• The concept of the “social contract”

The concept of the “social contract”

The term “social contract” is seeing increasing use in academic and journalistic texts – and by international organisations (see below) – to describe state-society relations. Amongst other things, it helps to analyse

  • why some social groups are socially, politically or economically better off than others;
  • why some revolt and demand a new social contract;
  • why some countries descend into violent conflict;
  • how foreign actors – e.g. external donors – can influence state-society relations by strengthening the government or certain social groups.


Nevertheless, the term has remained insufficiently conceptualised thus far, and its potential for comparing and analysing state-society relations in various countries has been underutilised.

A research and advisory project by the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) is therefore working on developing the concept further and facilitating its use by researchers and policymakers. The project defines the social contract as the “entirety of explicit or implicit agreements between all relevant societal groups and the sovereign (i.e. the government or any other actor in power), defining their rights and obligations towards each other” (Loewe, Zintl and Houdret 2020). Social contracts have the following main features: (i) their scope, (ii) their content (reciprocal commitments by governments and social groups), and (iii) their temporal dimension.

The project, which is being funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), is focusing on countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, amongst others. After independence, these countries saw the emergence of highly specific social contracts based on the redistribution of external rents (from natural resources and other sources) paid to the state. Governments provided subsidised food and energy, free education and public-sector jobs to citizens in exchange for their tacit recognition of the regimes’ legitimacy, despite almost a complete lack of political participation. As populations grew and state revenues fell, however, governments became less and less able to fulfil their duties, a situation that ultimately sparked the 2011 protests in the Arab countries.


Publications on the concept of the social contract

Empirical publications

Reception of the concept in development policy


Publications by other authors