The 21 billionaires in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), all of them men, saw their wealth increase by nearly $10 billion since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, almost double the estimated amount required to rebuild Lebanon's shattered capital, while 45 million more people in the region could be pushed to poverty as a result of the pandemic, a new Oxfam report revealed today.
'For a Decade of Hope Not Austerity in The Middle East and North Africa' shows that since March, the region's richest have amassed more than double the regional emergency funds provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to respond to the pandemic, and almost five times the United Nation's COVID-19 humanitarian appeal for MENA.
"The pandemic has exposed the deep inequalities and massive failures in our economic systems, leaving millions in the region without jobs, healthcare, or any kind of social security, while allowing billionaires to add more than $63 million to their fortunes each and every day since the beginning of the pandemic," said Nabil Abdo, Oxfam in MENA's senior policy advisor.
"Unless governments immediately prioritize people over profits and the rich pay their fair share, millions more will be pushed to the brink of poverty and denied their basic rights. For too long profit has been prioritized at the expense of the public good and safety. The result of this could not be starker in the aftermath of the catastrophic explosion in Beirut, which has further exposed the fragility of the economy and will only exacerbate existing inequalities."
Governments in the region need to act quickly and raise revenues to protect the most vulnerable in society. In Lebanon, if a 5 percent solidarity net wealth tax had been introduced last year, $3.7 billion in tax revenues would have been generated to help rebuild the electricity and water infrastructure and provide services to keep people safe in the aftermath of the blast.
Before the virus hit, the MENA region was already one of the most unequal in the world; and COVID-19 has further deepened the gap between the rich and the poor. 76 percent of the region's income goes to just 10 percent of the population, with 37 billionaires owning as much wealth as the poorest half of the adult population.
If Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco had implemented a two percent wealth tax from 2010, these countries could have raised $38 billion in tax revenues, which could have been invested in improving public healthcare and rebuilding social protection systems.
At the same time, measures to protect the poor have fallen short. It is estimated that only 11 percent of stimulus packages in the region focused on social protection and health measures. Against this backdrop, an estimated 89 percent of the region's 16 million informal workers have been severely affected by pandemic measures. Foreign investment is also projected to drop by 45 percent and 1.7 million people are expected to lose their jobs, 700,000 of them women, costing $42 billion in lost wages.
"The crushing austerity in recent years could have been avoided if the wealthiest in the region had paid more tax, a cost they can easily afford. This alternative could have given countries more flexibility on their spending policies and crucially, seen the region enter the coronavirus crisis with less inequality and debt", added Abdo.
To avoid millions more being pushed to the brink of poverty, the region's governments must urgently adopt deliberate inequality-busting policies like healthcare and education for all, and must raise the minimum wage and taxing wealth fairly to build better, more equal economies and societies.