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Turning point: Why new social contracts are urgently needed in the MENA

In simple terms, a social contract is an unwritten agreement between the ruled and their rulers, defining the rights and duties of each. Today, this typically takes place between people and a government they have elected. Laws and regulations enforce and protect this common understanding, between people and the authorities that govern and protect them. The failure of existing social contracts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to protect and realise the rights of their people has led to revolutions across the region during 2010 and 2011. The protests that swept the region, otherwise known as the Arab Spring, sparked a wide debate on the need for a new social contract compatible with the aspirations of societies who became fed up with unemployment, increasing taxes, deteriorating services and subsidised goods, not to mention significant infringements of their human rights. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed this failure and laid bare the weak legal frameworks and social protection systems meant to prevent it. The pandemic has exacerbated social, political and economic inequalities across the region, with workers bearing the brunt of the global squeeze on business. The impact on essential workers, in sectors such as agriculture, has been catastrophic. Enduring unfair and risky working conditions with little protection from government or social systems, essential workers have continued in fields and factories to ensure that food supplies continue undisrupted. This has come at a marked and measurable cost. As MENA plans for pandemic recovery, new social contracts based on respect for human rights should be considered. Together with civil society experts from the region, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has created this blog series to gain insight on the legacy of social contracts in the region, what a new one could look like, and the kind of role the private sector and financial institutions could play in helping a new contract flourish to benefit all peoples. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres remarked during the 2021 UN Economic and Social Council meeting: “As we strive to recover from the pandemic and build a better world, we need to forge a new social contract based on inclusivity and sustainability.”

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