Social Protection

The Social Situation in the MENA Region

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Realities and lessons for the future

driss guerraoui
President of the MENA region, ICSW
Bachir TAMER
Member of the Executive Committee of ICSW

The latest UNDP Human Development Report for 2019 divides MENA countries into four categories. The countries with very high human development including Israel and the six Gulf countries, the countries with high human development including Algeria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, Libya, Egypt and Iran, the countries with medium human development including Morocco, Iraq and the Palestinian Territories, and countries with low human development including Syria, Djibouti and Yemen. Analysis of the social situation in the region reveals great disparities within and between countries in education, health, employment and poverty.

The population of the MENA region is estimated in 2020 at 464 million inhabitants, or 5.4% of the world population. It will reach an estimated 660 million people in 2050, or 6.8% of the world's population. Egypt and Iran alone comprise 40.2% of the region's total population. This proportion will not change in 2050, reaching around 39.8%. The population of the countries of North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania) would pass, during the same period, from 99.5 to 129 million inhabitants, that is to say respective proportions of 21.5% and 19.6%.

If the region’s population increase between 2020 and 2050 is 42.4% and 25% worldwide, this decrease will vary according to country. Indeed, it is the Palestinian territories (72.5%), Iraq (76.4%), Syria (89.1%), Yemen (61.4%) and Egypt (56.4 %) who would experience the largest increases. The smallest increase would concern the United Arab Emirates with 5.1%. Only one state in the region would see a very slight decrease in its population. This is Lebanon, whose population will increase from 6.8 to 6.5 million between 2020 and 2050.

The demographic evolution of the region is explained by the still high level of fertility, particularly in certain countries such as Egypt with 3.3 children per woman, Algeria 3, Iraq 3.6, the Palestinian territories 3.6, Israel 3, Syria 2.8 and Oman 2.8. This index is estimated, in 2019, globally at 2.5 children per woman, 1.7 in high-income countries and 4.4 in low-income countries.

These demographic realities are putting increasing pressure on the needs of populations in the most strategic areas for the daily lives of the region's citizens, notably in education, health, employment and the fight against poverty, and this in difficult national contexts and an international environment marked by numerous economic constraints, political instability, as well as by the emergence of new food, health, climatic, energy and digital insecurities.

An examination of the education level of the population in the MENA region reveals two major facts. The first relates to the backlog in literacy and schooling compared to other regions of the world. The second relates to the differences observed within the countries of the region in terms of access to education and training. Thus, if the adult literacy rate was evaluated in the MENA region at 79% in 2018 against 86% worldwide, this rate reaches 94% in Latin America and the Caribbean, 66% in Sub-Saharan Africa, 96% in South-East Asia and the Pacific, 72% in South Asia and 65% in the least developed countries (UN ranking). By gender, the literacy rate for women reached, in 2018, in the MENA region 72% for women and 85% for men against 83% and 90% respectively worldwide.

At the regional level, no country has a generalization in adult literacy. Worse, some countries have very low rates. These are Yemen (54%), Morocco (74%) and Egypt (71%). The situation of women is even more serious, with rates of 35%, 65% and 66% respectively.

In addition, the average duration of schooling was estimated in 2017 worldwide at 8.4 years. Ten countries in the region have an index below this average. These are Yemen (3), Djibouti (4.1), Syria (5.1), Morocco (5.5), Iraq (6.8), Tunisia (7.2), Egypt (7, 2), Libya (7.3), Kuwait (7.3) and Algeria (8).

The very low participation rate of women and the high volume of high unemployment among young people are the two main characteristics of the national labor markets in the region. Indeed, if at the global level, the activity rate of women is estimated, in 2017, at 48.7% for women against 75.1% for men, these rates reach respectively in the MENA Region 20.7% and 74.3%. It is in Yemen (6%), Syria (11.9%), Jordan (14%), Algeria (15.2%), Iran (16.8%) and Iraq (18.7 %) where the rates are lowest.

Regarding the unemployment rate, it is, in fact, young people aged 15-24 and women who are the most affected. Thus, according to 2019 data, if unemployment of young people aged 15-24 has been estimated at 12.2% globally, it reaches 26.2% in the MENA region, or about double. The most affected countries are the Palestinian Territories (45.9%), Libya (42%), Jordan (36.7%), Tunisia (34.8%), Egypt (32.4%) and Algeria (30.8%).

This rate is around 39% among women in the MENA region compared to 22.8% among men. The situation is even more dramatic within the countries since the unemployment rate for women in the 15-24 age group reaches 48% in Algeria, 71.7% in the Palestinian Territories, 57% in Libya, in Jordan 54.7%, in Egypt 44.2% and in Iran 45.8%. These rates reach 27.6%, 40.1%, 36.5%, 32.5%, 27.1% and 24.6%, respectively.

The assessment of the health conditions of the populations of the MENA region reveals, in turn, great disparities in terms of mortality, life expectancy at birth and levels of infant, child and maternal mortality.

In the MENA region, life expectancy at birth was estimated in 2017 by the World Bank at 74 years compared to 72 years globally. By country, Israel stands out by an average of 83 years against 66 years in Yemen, a difference of 17 years. The countries that record a value below the regional average are Djibouti (67.1 years), Egypt (72 years), Iraq (70.6 years), Libya (72.9 years) and Syria ( 72.7 years).

Regarding the infant mortality rate, the disparities between the countries of the Region are even greater. In fact, according to new United Nations estimates for 2019, some countries have ratios equivalent to those of high-income countries, notably Israel (3 per 1000) and the Gulf countries when others are undergoing the highest infant mortality rates in the world. These are Yemen and Djibouti.

Finally, for the level of maternal mortality, estimated in 2017 in the MENA region at 57 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, the highest rates are recorded in Yemen (248), Djibouti (168) and Algeria (112) , while the lowest rates are found in Israel (3), the United Arab Emirates (3) and Qatar (4).

Another aspect of the social situation in the MENA region is the level of poverty and social, territorial and gender inequalities. Thus, the GDP per capita at the level of the whole region was estimated, in 2018, at 20,712 dollars in PPP. It significantly exceeds the world average estimated at 17,912 dollars in PPP.

When we look at GDP per capita, we see very high differences between countries. Qatar has a per capita GDP of $ 126,898 in PPP, almost 50 times that of Yemen with $ 2,575 in PPP. Comparing the distribution of the population with that of the GDP, we note that 10.5% of the region's population accounts for 31% of the regional GDP. Similarly, taking into account the non-oil and gas producing countries in the region, ie 42% of the total population, their contribution to regional GDP does not exceed 21%.

In addition, an examination of the level of the poverty line at US $ 1.90 in PPP reveals significant proportions of the population of the MENA region who live below this threshold. This is particularly the case for Syria (59.5%) and Libya (59.6%). These two countries are followed by Tunisia and Algeria with respective rates of 35.9% and 30.1%. If we take into account, the level of multidimensional poverty, the proportion of the population living in extreme poverty is high in Algeria (32.5%), in Tunisia (25.4%), in Djibouti (25, 5%), Yemen (23.9%) and Syria (23.0%).

At the end of this presentation, the MENA Region offers the image of an area where demographic pressure is increasing, with a population made up largely of young people, against a background of demographic transition very differentiated by country.

The region is experiencing very serious social problems, in particular the non- generalization of adult literacy, high infant and maternal mortality rates, asymmetric life expectancy at birth, very low activity levels for women, very high youth unemployment, a very unequal distribution of wealth and correspondingly high rates of monetary and multidimensional poverty, all with significant differences between the countries of the region and between women and men.

Finally, it is clear that the various impacts of the covid19 coronavirus pandemic will worsen the social situation in the countries of the region. They will imperatively force them to radically rethink their social and economic priorities.

Consequently, the major challenge they will have to face, in the light of this new situation, will lie in their endogenous capacities to build new models of development placing human capital at the heart of its future priorities.


  • Human Development Report 2019, UNDP, New York
  • World Population Prospects 2019, Volume II: Demographic Profiles, United Nations, World Bank website
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  • Social protection in Arab countries, 2012, Publications de Réseau Maroc du CIAS, Rabat
  • Les transformations sociales dans le Monde Arabe , 2013, Publications de Réseau Maroc du CIAS, Rabat
  • La cohésion sociale dans le Monde Arabe, 2015, Publications de Réseau Maroc du CIAS, Rabat