Getting a clearer picture of child poverty in the Arab States

Poverty estimates are not frequently made, nor easy to access in the Arab States. Continued political instability combined with frequent humanitarian crises make it difficult to have timely and reliable estimates of poverty for many countries in the region, while others, such as the Gulf countries, simply do not measure child poverty at all.

Even so, there are now several national estimates. In fact, around 10 countries in the region have produced estimates of child poverty; however, a comprehensive picture of the region has been lacking.  The first ever regional estimates of child poverty for Arab States have now been produced by the UNICEF Middle East and North Africa Regional Office (MENA) and UNICEF Innocenti, together with researchers at The New School and Equity for Children. The findings of this work now are part of the Arab Poverty  Report, conducted and published in partnership with ESCWA, OPHI, and the League of Arab States.

The report analyzes data for 11 countries in the region, representing 78 per cent of the total population under 18 years old in the Arab States. It uses MODA to define multidimensional child poverty in a standardized way across countries, applying the innovation of using two definitions of poverty, one acute, and one moderate. In such a diverse region, it is crucial that we apply different ‘poverty lines’ to adequately capture poverty in different circumstances. One size does not fit all. The report also analyzes trends for a subset of countries, tracking the progress (or lack thereof) from the start of the millennium to the year closest to 2015, at the end of the MDG agenda.

Acute and moderate depruvation by dimension (in %). Click table to enlarge.

What do we now know about child poverty in the Arab States? Here are seven key facts from the report of the 11 countries studied:

  1. One in four children (24.7 per cent) is acutely poor, while nearly one in two (44 per cent) suffer from moderate poverty. This amounts to 29.3 and 52.5 million of children, respectively. Child poverty is lowest in Jordan and Egypt, and highest in Mauritania and Sudan. Children under 5 are generally more deprived than older children.
  2. Countries have varying combinations of moderate and severe child poverty. These can be grouped into clusters: Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, and Palestine are in the first cluster, with low level of both severe and moderate poverty. Morocco and Iraq are in the second cluster, with low levels of severe poverty but high levels of moderate one. Finally, Comoros, Sudan, Yemen, and Mauritania, have high levels of both types of poverty, and constitute the third cluster of countries.
  3. Nutrition remains a problem across all countries. Almost 43 per cent of children are suffering from nutrition deprivation, in the form of undernutrition or obesity, which is increasingly a problem to be dealt with. Acute deprivation in nutrition is still high in cluster 1 and 2, where about 1 in 4 children are deprived, while in cluster 3 acute nutrition deprivation affects almost 1 in 3 children (download the brief on nutrition). Nutrition also does not present strong differentials across child or family characteristics, making the case for broader interventions.
  4. Investment in education is crucial to break the cycle of poverty: the incidence of deprivation in Education is high in cluster 2 and 3, especially moderate deprivation, which includes primary completion and delay in school. At the same time, children of less educated parents are consistently at higher risk of poverty: there is a compelling case to invest more to assure children go through the full cycle of education, and that quality education is available for all children. (download the brief on education)
  5. Strong urban/rural differentials, especially in countries in the middle of the distribution: in cluster 2 child poverty is 5.7 per cent in urban areas compared to 36.5 per cent in rural areas, presenting a stark divide that needs to be addressed by policy.
  6. Trends in most countries where it was possible to analyze data were positive between 2000 and circa 2015. Egypt showed impressive progress reducing the level of acute child poverty by 80 per cent and moderate poverty by 68 per cent. However, countries such as Sudan present a stagnant poverty level: the change has been less than 2 per cent for acute poverty, and 3.4 per cent for moderate poverty. Conflicts and crises certainly play a role in this, putting development goals in jeopardy.
  7. Violence against children remains a big issue in the region: While not explicitly included in the multidimensional poverty measure, all countries for which there is data report high levels of violent child discipline, from almost 50 per cent in Sudan to 84 per cent in Yemen, with an average incidence of 70 per cent. Prevalence is not tied to level of development, and does not present strong differentials by family characteristics: it is indeed an issue that involves all countries, across regions and social divides.

While this report has some limitations, not least lacking several key countries, and not having recent data in critical countries such as Yemen, thus not fully reflecting the escalation of the recent conflict, it is the first effort to provide reliable, consistent and standardized estimates of child poverty across the Arab Region.  The objective is to stimulate debate to improve data collection, and to provide a joint framework for policy to assure that no child is left behind.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Arthur van Diesen, UNICEF MENA Regional Social Policy Adviser; to Alberto Minujin and Beatrice Mauger at The New School and Equity for Children; to Bilal Kiswani and the team at ESCWA, and to Diletta Parisi, who helped me ‘crunch the numbers’.

Lucia Ferrone is a research consultant on child poverty at UNICEF Innocenti. Explore the UNICEF Innocenti research catalogue for new publications. Follow UNICEF Innocenti on Twitter and sign up for e-newsletters on any page of the UNICEF Innocenti website.

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