The Politics of Social Protection in Africa: What Do We Get From a ‘Social Contract’ Approach?

Background paper to the ERD 2010


Sam Hickey, Institute for Development Policy and Management & Brookes World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester


Paper prepared for the Conference on “Experiences and lessons from social protection programmes across the developing world: what role for the EU?”, organised by the European Report of Development in Paris, France, 17-18 June, 2010.


There have been growing calls to reframe the politics of poverty reduction, and of social protection in particular, in terms of extending the “social contract” to the poorest groups. For proponents, a social contract perspective offers both an analytical purchase on how the politics of social protection is played out in practice and also a normative standpoint from which social protection can be promoted. Analytically, a social contract perspective locates the extension of social protection within the changing character of state-society relations over time, particularly in terms of extending the “social contract” to vulnerable citizens via their inclusion in social protection programmes. In its normative guise, a social contract perspective re-locates social protection as part of a wider move towards social justice that is based upon a politics of rights, rather than patronage, but which often involves recipients performing certain duties in return. Given that such claims remain largely vague and untested, this paper critically explores the character and the potential of a social contract approach to social protection, before exploring the implications for international development agencies seeking to promote social protection in Africa.
Three main (tentative) conclusions flow from this initial review. First, it seems clear that a social contract approach can offer significant insights into the politics of social protection, particularly in terms of state-society relations. Second, there are at least two different philosophical traditions within social contract thinking, the liberal and social, with different types of social protection agenda flowing from each. Third, donor agencies are more likely to undermine, rather than strengthen, social contracts for social protection in particular contexts. To help ameliorate this tendency, donors need to become more politically attuned to specific contexts and to rethink their approach to issues of “ownership” and “sovereignty”.

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