COVID-19 and the Kafala system: protecting African female migrant workers in Gulf countries

By Mona Ahmed, Junior Policy Analyst, OECD Development Centre

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected women and men differently depending on the sector they work in, their employment situation and their access to labour and social protection measures. Domestic and care work, traditionally female-dominated, form one of the most marginalised, undervalued and least protected employment sectors. It therefore comes as no surprise that the current crisis has not reinvented the wheel, but rather amplified persistent vulnerabilities faced by female migrant workers.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are home to the world’s largest number of international labour migrants. According to a study carried out by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), 12% of the 28.1 million migrant workers in GCC countries in 2017 were African, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait hosting almost 90 percent. Historically a destination for South and Southeast Asian workers, the growing demand in domestic labour has attracted a considerable number of East and West African women, mostly from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana. Despite their economic contribution in both origin and destination countries, the duties of child and elderly care, cleaning and food preparation are culturally devalued and receive limited social recognition.  

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Protecting migrant workers in the Gulf: don’t build back better over a poor foundation

By Vani Saraswathi, Editor-at-Large and Director of Projects, Migrant-Rights.Org

The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states need to completely revamp past policies, and not merely attempt to bridge gaps or provide a salve to deep wounds.

Construction workers in Dubai, UAE. Photo: LongJon / Shutterstock

As of February 2020, millions of migrants –– primarily from South and Southeast Asia and increasingly from East African countries –– were holding up Gulf economies, working in sectors and for wages unappealing to the more affluent citizens. In countries with per capita GDP of US$62,000 or more, minimum wages ranged as low as US$200 per month.

Men were packed into portacabins and decrepit buildings, six to a room if lucky, hidden behind screens of dust and grime, away from the smart buildings they built and shiny glasses they cleaned. The women were trapped 24/7 in homes that are their workplaces, every movement monitored. It is accepted and normalised without question that these men and women will leave behind their families in the hopes of building a better future for themselves. That they may live all their productive life in a strange country, excluded from social security benefits and denied all rights of belonging, is seen as a small price to pay for the supposed fiscal benefits. The fact that the price is too steep is rarely discussed.

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Inequalities and international migration: securing benefits for all post COVID-19

By Jason Gagnon, Development economist, OECD Development Centre

Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, May 2020. Indian migrant laborers leaving the the city due to lockdown. Photo: Mukesh Kumar Jwala / Shutterstock

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The COVID-19 pandemic has turned international migration on its head. According to the United Nations, there were 272 million international migrants in the world in 2019, reflecting a steady rise over the years, reaching 3.5% of the global population. However, since the start of the crisis, migration has decreased significantly. Due to restrictions, admission of foreigners to OECD countries has fallen by 46%. In the Gulf Co-operation Council countries, and many other parts of the world, the trends point in the same direction. The general fall in migration flows is likely to continue in 2021.

There have been countless takes on the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on migrants. The pandemic has also exposed the extent to which many countries heavily rely on migrants as core cogs in their economic engines, their food security and in filling skills gaps. Not to mention the intangible cultural goods that societies benefit from in all parts of society, through food, festivals and art. But how will COVID-19 impact the future of international migration?

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Can civil society survive COVID-19?

By Elly Page, Senior Legal Advisor, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) and Simona Ognenovska, Research and Monitoring Advisor, European Center for Not-for-Profit Law Stichting (ECNL)

As the world confronts new waves of COVID-19 cases, civil society should be wary of a parallel surge of new emergency laws and measures that restrict fundamental freedoms. According to our COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker, 146 countries enacted 385 measures in response to the pandemic that affected human rights, during the initial waves of the virus from January to September 2020. While some may have been a necessary and understandable reaction to a public health crisis, many overreached, exacerbating existing challenges to civic space. In particular, existing barriers to foreign funding for organisations have remained in place during the pandemic, limiting their ability to provide support to vulnerable populations during the crisis. The onslaught urgently requires an international response to roll back restrictions and increase support for embattled civil society.  

Our Tracker, based on information from our worldwide network of civil society partners, reflects ways that governments’ responses to COVID-19 have affected civic space, and suggests ways that OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) members could respond. These suggestions are timely as the OECD-DAC takes further steps to develop a DAC policy instrument on enabling civil society.

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Why we need radical democratic innovation post-COVID

By Silvia Cervellini, Founder and Co-ordinator of coletivo Delibera Brasil

Although we have talked about inequality and sustainability in Brazil for a long time (we held the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 and the first World Social Forum in 2001 in Porto Alegre), the COVID-19 pandemic struck us in the middle of a “quasi” economic crisis, a declining Gini Index and increasing evidence of biomass destruction in Brazil’s Pantanal, Mata Atlântica and Amazonia forests.1

We have seen some consensual and immediate solutions to the different crises Brazil faces, e.g. quarantine and extra resources allocated to public health to fight the sanitary crisis; temporary financial support and food for the most vulnerable to tackle the hunger crisis; and firefighting to extinguish fires in the jungle. None of these measures, however, address the root causes of these problems, nor can they be sustained as permanent policies.

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The dramatic Latin American crisis

By José Antonio Ocampo, Professor at Columbia University, and former UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and Finance Minister of Colombia


As we ring in the new year, the region needs a new development consensus, committed to reducing inequality, implementing stronger counter-cyclical macroeconomic policies, and spurring production and export diversification – including a major digital transformation. The consensus should accelerate a de-politicised regional integration, push the international environmental agenda forward and renew the region’s commitment to democracy.

The year 2020 closed with the worst economic crisis in Latin American history. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has estimated that the region’s GDP fell by 7.7%. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), this is one of the worst crises in the world, similar to that of Western Europe and only surpassed by the one India has experienced. The projections of all international organisations and private analysts also indicate that the region’s economy will only partially recover in 2021. As economic growth during the quinquenium prior to the current crisis was close to zero, Latin America is immersed in a new lost decade, 2015-2024, which may be worse than that of the 1980s. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis deepens a long period of slow economic growth: 2.7% per year in 1990-2019 vs. 5.5% in 1950-1980. This is the poorest performance of any developing region in the world over the past three decades.

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To end a global pandemic, we need global solutions: In my view

By Gayle Smith, President and CEO, ONE Campaign


The COVID-19 crisis has put development co-operation to the test. This blog is one of the contributions by leading experts and policymakers to the OECD Development Co-operation Report 2020: Learning from Crises, Building Resilience, which draws early lessons and explores how to build systems that protect people better from global risks .

The year 2020 wasn’t supposed to be like this

Predicted by many but prepared for by few, the global pandemic that is still ravaging the planet has upended public health and killed over 1 million people. But its aftershocks are at least as daunting: stunning losses to the global economy, the disruption of worldwide commerce, growing food insecurity, education interrupted, massive job losses, and a global spike in domestic violence.

The pandemic has also laid bare the stark inequalities that still, in 2020, dictate who lives and who dies, who thrives and who suffers, which countries and communities rebound from these multiple shocks and which countries will collapse under their weight. And with the World Bank already reporting that the pandemic will push an additional 88-115 million into extreme poverty in 2020 alone, it is increasingly clear that the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on the world’s most vulnerable people. If nothing else, it has revealed that poverty and inequality are inextricably linked and fuelled a desire for fundamental fairness and growing anger that such fairness remains elusive.

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Education funding and COVID-19: what does the future hold?

By Laura Abadia, Policy Analyst, OECD Development Centre


This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.


With prolonged school closures affecting over 90% of all learners worldwide at the peak of the first wave, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to explore new and more effective approaches to education delivery and content. From hybrid models that combine in-person with remote learning, to widening academic curricula to include social and emotional competencies, the opportunities for change are manifold. However, recovering from prolonged school closures and seizing these opportunities will require making significant headway against the deep structural challenges perpetuating inequalities in education.

To better understand how COVID-19 is changing education donor behaviour and priorities, the OECD Centre on Philanthropy analysed years of OECD data on official development assistance (ODA) and private philanthropy, and interviewed dozens of donors. Here is what we learned:

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We must act now to stop the COVID crisis from undermining Africa’s energy future

By Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA)


This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.

We must act now to stop the Covid crisis from undermining Africa’s energy future

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause major disruptions to societies and economies around the world, and has dealt a worrying blow to years of hard-won progress in reducing the number of people in Africa who lack access to electricity. For seven years in a row, the number of Africans living without electricity has steadily decreased, thanks to efforts from governments, businesses and civil society. But this year, it is set to rise by 13 million amid the turmoil brought by the pandemic, according to IEA analysis. The worst effects are being felt in countries such as Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Niger. By putting energy services out of reach of more and more people, the crisis threatens to deepen their difficulties and those of economies across Africa.

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Fiscal policy in the time of COVID-19: a new social pact for Latin America

By Pablo Ferreri, Public Accountant and former Vice Minister of Economy and Finance of Uruguay


This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.

We could say that ultimately the role of government remains unchanged overtime: to achieve ever higher levels of development with the understanding that true development means achieving sustained economic growth while generating greater equity and social cohesion. This must be done through more and better exercise of civil rights and in an environmentally sustainable manner. But in achieving this ultimate goal, challenges change according to realities that governments must face.

Challenges that Latin America faced fifteen years ago, when it enjoyed high levels of growth and a commodity boom in an increasingly open world, are quite different to those that have been brought about by economic slowdown, lower international prices and new isolationist tendencies.

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