Resilient Social Contracts and Sustaining Peace

Event Video

On May 15th, an IPI policy forum invited participants to discuss how social contracts are developed and adapted to different contexts to transform what are often unsustainable, short-lived elite bargains into more inclusive and durable arrangements for sustaining peace.

Hosted in collaboration with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), the University of Witwatersrand, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Permanent Mission of Japan to the UN, this conversation allowed member states and other key national stakeholders to engage with the findings of the research project Forging Resilient National Social Contracts. Using case studies from South Sudan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Tunisia to explore the creation of social contracts within contexts of conflict and fragility, the discussion highlighted the mechanisms through which agreements are struck that support prevention and sustaining peace.

In welcoming remarks, Endre Stiansen, Senior Research and Policy Advisor at the Oslo Governance Centre of UNDP, said that the subject of the event was “very opportune” for development organizations such as UNDP “because there is something about bringing the whole of society approach to the challenges that we face in the field now.”

Introducing the study, Bettina Luise Rürup, Executive Director of FES New York, explained that it “highlights the need for inclusive peace agreements and the importance of vibrant societal relations” in sustaining peace. Considering the 2030 agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, she asserted that social contracts can be “the much-needed mechanism for inclusiveness and national ownership for peace sustaining processes.”

The specific challenges that the study sought to address, said Fabrizio Hochschild, Assistant Secretary General for Strategic Coordination, were how to create political settlements and institutions that deliver results inclusively, as well as drive social cohesion. “Inclusion is in essence about non-discrimination,” he said, “It is about bringing in those who are otherwise being excluded socially, excluded economically, excluded politically and often persecuted; it’s about upholding rights.”

Erin McCandless is an Associate Professor at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa and Research and Project Director of Forging Resilient Social Contracts. Her aim was to propose durable solutions to recurring conflict in fragile environments. Introducing her research, she defined the concept of social contract, as it is understood in the classical western tradition, as “forfeiting some rights for the achievement of others.”

While she contended that this “utilitarian decision of citizens” may not look the same everywhere, in her research she found “enduring themes that have kind of cut across different civilizations and across the globe.” Her research posed questions on the establishment of a governing body including, “what is the purpose of such agreements, who are they between, what mechanisms drive social contracts, and how do people address, with their leaders, questions of moral obligation and conflicting interests?”

Among the key findings were that “elite political settlements are just not sustainable. There is an emerging consensus in the policy realm around the importance of inclusion for sustaining peace,” she said. Inclusivity is necessary for a strong consensus among citizens to create a sustainable agreement.

Dr. McCandless said that the research findings pointed in particular to two compelling reasons why political settlements fail to become more inclusive and resilient social contracts. The first was the fact that core conflict issues are not effectively addressed over time through appropriate political settlements, allowing social conflict to become protracted and unresolvable. The second was that social contract-making mechanisms are “not effectively treated in coherent ways in the peace process.” She concluded that there was a need for greater focus on strengthening state-society relations and creating more accountable, durable policy.

Luka Kuol, Professor of Practice at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies of National Defense University in Washington, DC and Associate Professor at the University of Juba, South Sudan, called his country “the most fragile country in the world.” Even with its three peace agreements signed in 1972, 2005, and 2015, he said, the country is still in conflict.

“Such fragility is definitely a result of misrule by the elites,” he said, “But I think equally important was despite the good intention of the international actors, that they, to a certain degree, I could say, were less informed about the political marketplace and the drivers of social contracts.”

The peace processes failed from the lack of inclusivity in the country’s transition to statehood, including the constitution-making process, he said. “The process itself was so exclusive, it was led by one political party in isolation of the rest.” Uniquely for South Sudan, amid other African countries that emerged out of colonialism, “this idea of ‘common enemy,’” he said, “Is not glue for forging a social cohesion. South Sudan was anchoring its unity to how much they hate North Sudan. But once that common enemy is gone, then these tensions start surfacing.”

Dr. Kuol said he still believed there was hope for peace in South Sudan if it is built nationally. Ultimately, he said, it should be the role of the state and the citizens to create a social contract that focuses on inclusivity. “South Sudan stands a better chance of putting itself on the path of social contract and addressing the core driver of conflict,” he said. “What is lacking is the political leadership and visionary leadership.”

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, an “elite social contract maintains the status quo,” said Jasmin Ramović, Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Manchester. Such a contract “exploits communal fears that existed…during the war and are persisting after,” he said. “Through patronage, they also maintain a control of their respective communities. But the underlying reason behind this elite social contract is mismanagement of economic resources to the advantage of a very small clique of people,” he said.

Dr. Ramović explained that the peace agreement ending the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, signed in Dayton, Ohio, “unfortunately, and paradoxically, actually preserved the unity of the country and also divided the country in the same time.” This political settlement perpetuated the core conflict issue which was competing conceptions of territorial boundaries and loyalties, and the Dayton Peace Agreement created a hybrid government comprised of actors of each major ethnic group. This “bloated” administrative structure, though, ended up helping nationalist elites control employment and the public sector.

Instead, he said, “international actors should encourage initiatives, especially grassroots initiatives, which can expose the links between political, business, and judiciary elites.” This would, he argued, “unravel the elite social contract and provide channels so that the voice of a majority of the population could be heard.”

Youssef Mahmoud, IPI Senior Adviser and the event’s moderator, suggested three lessons for cultivating successful peace agreements based on the situation in Tunisia, his own country. The first was that “when the broad-based constitution was adopted in 2014, it became the social contract in post-revolution Tunisia.” The second, he explained, was that, “as you anxiously look for ways to strengthen the state, ensure that this does not put the onus on the state as the sole penholder of the social contract.”

The third was, “In attempts to keep at bay all kinds of isms, do not sacrifice on the altar of stability and security the oxygen that keeps voice alive and free, a voice that Tunisians have wrenched out of the jaws of the state. Without the oxygen, a resilient social contract is atrophied.”