NEW YORK // The Government has pledged to safeguard marginalised groups including women, the elderly and disabled people, despite mounting fears over spending cutbacks due to the global economic crisis. Addressing delegates at UN headquarters, Abdullah Rashid al Suwaidi, the director general of the Ministry of Social Affairs, described steady and continuing efforts to improve the lot of vulnerable Emiratis.
The undersecretary spoke during a debate of the UN Economic and Social Council's Commission for Social Development to address fears that market turmoil will lead to cuts in welfare budgets. Mr Suwaidi said the Government would continue working for "women, children and youths as well as vulnerable groups like the elderly and the disabled" during the economic crisis. "We believe that the human being is the real asset for the country, hence human development and the provision of total social services and care for all groups of the society represents a major step towards equal and just social development and prosperity on the national and international levels," he said.
Elderly Emiratis benefit from state pensions, hospitals and mobile care units that treat the infirm in their homes to "preserve close family ties", Mr Suwaidi told delegates. Officials have worked to "empower and integrate persons with disabilities" by opening up schools, colleges and the job market as well as enshrining the right to run for government posts, he said. Educational opportunities have been extended for men and women while Emiratisation programmes are helping jobless citizens compete in a market saturated with overseas hires.
"As for troubled youth, the state pays special attention to delinquent young people and we have established special centres to rehabilitate them to enable them to go back to the society and lead a normal life," Mr Suwaidi said. The welfare official said the UAE would continue such programmes while delegates of other nations debated how to maintain their social development projects in the face of the economic downturn.
Fears are mounting that those already living below the poverty line under Arab governments will struggle even harder to pay for basic necessities. Arab League officials revealed the regional impact of a global crisis during Kuwait's economic summit last month, estimating that US$2.5 trillion (Dh9 trillion) had already been wiped off members' combined balance sheets. The region's stock markets shed about $600 billion of their capitalisation last year, marking a substantial downturn in regional economies that will likely spawn further job losses, analysts from the 22-nation body said.
Frederico Neto, the director of social development for the UN's Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, praised government policies that have helped raise living standards. He described the UAE's infant mortality rate of 7.7 deaths per 1,000 births as the lowest in the region and lauded the country for getting "very close to achieving universal primary education". But he also highlighted the importance of considering other low-income groups in the Emirates and other Gulf countries, such as migrant workers, which were not mentioned in the government address.
Mr Neto suggested officials consider "members of the very large immigrant populations" when devising social policies to cushion struggling families from soaring rent and food prices. The two-week debate on social development is expected to conclude on Friday with at least two resolutions that are being drafted to guide the UN member policies. Researchers for the UN's economic and social commission are studying the effect of the economic crisis on migrants, the elderly, ethnic minorities and other groups for a report to advise Arab officials when it is published this year.