bank and Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, was the third international meeting of the IPR’s MENA Social Policy Network. It took place at the GDI headquarters in Bonn and was attended by delegates from all over the world.

The event began with introductions from some leading figures within the GDI, and convener of the IPR MENA Social Policy Network  Dr Rana Jawad; GDI Research Team Leader Markus Loewe then gave a more substantive prelude to the subject matter of the conference, which raised many issues that were to become common themes over the next two days. In particular, he defined the concept of a social contract as a multilateral covenant between a state’s government and all of its social groups, and explored the MENA region’s ‘old’ social contract – which was characterised by generous fuel and food subsidies, authoritarian governance and growing discontent on the part of the population at large.

In the first keynote,  Professor Steven Heydemann of Smith College, Massachusetts dealt with the dramatic expression of this discontent in the Arab uprisings. He saw this historical moment as the final, decisive collapse of the inclusive, redistributive social economies that had defined the MENA region since the postcolonial period – and he praised the timing of the Bonn conference. The need for such meetings, he claimed, is urgent, as we face the dual challenge of opening the space for negotiating a new social contract before new repressive, authoritarian social contracts consolidate their legitimacy. The group then broke for parallel panel sessions on conflict-affected regions, the social impacts of economic policy, and social protection for old-age. 

The next pair of keynotes – delivered by  UNICEF Regional Social Policy Adviser for MENA Arthur van Diesen and  World Food Programme Resilience and Livelihoods Officer Muriel Calo – added to the social dimension of the MENA problem explored in the panels with analyses of child welfare and food security in the region. Mr van Diesen began in a poetic vein by quoting Lebanese-American artist Khalil Gibran in support of his own thesis that social policies which benefit citizens in childhood pay off for a lifetime. He then echoed Loewe’s damning assessment of subsidies as a hugely inefficient form of social protection, and catalogued more effective alternatives from a universal children’s allowance to a tax on unhealthy food.

Food security might seem a peripheral problem for MENA, a region fraught with internecine war and political instability – but as Calo demonstrated, these issues mirror a terrible fragility in basic sustenance. MENA, she said, imports more than 50% of the food it requires – and is the only region where malnutrition has actually increased since 2000. State welfare systems, which are inadequate to address the needs of the people, are propped up by widespread religious charity that often eclipses the state in its generosity. This issue was further discussed in a panel on formal and informal protection, while parallel sessions focussing on rural areas and employment also ran. 

The public panel session that evening, introduced by Director of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development Christian Bogemann-Hagedorn and held in the spacious offices of Deutsche Welle, saw a number of comparisons drawn between MENA and postwar Germany.  Shanta Devarajan, Chief Economist for MENA at the World Bank, painted a picture of a region that, in the period from 1990 to 2010, was showing promising indicators including high growth, low and declining inequality and falling rates of poverty; the Arab Spring, therefore, was as enigmatic as it was unexpected. He pointed to a low and declining sense of wellbeing over the same period, however, and asserted that the ‘old’ social contract, with its high subsidies and profitable public employment opportunities in return for a blind eye to authoritarian leadership, was not sustainable. When public employment fell and the private sector couldn’t make up the shortfall, the system collapsed. MENA now has the highest unemployment rate of any region, he explained – and what is more, persistent absenteeism among public servants including teachers has led to poor education outcomes. Meanwhile, fuel and water subsidies have encouraged resource depletion, and left MENA in desperate need of a new social contract.

There followed a panel debate on the issues raised by Devarajan, including a number of frank recommendations for future approaches – particularly from Professor Nidal Katamine of  The Hashemite University and former minister of labour for Jordan. Calling for Western intervention in  the region, he echoed Bogemann-Hagedorn’s comparisons with postwar Germany. “MENA is devastated”, he said. “The West must bring democracy, and the chance for a new social contract”. In his keynote, which opened the second day of the conference, he gave a detailed insight into what Jordan is doing to integrate refugees into its society and its labour market. He stressed the difficulties that Jordan faces working with other states in the region, however, despite a strong national commitment to helping refugees, and lamented the lack of help coming from the West. In particular, he predicted that Europe’s response to the refugee crisis will be remembered as a ‘black spot in history’.

The final keynote, following a round of panels on children and education, political economy and Morocco, came from Samar Muhareb, Director of  Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD) Legal Aid - an NGO which works with refugees on the ground in Jordan and provides them with legal support. As she explained her organisation’s work, it became increasingly clear that, as she put it, local NGOs working directly in refugee camps and host communities will build the groundwork of a new social contract. Although ARDD was formed to provide legal aid, it has since grown to tackle the root causes of the problems which lead to legal battles in the first place – and Muhareb insisted that national ownership coupled with international assistance would be the path forward for writing MENA’s new social contract.

The conference closed with the launch of  Policy Innovations for Transformative Change, The  United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) 2016 Flagship Report.

The original event listing can be seen here