Introduction. The Social Contract and the Welfare State: A Comparative Perspective

Paul Klee Strahlung und Rotation Dossier CERI 18

The seven contributions presented in this Dossier du CERI are based on presentations made and discussed during a seminar entitled “The Welfare State and the Social Contract in Comparative Perspective,” held jointly by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) and the CERI on 16 and 17 December 2019. The seminar concluded a series of meetings of the transversal working group on “L’action publique ailleurs” (public action elsewhere) that operated at the CERI between 2016 and 2019 under the supervision of Laurence Louër and Hélène Thiollet.

In line with the research conducted in this working group, the aim of the seminar was to reflect upon social protection as one of the foundations of the modern social contract, based on empirical case studies of states that are mostly not members of the OECD—the latter being the traditional field of analysis of the welfare state scholarship, which is generally building on European cases. Choosing to look elsewhere makes it possible to take some distance from the assumptions of the literature on the welfare state that tends to consider more or less implicitly that the welfare state both results from and accompanies democracy, and that it requires an autonomous state that has strong “infrastructural power” (Michael Mann) as well as a formal labour market and functional financial markets (Ian Gough et al.). However, in many non-Western countries these prerequisites are far from being met: political regimes are often authoritarian and democracies often dysfunctional; the state has little capacity to penetrate society and implement public policies; the majority of jobs are in the informal sector; and markets—often dominated by oligopolies and monopolies—are strongly linked to political elites by patrimonial and clientelist dynamics. In addition, many developing countries are heavily dependent on international aid, including for their assistance policies for the poorest members of their societies. The articles presented in this Dossier each explore one aspect of these issues, based on countries in Africa, the Middle East, post-Communist Europe, and Latin America.

The articles on African cases emphasise the central role of international donors in the architecture of social protection, and more particularly in the implementation of cash transfer programmes for the most disadvantaged. In the countries studied (Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia), the authors note strong ideological and normative opposition to the very principle of social assistance among political elites, who see cash transfers to the poor as an incentive to laziness. This opposition is overcome when the agenda of international organisations and NGOs can be articulated with the objectives of political leaders, who use social assistance to get re-elected or, in an authoritarian context, to deal with social crises that threaten their power. However, both the ideological hostility to social aid and the fiscal fragility of states prevent the long-term institutionalisation of these assistance programmes.

Significantly, two contributions on Middle Eastern countries (Iran and the Gulf monarchies) offer a critique of the uses of the rentier state concept in the analysis of social protection in this region of the world. The authors point out that this concept is the basis of a paradigm that infuses much of the literature on the political economy of Middle Eastern countries. The concept draws a line between the redistributive state and the distributive state: the former redistributes wealth previously collected from citizens by an efficient tax administration; the latter distributes rents generated by the exploitation of natural resources by state-owned enterprises. Classical works on the rentier state posit that the absence of taxation leads to an authoritarian social contract in which citizens exchange their political rights for social rights. Rentier states would have neither a capitalist nor a working class, and consequently no political dynamics based on class membership. This contradicts empirical observations, which show, on the contrary, the importance of class dynamics that not only impact the institutional architecture of social protection but are also found in the dynamics of protest against regimes.

The contributions on Syria and Brazil both highlight a process of “state offloading” (“décharge de l’Etat”, Béatrice Hibou) whereby, in this case, social protection is outsourced to private actors. In contrast to the dynamics highlighted by the articles on Africa, the Brazilian case shows the intervention of international organisations, notably the International Monetary Fund, favouring the privatisation of public services. In a context of strong mobilisation for social rights and simultaneous pressure from the International Monetary Fund, successive governments have opted to outsource social assistance to NGOs. A similar dynamic can be seen in the Syrian case, where the arrival to power of Bashar Al-Assad in the early 2000s marked the end of the developmental social contract, characterised by the state provision of social services and the sidelining of the non-profit sector, in favour of the delegation of social protection to a rapidly expanding charity sector more or less directly linked to the political elites.

Finally, the comparative text on Romania, Hungary, and Lithuania emphasises the drift of some of the social protection structures inherited from the Communist era. Based on the case of family allowances and parental leave, the author shows that these benefits target the middle classes, which are well integrated into the labour market, to the detriment of precarious workers, who are, however, numerous. This orientation, which claims to want to value work and support the middle classes, outlines the contours of a dual welfare state in which assistance to the most disadvantaged is both disciplinary and highly stigmatising.


Ian Gough and Geof Wood (eds), Insecurity and Welfare Regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Social Policy in Development Contexts , New York, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Michael Mann, “The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results”, European Journal of Sociology, 24 (2), 1984.

Béatrice Hibou (ed), Privatising the State, London, Hurst & Co. 2004.

Cover image: Strahlung Und Rotation (1924), Paul Klee. Image in the public domain.

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