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Linking Social Rights to Active Citizenship for the Most Vulnerable: the Role of Rights and Accountability in the ‘Making’ and ‘Shaping’ of Social Protection


Social protection has the potential to provide a key interface between states and citizens. We consider how the institutional framing and design of social protection can be adapted from top-down forms of provision to forms that stimulate vulnerable citizens to make rights-based claims and demand accountability for their entitlements. A conceptual framework is developed that illustrates three channels through which citizenship can be engaged through social accountability mechanisms and in the context of social protection provision. Drawing on case studies, we highlight the different contexts in which the design and delivery of social protection can open up spaces for different forms of citizenship engagement and expression. Through opening up institutional spaces where citizens can engage with the state, and each other, we conclude that social protection is uniquely placed to build the economic, social and political capabilities of citizens.


La protection sociale a le potentiel de constituer une interface essentielle entre les États et les citoyens. Nous examinons comment la façon dont la protection sociale est présentée et conçue au niveau institutionnel peut passer d’une approche descendante à une approche qui pousse les citoyens vulnérables à faire des demandes fondées sur leurs droits et à demander des comptes pour la protection de leurs acquis. Un cadre conceptuel est développé; il illustre trois canaux par lesquels la citoyenneté peut être engagée, par le biais de mécanismes de redevabilité sociale et dans le contexte de la fourniture d’une protection sociale. En nous appuyant sur des études de cas, nous mettons en évidence les différents contextes dans lesquels la conception et la mise en œuvre de la protection sociale peuvent ouvrir des espaces pour différentes formes d’engagement citoyen et d’expression de la citoyenneté. En ouvrant des espaces institutionnels où les citoyens peuvent interagir avec l’État, nous concluons que la protection sociale est particulièrement bien placée pour renforcer les capacités économiques, sociales et politiques des citoyens.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    As Hickey (2011) argues, there are different types of social contract that lead to different forms of social protection. The social contract emerging in our framework is mostly related to the social and right-based approach to contractualism, which ‘is better suited to a progressive politics of social protection in Africa, involving a fuller recognition of the rights of citizens and supporting a much-needed stronger role for the state’ (Hickey 2011, p. 435).

  2. 2.

    A recent review found that grievance mechanisms in social protection programmes are generally underused and/or underperforming (Barca et al. 2012). Another review argued that grievance mechanisms alone may not be best suited for social protection programmes and should therefore be complemented with other individual and collective social accountability mechanisms (Ayliffe et al. 2017).

  3. 3.

    These are made up of traditional leaders, district assembly members, representatives of teachers and nurses, religious leaders and NGO representatives.

  4. 4.

    In 1988 in Brazil, the ‘Citizens’ Constitution’ heralded in a new era of political freedoms and social entitlements after constitutional rights were suspended twice when authoritarian military governments seized power. Since 2003, India has manifested a series of landmark national acts that legislate for strong rights to new civic entitlements, including the 2005 Right to Information Act 1, the 2011 Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and the most recent National Food Security Bill 2012. Despite a shrinking civic space in both countries, the dialogue between citizens and the state has historically been strong.


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Funding for this study was provided by USAID to UNICEF Ghana. The findings, interpretations and conclusions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of UNICEF.

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Correspondence to Rachel Sabates-Wheeler.

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Sabates-Wheeler, R., Wilmink, N., Abdulai, A. et al. Linking Social Rights to Active Citizenship for the Most Vulnerable: the Role of Rights and Accountability in the ‘Making’ and ‘Shaping’ of Social Protection. Eur J Dev Res 32, 129–151 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41287-019-00223-5

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  • Social protection
  • Rights
  • Citizenship
  • Poverty
  • Accountability