State legitimacy

State legitimacy is a key aspect of state-society relations. State repression and violence, which occurs in many conflict-affected contexts, results in negative experiences of citizens with the state, a legacy of mistrust, and rejection of the legitimacy of state institutions. In situations of fragility, the inability or unwillingness of states to provide for the welfare of citizens and to improve standards of living has also undermined trust between the state and society and legitimacy. The development of state capacity to manage competing interests and to be responsive to citizen’s needs thus has the potential to improve legitimacy.

State legitimacy can derive from a range of sources, including the effectiveness of public institutions in their performance of various functions, such as service delivery, taxation and social protection systems; and their degree of representation and accountability. Legitimacy does not derive solely from effectively functioning institutions, however. Such institutions must also resonate with societies in order for them to be considered legitimate and to become embedded in society. This involves the penetration of the state into society such that citizens take the presence of the state and its rules for granted; they accept the state’s right to rule and its position as the highest political authority.

While international development actors can assist in developing state capacity such that they can be responsive to society, their ability to directly affect legitimacy is limited. State institutions advocated by external actors often correspond with Western state practices. These may not fit with local context and historical processes and may not be socially, politically or culturally appropriate. In such cases, the institutions are unlikely to be perceived as legitimate and to contribute to positive state-society relations.

Donors should invest more in understanding socio-political contexts, how local societies relate to the state and how historical and cultural factors shape public perceptions. They should seek to engage with communities and non-state institutions. This would contribute to an awareness of institutions that resonate with the population and the conditions in which state legitimacy is likely and unlikely to develop.

Mcloughlin, C., 2014, ‘State legitimacy: Concept Brief’, Developmental Leadership Program, University of Birmingham.
This brief offers a concise introduction to the core elements of the concept of state legitimacy. It addresses four questions: How is the concept of legitimacy best understood? Why is it important? How do states accrue legitimacy? And what policy implications follow from this?

OECD, 2010, ‘The State’s Legitimacy in Fragile Situations: Unpacking Complexity’, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris
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.

Lemay-Hébert, N., 2009, ‘Statebuilding without Nation-building? Legitimacy, State Failure and the Limits of the Institutionalist Approach’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding’, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 21-45
What is state collapse and how should external actors address it? This essay reviews the literature, outlining the ‘institutional’ and ‘legitimacy’ approaches to the state and statebuilding that emerge. It argues that to be effective, statebuilding needs to consider both the efficiency of state institutions and their legitimacy, (and in terms of the latter, the impact of external intervention on socio-political cohesion, or ‘nation-building’). Statebuilding and nation-building should thus be understood as a single process, in which local ownership and perceptions are vital.

Roberts, D., 2008, ‘Post-conflict Statebuilding and State Legitimacy: From Negative to Positive Peace?’, Development and Change, vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 537-555
What is the potential for statebuilding interventions to foster domestic legitimacy? This article advocates a shift in current approaches to statebuilding. Rather than inserting modern institutions that create external legitimacy, statebuilding should focus on closing the gap between civil society and the state. More emphasis should be placed on building domestic legitimacy by fulfilling basic welfare needs. This approach would stimulate local-level state legitimacy while formalising social justice and positive peacebuilding.

HelpAge International, 2011, ‘Strengthening State-Citizen Relations in Fragile Contexts: The Role of Cash Transfers’, Briefing no. 3, HelpAge International
What is the role of cash transfers in strengthening state-citizen relations in the context of long-term development in fragile states and situations? Using examples based on 18 months research consisting of desk study in London and field work undertaken in Sierra Leone, northern Kenya and Sudan, the report argues that social protection programmes in the form of cash transfers, if well designed, could play a significant role in strengthening state-citizen relations. The nature of programme design and programme ownership is critical to shaping this relationship, which is of crucial importance in fragile contexts.

Prichard, W., 2010, ‘Citizen-State Relations: Improving Governance through Tax Reform’, OECD, Paris
How can tax reform enhance citizen-state relations? This report examines the role of taxation in building more responsive and accountable government, and in expanding state capacity. It finds that the specific character of tax systems and of tax reform is very important to strengthening connections between taxation and broader governance gains. Governments and donors can strengthen tax-governance links through three types of actions: 1) specific measures to enhance and re-orient the dominant tax reform agenda; 2) support for civil society actors to engage in debates about tax issues; and 3) managing the provision of aid in ways that maximise positive revenue-raising incentives and local accountability.

Additional resources

See further discussion and resources on state legitimacy in Chapter 5 (Statebuilding in Fragile Contexts) of the Fragile States topic guide.

See the GSDRC topic guide on the Legitimacy of states and non-state armed actors