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The Domination/Development Contract

There are many problems with the idea of a social contract, not least that in liberal political philosophy it assumes autonomous actors freely choosing to be rulers in a nation-state setting. The use here departs from liberal social contract theory in two ways. First, by extending it to transnational relationships and institutions of aid. It is not usual to see international parties as part of the social contract establishing the state, but nor is it unheard of. Rawls' 'law of peoples' sets out the principles of a supra-national social contract in which aid, human rights, and famine relief are instances of the kinds of exchange the contract may entail (Rawls 1993). The content of the mutual obligations and expectations in this instance has to do with aid programmes to reduce poverty, accelerate growth, and speed global economic integration.[1] Hickey's caution about where the social contract stops being a useful concept for development is instructive, pointing to the need for more transformative and politically empowering forms of public action than donors can manage (Hickey 2011).

Second, the social contract is acknowledged to be a relation of domination: power always permeates the contract, establishing the unequal terms on which parties are contracted and the unequal costs of breaking it (Pateman and Mills 2007). The acute dependence on aid with which Bangladesh was born sharply reduced the range of possible pathways of development to those which were minimally acceptable to its donors (Sobhan 1982). As for the masses, it is all but impossible to conceive of their participation in this contract as voluntary, free, or autonomous. Following Pateman (1980), we can askā€”can consent be said to have taken place in any meaningful sense of the term? Has granting 'consent' made it possible for the developed to hold their developers to account? Or is consent beyond the scope of a population facing Malthusian annihilation?

To avoid making the social contract metaphor work harder than it can, note that consent may amount to little more than agreeing not to resist (Lipset 1959). But that does not make it meaningless: not resisting is not the same as actively rejecting. The legitimacy of a regime depends not on continual active support, just on it not being withdrawn. And unlike in the established democracies of the West, it is possible to observe moments in a post-colonial country's history when the contract is actively renegotiated or reset. The idea of consent may mean more in developing countries precisely because the nation (who is in it, what it stands for) is a relatively recent construction, as is the polity that will distribute its power and the state that will administer it. In the writing of new constitutions, mass migration, major insurgencies, and significant declines in political trust (Norris 1999), it is surely possible to read something very like acts of mass assent or dissent.

And in understanding the times when the contract was broken, as this book does in its discussion of the famine of 1974, we start to see why consent matters. The silence about this time is too heavy to explain without delving into its psychology. But it leaves an impression of a nation that learned the hard way why protection against crisis had to be hardwired into its system, protected against political regimes, open to others to help. To fail again as in 1974 would in future be known to spell the end not only for a ruling fraction, but for the class more generally. So the social contract is a useful device, because the mechanics of the contract can be discerned empirically, if not with ease. There is enough evidence to make sense of the mechanisms through which contracts have been broken or honoured in the early part of Bangladesh's development, and to make sense of the costs and consequences of broken contracts for elite groups at different levels. Take, for instance, the effects of the broken patriarchal bargain for poor and landless women household heads, forced into manual labour on public works schemes, against all their society's rules and norms. When contracts break, and parts of society are no longer protected or supported, there is a clear role for the state.

  • [1] Those interested in such distinctions will recognize this as the difference between Hobbesiancontractarian approaches, which are seen as substantive, or specifying the normative content ofthe contract, and Kantian contractualism, in which the contract is the thing, and the norms towhich it binds people are not specified.
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