Executive Summary

This working paper makes a case for rethinking the social contract concept in the contemporary era, in countries affected by conflict and/or fragility. Inspired by policy efforts to rethink the concept as a means to better address the challenges of peacebuilding and statebuilding, the paper aims to theoretically ground the topic and offer a heuristic framing that supports the evolution of scholarship, policy and practice. It is laid out in the following sections:

  • Introduction: This section sets the context, pointing to the deep challenges undermining the state from above, transnationally and below. It highlights limitations of policy efforts in areas of peacebuilding and statebuilding to address these and the scholarly critiques surrounding their strategic design and delivery –all of which suggest the need for greater focus on the social contract.
  • Enduring themes of the social contract: Historical and contemporary theorising efforts are scanned and their limitations assessed, making a case for the concept’s rich applicability across time and geopolitical space. This is rooted in enduring themes and questions that transcend the classical liberal framings upon which its utility is often dismissed.
  • Scholarship and policy directions supporting reconceptualisation: This section examines critical themes and debates, unpacking rising bodies of evidence and areas of emerging policy consensus, that arguably underpin a focus on forging resilient social contracts for sustaining peace. Disciplines including political theory, political economy, political science, peace and conflict studies, sociology and anthropology are engaged.
  • What is missing: Gaps and weaknesses in these bodies of literature and policy thinking that, if brought into dialogue, might better serve a fuller conceptual framing are examined.
  • Annex: This section presents a conceptual framing that is guiding an 11-country research and policy dialogue project. This framing proposes three ‘drivers’ of a national social contract as a heuristic device – one that is resilient, with virtuous movement towards attaining and sustaining inclusive peace. These are that: i) political settlements and social contract-making mechanisms are becoming more inclusive and are progressively addressing core conflict issues; ii) institutions are delivering in increasingly effective and inclusive ways; iii) there is broadening and deepening social cohesion both horizontally (between individuals and groups in society) and vertically (between state and society). 

This framing paper, and the wider project it lays a foundation for, seeks to build the intellectual lineage and practical utility of the social contract concept in ways that encompass core values and mechanisms associated with the social contract historically, yet with attention to the dynamism and adaptability needed to address contemporary challenges and realities.

Download Report