Can a social contract lens contribute to peacebuilding and development?

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Kim Eun Yeul / World Bank Kim Eun Yeul / World Bank

The application of a social contract lens on development can help analyze accountability and anticipate where state resources will be channeled to improve lives and where they are more likely to be wastefully diverted.

The meaning of the term social contract has evolved over the years. In early usage, such as in Hobbes and Rousseau’s work, the social contract was an agreement between citizens to surrender some of their natural rights and subject themselves to the power of the state in exchange for the benefits of living in a society. The legitimacy of the state’s existence and of its ruler were the main focus. Today, social contract theory has evolved, and its focus has moved on from justifying the existence of the state to optimizing for desirable state functions, such as social justice, inclusive growth, peacebuilding, and development.

The definition of social contract was addressed in a 2021 World Bank report, Social Contracts for Development: Bargaining, Contention, and Social Inclusion in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The report called it a “dynamic set of agreements between citizens and the state on their mutual roles and responsibilities.” This short definition encompasses the following key aspects of social contracts:

  • The Agreement Process: What is the nature of the bargaining space and capabilities of the parties to the social contract? How do formal and informal mechanisms mediate the citizen state relationship?
  • Policy and Development Outcomes: What is the substantive outcome of the bargain in terms of public goods and services redistribution and rights and freedom? Are the outcomes delivered fairly or not? Do they benefit the many or the few?
  • Resilience and Sustainability: To what extent are the outcomes responsive to and aligned with citizen expectations? How adaptive can the social contract be to changing aspirations and power balances?

How will this work in real life? Take, for example, conflicts within a country and how applying a social contract lens can help us understand and resolve them.  In the past 20 years, the violence we see across the world has followed two interconnected trends: one, protests and demonstrations are rising and, two, conflicts which used to be mostly interstate are now intrastate, meaning between the state and internal armed groups, most often composed of its own citizens. When protesters are met with violent repression, these two trends can lead to a self-reinforcing cycle. In one study, 71 percent of members of armed groups said that government action (often violence done to self or family and friends) was the final trigger that motivated them to take up arms.

A social contract lens can help understand trends like these and the feedback loops they create. Misalignment between citizens’ expectations and their perceptions of the outcomes of the social contract is a major driver of unrest. When this unrest is met with an absence of openness or with repression, then violence often becomes the only remaining channel of communication.

Similarly, the social contract lens can be applied in a range of areas, including development. Donors, for example, are increasingly looking at development activities through a social lens. Thus, the term is increasingly appearing in many systematic country diagnostics and rebuilding the social contract is a core pillar of the Africa West and Central and MENA strategies.  According to a 2019 review by the Independent Evaluation Group, when soundly applied, a social contract lens can help build better contextual awareness of citizen expectations, capabilities, and resilience. It can help limit policy implementation gaps and minimize unforeseen negative consequences of projects. It can help analyze the accountability landscape and anticipate where state capacity will be channeled to improve lives and where it will be diverted.

Applying a social contract lens requires adhering to a few good practices:

Finally, applying a social contract lens should lead to paying more attention to citizens not just as beneficiaries but also as stakeholders. It also means paying attention to the balance in a country program or a project between building state capacity and building citizen capacity since ultimately, as we discussed, development outcomes are co-produced by their interactions.



Source: Cloutier, Mathieu. 2021. Social Contracts in Sub-Saharan Africa : Concepts and Measurements. Policy Research Working Paper; No. 9788. World Bank.


This blog is an extension of a discussion on Assessing the State of Citizen-State of Relations and Peacebuilding in Africa, in which the author participated on September 13 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. You can watch the event here.


Mathieu Cloutier

Senior Economist, Governance Global Practice

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