What inequality looks like

Inequality is a global reality, and the countries of the Middle East and North Africa are no exception. Modern glass and steel towers, billboards with unaffordable products, and gated communities co-exist with extreme poverty and camps packed with refugees fleeing war and conflict. Widespread social and economic inequality has only deepened in recent decades, with many people living in intolerable conditions, and in highly fragmented and polarized societies across the region.

Despite having only five percent of the world’s population, countries in the Middle East and North Africa account for nearly half the world’s refugees and displaced persons, including almost 5 million Syrian refugees. This situation is further exacerbated by poor education systems and a lack of access to economic opportunities that push millions of residents into informal, and often unstable, housing and working arrangements. In several countries, up to 60 percent of housing settlements are informal.

As a result, refugees and people in informal settlements have little or no access to social security, health insurance, adequate housing, or social services. Cultural services are also absent in most informal settlements and the people living in them have no channels for voice and representation.
In grappling with this grim reality, particular attention must be focused on youth, women, and refugees. In a region where the majority of people are under the age of 35, inequality hits young people the hardest—especially young women, who face additional barriers to reaching their full potential.

Yet the countries of the Middle East and North Africa are also navigating a period of profound transformation. There is a growing—and clear—demand for greater human dignity and equal opportunity.

Support for meaningful, sustainable social justice

Recent years have seen a number of promising developments in the region. New constitutions in a number of countries uphold universal rights. Civil society has put forward innovative ideas for achieving more inclusive economies and societies, and there is greater public debate on how to strengthen basic services, education, and civic participation. We’re also seeing a growth of social entrepreneurship, Arab philanthropy, and a wealth of artistic talent and creativity. These developments offer much to build upon.

We believe that, despite the profound challenges the region faces, inequality can be tackled by investing in the vibrancy and resilience of the region’s people—specifically by expanding opportunities for learning, ensuring the future of dignified work and living conditions, and promoting a diversity of creative expression. And we believe that these investments can be attained only by fostering understanding and partnership between a resilient civil society, accountable governments, strategic philanthropy, and responsible businesses.

What we focus on

Inequality has led to forced migration, and informal housing and working arrangements, in staggering numbers across the Middle East and North Africa. We take an inclusive and people-centered approach to addressing these issues: Our strategy aims to increase peoples’ access to education, decent work, dignified housing, and creative expression. Together with our regional partners, we support holistic, integrated interventions to expand opportunities and protect the rights of people in refugee and informal settlements.

Unfortunately, as part of economic reforms most governments in the region and the major economic players adopt strategies to eliminate the informal sector and to “formalize the informal.” These economic measures are often associated with forced evictions and criminalization, and tend to undermine the rights of those who will inevitably continue to live and work informally.

While we recognize the multi-layered injustices and exclusion facing those living in informality, we are also cognizant of their creativity, innovation, and high potential. To that end, we are working to improve the living conditions and lived realities of people already living in informality through empowerment, free expression, collective bargaining, and innovative solutions for resource allocation, taxation, and policy change. And we are supporting efforts to reduce the numbers of new entrants into informality by expanding learning opportunities and effective pathways to transition from school to quality work, focusing on women and refugees.

We also work to create dignified living conditions for refugees, with programs that adapt to their circumstances and help build their skills and agency. We give special attention to young Syrians and women. Given the right opportunities, we believe they can be champions of inclusion within their host communities. Ultimately we believe their active participation will produce the vibrant Syrian civil society institutions and ideas needed for rebuilding Syria.