The State’s Legitimacy in Fragile Situations: Unpacking Complexity



State legitimacy provides the basis for rule by consent rather than coercion, but in fragile situations multiple, conflicting sources of legitimacy co-exist. How can the complex interactions between these different sources be better understood and constructively combined? Donors should pay particular attention to: (a) legitimacy deriving from shared beliefs and traditions; and (b) the processes of state-society interaction that nurture state capacity and legitimacy. Trying to strengthen state capacity and legitimacy in very fragile environments by supporting the creation of rational-legal political institutions will not work.

Lack of legitimacy contributes to state fragility by undermining the processes of state-society bargaining that are central to building state capacity. All donor interventions affect local political processes, and thus state capacity and legitimacy. While external interventions risk undermining state legitimacy, donors can support constructive relations between state and society.

It is important to recognise that Western ideas of formal, rules-based statehood differ fundamentally from those in non-Western states, where public and private spheres overlap. Further, many non-Western states are ‘hybrid’ political orders in which formal rules coexist with competing, indigenous forms of socio-political order.

The formal institutions of the Western state derive their capacity and legitimacy from a long history of state-society interaction. They cannot be reproduced simply by transferring the same institutional models into different social and political contexts.

Key sources of legitimacy are: (1) input or process legitimacy; (2) output or performance legitimacy (public goods and services); (3) shared beliefs; and (4) international (i.e. external recognition of) legitimacy. These play out differently in different social and political contexts. While some are mutually reinforcing, others are contradictory. No state relies on a single source of legitimacy. Further, what may bolster state legitimacy with one group in one area may undermine it in another.

  • ‘Grounded legitimacy’ may offer a way of incorporating traditional authorities within the formal state, thus addressing people’s sense of alienation from the state. It involves re-shaping diverse sources of legitimacy through state-society bargaining. Examples of ‘grounded legitimacy’ (led, interestingly, by domestic actors) include: the combination of customary councils of the elders with modern state institutions in Somaliland; and very local, non-state institutions that mediate between rural communities and formal state institutions.
  • Another approach to supporting constructive state-society relations is to consider how people’s perceptions of what is legitimate interact with their material interests; and how common interests can provide the basis for negotiating positive sum outcomes between state and society. For example, bargaining over revenue and public expenditure management can strengthen state capacity, accountability and legitimacy. However, elites in fragile states may have little interest in strengthening state capacity or engaging with citizens because they do not depend on them for revenue.
  • It is important to investigate: (a) the scope for shifting elite interests (by limiting their ability to benefit from externally generated rents, for instance); and (b) the circumstances in which very informal relations built around common interests could result in positive sum outcomes and stimulate interest in rules-based arrangements.

Donors need a detailed, empirical understanding of how multiple and conflicting sources of legitimacy play out in a given context. They should then consider how best to support more constructive state-society engagement and address trade-offs when local perceptions of legitimacy conflict with international norms. Donors should:

  • Start by seeking greater understanding of local people’s (diverse) perceptions and beliefs about legitimate political authority.
  • Pay much more attention to their own sources of legitimacy, and to how local perceptions affect their influence and ability to operate effectively.
  • Review current strategies of support to civil society, which can exclude a wide range of groups that could have both capacity and interests to engage politically (on the basis of different perceptions of legitimacy).
  • Facilitate interaction between groups representing different interests and perceptions of legitimacy.
  • Focus on how the global environment affects elites’ incentives to engage in statebuilding, and prioritise action to regulate elites’ access to externally generated sources of finance.
  • Consider how aid modalities impinge on local state-society relations, including public financial management systems and project design.
  • Be much more open to unorthodox political arrangements that encompass traditional aspects of legitimacy, and be prepared to ‘work with the grain’ of existing interests.
  • Honestly debate the difficulty of reducing corruption in political systems that offer no clear boundaries between the public and private spheres. The starting point for thinking about corruption should be an empirical investigation of local perceptions, not a Western state model.

For more on fragile states, including legitimacy issues, see the GSDRC’s Topic Guide on Fragile States.


OECD, 2010, ‘The State’s Legitimacy in Fragile Situations: Unpacking Complexity’, International Network on Conflict and Fragility, OECD, Paris