Insights on Inequality Solutions

Addressing Inequality in the Arab Region


By Bryony Steyn, Economic Affairs Officer at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and Rabab Hteit, Research Assistant, ESCWA

Two sides of Cairo, opulence and struggle coexisting in the same frame. (©Adobe Stock/markobe)

The Arab region contains extreme wealth and extreme poverty. The latest figures from 2021 show that the Arab region has twenty-two billionaires, an exclusive group with a combined fortune of USD 55 billion. These twenty-two billionaires own the same amount of wealth as the combined financial resources of seventy-six million of the poorest people living in the Arab region (who hold approximately USD 729 per person). By contrast, the average wealth per adult in the region is USD 27,300, one hundred times that of the poorest 76 million, but just 0.00005 percent of the richest twenty-two.

The definition of inequality should not be restricted to a narrow lens of income and wealth as the Arab region also has enormous inequalities between men and women, generations, and geographies — both between and within countries. There are vast differences between those who have access to services, resources, and opportunities, and who benefit from socioeconomic development, and those who do not. Women and young people are often particularly disadvantaged in the region, and yet they constitute as much as 80 percent of the Arab population.

Rampant inequality is morally objectionable when 128 million people in the region are living in poverty and millions of workers are not being paid a living wage. The accumulation of enormous wealth in the hands of a few prevents economies from growing and innovating at their true potential. It squeezes public budgets and limits resources for social service provisions such as education, health care and social protection, which those most at risk of being left behind are the most reliant upon.

Inequality and exclusion are not inevitable; there are solutions.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) is delighted to have partnered with the Center on International Cooperation at New York University’s program, the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, to create the Inequality Solutions portal.

The Inequality Solutions portal is a living resource, with new policy case studies added every week, to equip policymakers, researchers, advocates, activists, and anyone looking to make a difference with examples of policies and programs from around the world that have been proven to successfully reduce inequality and exclusion. The portal’s mission is to inspire policy innovation and push the boundaries of what we believe is possible by showing what has already been done.

From inclusive education policies for children with disabilities in Lebanon to cash transfers for 2.3 million vulnerable people in Egypt, Inequality Solutions provides a platform to inform debates and peer-to-peer exchanges on policies that work. Through the portal, users can identify successful interventions under circumstances similar to their own as they seek ways to reduce inequalities.

Five key insights on policy trends in the Arab region

1. Inequality is a political choice

Inequality does not correct itself. Economic growth alone will not reduce inequality. As power and resources become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the elite, the platforms of the less privileged to demand better have become smaller. As a result, inequality tends to stick once becoming entrenched.

However, inequality is not inevitable. Targeted policies can reduce inequalities, improve people’s lives, and build inclusive institutions. The case studies provided on the portal demonstrate what is possible when the political will to implement solutions exists. For example, despite very limited government resources and no legislative framework, the government of Palestine established a national referral system for survivors of gender-based violence. Despite its circumstances, the government coordinated health, legal, social, and economic support systems to create an efficient system that provides shelter and empowerment to survivors of gender-based violence and their dependents. Such examples demonstrate the truth in the cliché “where there is a will, there is a way.”

2. Progressive fiscal policy is massively underutilized

ESCWA has long advocated for increasingly progressive fiscal policy to combat inequality. Wealth taxes on individuals and multinational corporations can make a difference through wealth redistribution into opportunities and resources for those living in poverty. An annual wealth tax of just 1.2 percent per year on the wealthiest 10 percent of the population in middle-income Arab countries could end poverty in these countries.

However, when researching policy success stories, we have struggled to find examples of redistribution in the Arab region. Although proven to have been successful in other regions, increased taxation on the wealthy is not a politically appealing policy instrument.

3. Policy success depends on a coherent and integrated policy landscape

Policies do not exist in a vacuum; there are many forces at play that determine their success. When an objective is incorporated across numerous interventions, it tends to be more successful. This requires greater coordination across various sectors and government departments and the sensitization of different stakeholders. Coordinated efforts create efficiency gains through reducing duplication and contradictory objectives and improve the chances of combating inequality.

A coherent commitment to reducing inequality, reflected through numerous interventions, will also build public trust and enhance social cohesion, as the public increasingly believes in a government’s commitment to reduce inequalities.

For example, the reform of the Moroccan family code in 2004 was part of a larger legislative reform effort that included changes to laws relating to labour, nationality and criminal offenses; constitutional reform; and the adoption of gender-based legislation. Together, the reforms combined to create a much more positive and coherent approach to advancing gender equality in Morocco.

4. Transparency and communication are key

Policy efficacy is limited unless transparency and communication are considered. The most successful policies clearly and transparently communicated their objectives to beneficiaries and stakeholders.

The success of inclusive education for children with disabilities in Lebanon relied on sensitizing teachers and parents to the importance and availability of inclusive education. Similarly, the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission facilitated national reconciliation through regular and public updates and broadcasts.

5. Monitoring keeps policies and programs alive and relevant

Policy success can only be measured through regular and targeted monitoring and evaluation. We found that policies that incorporated regular evaluation and adjusted their focus depending on the outcomes of such evaluations were more likely to be popular with both politicians and the general public, relevant to the environment in which they operated, and thus more likely to achieve their goals.

Regular monitoring of the Egyptian Takaful and Karama cash transfer schemes has enabled the government to respond to emerging issues, such as by improving monitoring (at the community level) of target beneficiaries and increasing access to employment opportunities. Regular evaluations have proven the success of the programs and enabled the Egyptian government to increase investment towards vulnerable populations.

Reducing inequality, in all its forms, is essential for the functioning of our societies

We are living in an increasingly polarized world, where the difference between “the haves” and “the have-nots” is growing. We must overcome growing inequalities by building solidarity, by recognizing who is excluded and why, and by acting together to ensure that nobody is left behind. Reducing inequalities is a collective responsibility and requires political will and urgency from governments, institutions, multinational corporations, small- and medium-sized enterprises, communities, and individuals.

This Inequality Solutions portal is a first step towards providing solutions to reduce inequalities around the world.

Join us in exploring the portal and learn more about the tools and inspiration needed to advocate for a fairer future. Together, we can create the transformative change our world so urgently needs.