By: Erin McCandless

As the United Nations reflects upon how it will meet its revamped and revitalized mandate to prevent conflict and sustain peace, catalyzed by twin Security Council/General Assembly Resolutions, some academics and policy-makers are reflecting on the relevance of the social contract as an actionable idea, a means to revitalize these agendas – particularly in contexts affected by violent conflict and fragility. While this is by no means a straightforward pursuit, it arguably is a vital one given the current state of crisis of many state-society social contracts, globally.

The social contract is a term no doubt familiar to all. It has roots in antiquity and is often dismissed for being too steeply rooted in traditional liberal thought. Yet as the world grapples with extreme challenges, and evermore resilient competing ideologies and traditions evolve, it is hard to contest the profound value underpinning the notion of the social contract. Simply put: we need basic agreements about how we can peaceably live together. And while most would not champion the way the Westphalian state system evolved, they might likely adopt the discomfiting realization that we continue to need states. Developing another system – if it were possible to agree on one – would likely bring even greater global disruption. Within this context, the international system of states continues to be equated with some sense of stability – as a protector of citizen rights and interests, and as a forger of agreements with other states to maintain international peace and security. Scanning the globe however, without exception for those of us sitting in the global North, it appears that these assumptions rest on shaky foundations. There is clearly considerable diversity of thought within and across states, about how to live together. Indeed, there is also little doubt that in many countries, the social contract is in deep crisis, and, that we need to better understand what it means for states and societies in different settings.  

Countries affected by violent conflict and fragility have strongly advocated for greater attention in policymaking to their realities, the particularities of their contexts. By definition, such states are more vulnerable to the internal and external forces that challenge government ability to achieve and sustain legitimacy. Internally, the state itself is often characterized by destructive politics fueled by elite competition and economic predation, often accompanied by virulent ethnic or sectarian mobilization. Deep societal distrust of leadership and state institutions, rooted in decades of warfare or neglect, can overwhelm efforts to build viable states and a shared sense of shared citizenship. Externally, extractive corporate agreements, benefiting from internal elite predation, are undermining the state’s ability to account to its society.  Interventionist neighboring agendas are also often at play in countries affected by conflict and fragility: think, for example, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sierra Leone and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Crisis-driven migration and refugee flows, and transnational groups willing to utilize violence and propagating extremist thinking to steer the achievement of goals, and even humanitarian crises – in the form of disease (think Ebola), or the many other vicious forms that mother nature can deliver with devastating impacts in weak states – also present profound challenges for states and their societies endeavoring to forge a common vision for peace.

The international community has faced challenges in finding winning collective formulas to support the prevention of violent conflict and achieving and sustaining of peace, where such profound complexities abound that pay little attention to borders and laws. Over the years, rising criticism by national actors hosting international peace operations, as well as international academics and practitioners working on these issues, has led to a move away from a reliance on formulas, templates, and overly road-mapped, one-size fits all solutions. A reverence for understanding context, and supporting the development of home grown strategies and endogenous sources of peace and resilience, has emerged in place. Strong agreement has also converged around the notion that sustaining peace requires more than “negative” peace, and that elite driven political settlements, while important in establishing the foundations of peaceful political orders, do not guarantee a path to nationally owned, lasting peace (for a fuller discussion, go here).

Leading policy actors are heralding the social contract notion to revitalize thinking and practice around how to transform and prevent violent conflict and forge lasting peace in countries affected by conflict and fragility. See for example, UNDP, the World Bank, USAID, the OECD-DAC, while the notion lies at the heart of much of the work of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, “New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States.”

This is promising. Policy action, however, needs to be deeply guided by a clearer understanding and recognition of what the social contract looks like, and means to people, in different countries affected by conflict and fragility. To date, there is precious little scholarship on the social contract that speaks to the varied, lived realities of people in different contexts, and notably, where people are profoundly struggling to redefine their relations with the state to achieve and sustain peace.

These are key concerns driving the current inquiry of a Working Group of scholars and policy-advisers/makers. ​Our twelve-country research and scholar-policy dialogue project, “Forging Resilient Social Contracts: Preventing Violent Conflict and Sustaining Peace” is premised on the assumption that we need grounded, comparative research to deepen our awareness and understanding about what the social means to people in different contexts, and, specifically, about the what underpins and drives its resilience in constructive ways. A resilient national social contract – as we have sought to conceptualize – is a dynamic agreement between state and society, and different groups in society, on how to live together. It allows for adaptation, and mediation of different demands and conflicting interests over time (including sub-national, international and transnational) and in response to contextual factors (including shocks and stressors), through varied mechanisms, institutions and processes.

Our researchers are investigating three postulated “drivers” of a resilient social contract – around: i.) core conflict and fragility issues being progressively addressed through the political settlement; ii) the role of institutions in fostering inclusive results, and; iii) broadening and deepening social cohesion both horizontally (between individuals and groups in society) and vertically (between state and society). We are also reflecting on cross-cutting issues, on inclusion/exclusion, the role of international actors, and “resilience capacities for peace” in and across our twelve countries. This focus of our research is deemed to broadly encompass core values and mechanisms associated with the concept spanning time and geographical space, yet with attention to the dynamism and adaptability that countries in transition from conflict and fragility demand. Are these the right questions and propositions? We think so, and we invite discussion and debate on the topic as we move forward.

First posted on The New School (Milano) blog:

Erin McCandless is the Research and Project Director of this initiative, and teaches in the Graduate Program of International Affairs, at The New School in New York. For more information on her, see: