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Social services in the arab world: opportunities & potential

10 February 2014


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The unique demographic and social structures in the Arab world have created strong demand for quality social service provision in Arab countries.

In this session, Arab ministers of Social Services highlighted the innovative options that Arab governments have developed to enhance the quality and accessibility of social services, as well as the leverages available to tap into the potential that the region holds.

Speakers at this high-powered session included HE Mariam Al Roumi, Minister of Social Affairs (UAE); HE Dr. Yusuf bin Ahmed Al Othaimeen, Minister of Social Affairs (Saudi Arabia); HE Dr. Fatima Al Balooshi, Minister of Social Development (Bahrain); and HE Reem Abu Hassan Ministry of Social Development (Jordan)
Saudi Arabia’s HE Dr. Yusuf bin Ahmed Al-Othaimeen, said that the important thing about this year’s Government Summit is that it focuses on the social aspect unlike other summits, where we usually find focused on the economic side.

Al-Othaimeen said that such focus on the social aspect is critical at a time when the world is witnessing events that have affected every aspect of people’s lives, including their sources of income. “This is why Arab countries must focus on social development and benefit from the experiences of the developed countries on how to make people happy – not just how to provide services. This is reflected in this Summit’s motto, which I find unique,” he said.

“The United Arab Emirates has focused on social development and become a symbol of welfare countries in a way that has protected it from the changes that hit other neighbouring countries,” he noted.

Al-Othaimeen added that unemployment is the region’s top challenge besides drugs, divorce, parentlessness and domestic violence. According to him, these issues require a swift, creative interference.

The most significant measures that could be taken are to continue optimal investments in modern technology, given that the e-Government is badly needed as well as the partnership with the private sector and the civil society groups to improve the quality of services.

He cited Saudi Arabia’s experience in collecting Zakat (alms) through a special fund and distributes the money to the needy. He also called for utilising the youth’s potential, noting that they make up the largest category of Arab society. 
For her part, the Jordanian Minister of Social Development said that her ministry is considered a key institution because it is concerned with humanitarian security.

Still, she remarked that the budget allocations for such a ministry are meagre in most countries. Meanwhile, her Bahraini counterpart AlBalooshi highlighted the major role of social development, noting that such services are not just confined to this ministry alone as it (the ministry) is part of a government service system that also includes ministries of health, education and labour.

“We provide services based on two levels: protection of and care for the underprivileged classes. While we have to protect these categories, there is need at the same time to not keep them under the government’s protection for a long time as we have to work for their development,” said the minister.

The situation in the Gulf Cooperation countries is different from North Africa as GCC countries have made big strides in achieving the Millennium Development Goals while other Arab countries have lagged behind. For example, 99% of Bahrainis are literate – which is not the case in other countries. “Therefore, we can’t package all Arab countries in one category,” added Al Balooshi.

HE Mariam Al Roumi, Minister of Social Affairs, UAE, told the session that since its inception, the UAE has accorded top priority to social development, pointing out that 51% of the country’s budget is allocated for aspects closely related to social development such as education and healthcare.

“The UAE is keen to adopt the highest quality standards as a rule in providing all services. The government endeavours to blend its role in the areas of care and development so that the needy categories will benefit from them and gradually get integrated into society,” she said.
She added that the UAE is keen to provide all related services at the highest possible standards because they are closely linked to the public’s confidence in the government.

Answering a question on benefitting from Scandinavia’s experiences in social development, Al- Othaimeen said that Scandinavian countries figure prominently in providing social services for all classes. According to him, to reach such a standard, there are requirements for financing, proper organisation and a major family role.

The family should not give up its role in caring for the needy and interaction between social service institutions and the family should continue,” he said, adding that many families abandon their disabled children or the elderly by sheltering them in these institutions,” HE said.

For her part, Al Baloushi said that the Scandinavian countries provide an example to others to learn from. Arab countries, meanwhile, provide direct and indirect support for their people, taking the form of billions of dollars in oil and energy subsidies. “Arab governments have nurtured a culture of keeping the citizen in the dark about the real cost of services. Therefore, there is a tendency towards reducing subsidies and offering services directly in a cash form to citizens,” she said.

Al Roumi explained that in providing a new programme, her ministry recalls successful practices in other parts of the world and makes field visits. “The UAE has several programmes inspired by the Scandinavian countries because they provide comprehensive services focusing on the needy people,” she said.

“It’s important to localise the quality of the provided services. For instance, the UAE insists on keeping the elderly people within the home, with the ministry operating mobile buses manned by medical teams who make home visits to those people.”

According to her, the UAE faces a local perception that the social assistance is taken for granted. “So, the ministry encourages, trains and creates jobs for citizens before halting financial support. Still, there is a negative aspect as some people reject the job and the ministry has presented a proposal to the Cabinet whereby assistance is reduced if the provided job is rejected. However, the state has deemed it better to postpone the implementation of this proposal.”