This blog post is part of a series on Social Protection in the Arab Region. For the other papers in the series, please refer to "related publications" at the end of the page.
This series also includes a blog post in Arabic, accessible via this link.
Social protection, in its true sense, did not originate with the modern state. The presence of social risks such as illness or old age, which are beyond an individual's control, serves as the impetus for people to take social precautions. During the Middle Ages, social protection was built on close-knit relationships. Mutual aid made it possible to support individuals who were unable to provide for themselves. The dependency on community created a foundation for social protection.
Social protection should not be viewed as a system imposed on disconnected economic structures. Instead, it should be understood as a product of societal and economic changes. Different types of economic structures correspond to specific social protection organizations. This principle also applies to Lebanon, where its original economic structure shaped a particular social protection organization.
Lebanon, characterized as a neo-patrimonial country, is governed by a dominant political elite that considers public resources as their own, creating a predatory state. This predatory elite extends its influence on social security in Lebanon, resulting in a distinct form of social protection mechanism. This system of welfare is not defined within Esping-Andersen 's well-known typology of welfare states. We will refer to this social protection system in Lebanon as the "Elite Welfare."
The "Elite Welfare" is built upon three pillars: First, the political elite controls the state and its institutions, including essential services like education and healthcare, treating them as their own. Second, the elite exerts control over private institutions through their financial power and influence in the regions they govern. Lastly, the same elite establishes and controls philanthropic organizations that provide social assistance and services.
To summarize the system, citizens pay taxes that should ideally finance public institutions and the formal national social security system. However, these institutions, governed by the state and the political elite, are marginalized. Consequently, taxes are diverted to fund private institutions owned and controlled by the elite. Additionally, the elite maintains dominance over the majority of "non-profit" organizations. In this way, the elite controls not only the state and private institutions but also charitable associations that receive funding from public subsidies, local and foreign sources, and donations to provide social assistance. Overall, weakening public institutions and neglecting the development of a robust national social security system benefits the elite, allowing them to bridge the gap through their privately owned institutions and philanthropic organizations. The political elite exploits their philanthropic activities to amass more power and achieve their political objectives.
Privatization and philanthropic activities offer significant advantages to the ruling class, both financially and in terms of clientelism, thuscontrolling people's access to essential rights such as education, healthcare, food and medication. The current power dynamics make it unlikely for those in power to establish a state welfare or any other form of social welfare since the elite's power and control over the populace rely on the "elite welfare." Furthermore, most of the political elite and parties lack coherent political ideologies and social and economic policies, making their continued existence heavily dependent on their ability to assist those in need. Consequently, people's support for a political party is not based on its political platform but rather on the fundamental social benefits it provides.
“Commoning” social protection in Lebanon
"Commoning" social protection refers to viewing the organization managing social protection as a resource for the people. The primary goal of a social protection scheme is to enhance people's quality of life. It provides access to basic necessities and human rights such as healthcare, housing, education, and protection from various threats throughout the life cycle.
The institution responsible for organizing a country's social protection scheme ensures human rights for its citizens. Therefore, these rights should not be regarded as services provided solely by the state or the private sector. In the capitalist society we inhabit, private entities prioritize profit maximization. Consequently, entrusting them with the provision of healthcare, education, and other essential rights negatively affects the most vulnerable and impoverished individuals, who require social protection the most. This scenario denies many people access to fundamental rights that should be universally guaranteed. Similarly, if the government manages social protection, it becomes subject to political pressures, changes based on the political climate, ruling parties, and political timetables. Social protection then becomes a political tool that fluctuates according to political requirements, potentially transforming it from a right into a discretionary offering from the government and those in positions of authority. Thus, the "commoning" of social protection, or transforming it into a shared resource beyond the dichotomy of the public and private sectors, becomes crucial.
Implementing the "commoning" of social protection in Lebanon would free it from being used as a tool of clientelism by the ruling political class and the country's elite in general. This "commoning" entails entrusting the governance of the organization responsible for social protection in Lebanon, such as the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), to the interested parties themselves - namely, the contributors and members of the NSSF - to democratically govern it independently of the state and the elite's oversight. Reforms within the NSSF can draw inspiration from the social security system implemented in France in 1945. The goal is to grant the NSSF financial and governance independence, establishing a "common welfare" that starkly contrasts with the current "elite welfare."
In conclusion, when discussing the social security system established in France in 1945, it is important to recall the words of its architect, Ambroise Croizat: "Don't talk about social achievements, talk about social conquests, because the bosses never disarm." Historically, conflicts and struggles, rather than consensus, have driven the development of social protection systems worldwide. Social protection schemes are typically the result of battles and negotiated arrangements, as governments and companies are unlikely to implement them voluntarily.
Reframing social protection as a right rather than an offering is the initial step towards implementing a “common welfare” in Lebanon. A “common welfare,” characterized by a unified social protection scheme encompassing individuals regardless of their professional status and covering all life-cycle risks and life contigencies, would be established under a universal social security fund financed by contributions and governed by the interested parties themselves.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Arab Reform Initiative or the Arab Region Hub for Social Protection
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.