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Thirsty Cities: Social Contracts and Public Goods Provision in China and India, Selina Ho

Reviewed by Roselyn Hsueh

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Why does urban China provide higher levels of drinking water than similarly situated cities in India? Looking beyond regime type, Thirsty Cities zeros in on the role of the “social contract.” Defined as an agreement between state and society that serves as a powerful informal institutional constraint on formal institutions, “social contracts affect institutional capacity by determining how governments allocate resources across different institutions and priority areas and they affect institutional autonomy by circumscribing the space between state institutions and societal and political interests” (p. 8). To explain why China is able to more successfully provide public goods than India, the book contends that country-specific social contracts shape variation in institutional capacity and autonomy.

Selina Ho’s “social contract” perspective offers a novel sociological underpinning to understand water institutions, which are defined by the author as “the institutional and bureaucratic structures, laws, policies, and regulations that govern the urban water sector” (p. 121). In this understanding, China’s performance- and moral-based social contract is rooted in the traditional and historical concept of the “mandate of heaven,” which accords substantial power and autonomy to local gover

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