The legitimacy of states and armed non-state actors

Legitimacy is a crucial aspect of all power relations. Without legitimacy, power is exerted through coercion; with legitimacy, power can be exerted through voluntary or quasi-voluntary compliance. Legitimacy lies at the core of state-citizen relationships and thus of the whole state-building agenda.

This Topic Guide explores the meaning of legitimacy in relation to state and armed non-state actors. It examines the dominant meanings of legitimacy used in international development and analyses how these have emerged. It also identifies and uses alternative conceptualisations of legitimacy to interpret the evidence on the relationship between legitimacy and service delivery, institutions, international interventions, social media and religion/ideology. Finally, it discusses approaches used by donors to either increase state legitimacy or to measure the legitimacy of an intervention. It analyses current tools used by donors for their relevance to understanding legitimacy, and also assesses the relevance of new tools and methodologies designed specifically to analyse and measure legitimacy.

Author and contributors

This topic guide was written by Aoife McCullough (ODI). The production of this guide was supported by the UK Department for International Development. GSDRC appreciates the contributions of Siân Herbert (GSDRC), Graham Teskey (DFAT), and Nicolas Lemay-Hébert (University of Birmingham).

Key messages

The ‘legitimacy’ of a state or of a non-state actor refers to the acceptance of its authority among both political elites and citizens, although not all citizens are equally able to confer legitimacy. Without legitimacy, power is exerted through coercion; with legitimacy, power can be exerted through voluntary or quasi-voluntary compliance. Quasi-voluntary compliance is compliance motivated by a willingness to comply but backed up by coercion, particularly coercion that ensures that others will obey the law. In theory, lack of legitimacy is closely linked to instability; however this has not been adequately investigated in the literature.

Legitimacy can be assessed through a set of ‘right standards’ – a normative approach; or through the perceptions and acts of consent of the authorities and citizens in a given society – an empirical approach. Perceptions and acts of consent are influenced by local social norms.

Donors have tended to focus on a normative approach. This is risky. Donors’ assumptions about the ‘right standards’ will influence their understanding of how to strengthen legitimacy – which may not be aligned to local social norms.

An empirical approach to legitimacy draws attention to the importance of people’s expectations about the relationship between state and society, rather than the capability and characteristics of the state itself. If, for example, people do not expect the state to deliver services, then its failure to do so will not necessarily result in them perceiving the state as illegitimate.

The weight given to different sources of legitimacy depends on who is making the judgement. Expectations of political actors differ enormously between and within societies. These expectations change quickly and can be influenced by media, ideology, and events.

Effective service delivery can influence perceptions of legitimacy, but this relationship is complex. It is affected by expectations of what the state should provide, subjective assessments of impartiality and distributive justice, the ease of attributing performance to the state, and the characteristics of particular services. Donors cannot assume that better service delivery through state channels or that the delivery of ‘core services’ will increase the perceived legitimacy of the state. Security is often considered a core state service but perceptions of safety do not necessarily correlate with perceptions of legitimacy. In Pakistan and Sri Lanka, perceptions of safety were correlated with legitimacy while in Uganda, they were negatively correlated. Even where people’s expectations are met, the legitimising effects of service delivery are subject to people’s shifting expectations. In Colombia, it was found that, once expectations were met in one area of service delivery, satisfaction with the state diminished as citizens turned their attention to other services that needed improvement.

Donors often overestimate the importance of inclusive political processes and legal structures in perceptions of state legitimacy. In practice, most states (developed and developing) rely on a range of sources of legitimacy which are based on people’s beliefs about the rightness of authority. In the South Pacific, the competitive dimension of liberal democratic elections, for instance, is alien to local custom in many places, and people that come into power on the basis of such elections are not necessarily seen as legitimately authoritative. Instead, legitimate authorities tend to draw on traditional sources to justify their power. Where expectations about the level of vertical inclusion are low, more inclusivity can risk undermining stability. In Iraq, it was found that the redistribution of services to previously excluded groups in the post-war period diminished the state’s overall legitimacy gains.

Non-state groups gain legitimacy through a range of strategies. Those include filling perceived gaps in state performance (e.g. Al Shabaab in Somalia, and MILF in the Philippines); drawing on nationalist and religious ideological narratives to build a shared identity (e.g. LTTE in Sri Lanka, Al Shabaab); and challenging existing states that are perceived as illegitimate by significant parts of the population (e.g. LTTE, Provisional IRA).

State-building interventions which aim to increase state legitimacy in addition to increasing state capacity, need to be based on a deep understanding of local expectations. A greater understanding of the construction of legitimacy in a particular environment is required before donors can decide whether an intervention is (a) an appropriate strategy, and (b) likely to be effective.

Donor interventions are likely to have impacts on perceptions of legitimacy of various actors. These impacts may not always be intentional. Interventions which deliver services separately to state channels can challenge a state’s legitimacy. In Zambia, citizens who thought the state had little to do with service provision were less likely to pay tax. As the findings on citizens’ perceptions of the state shows, the impact of delivering services separately to the state is dependent on citizens’ expectations of what the state should provide. Humanitarian work which involves delivering basic services outside state channels often requires negotiation with non-state actors, thus providing them with legitimacy. Al Shabaab capitalised on this opportunity in Somalia by requiring that all NGOs get its approval to operate in areas it controlled. Interventions which aim to work with formal and informal governance structures can also weaken those structures’ legitimacy if they don’t meet people’s expectations. In Mozambique, support for informal governance systems decreased the perceived legitimacy of chiefs as they imposed a range of new and unfamiliar obligations which were not aligned with people’s expectations about the role of chiefs.

Some existing analytical frameworks can be helpful in understanding expectations linked to legitimacy. Political economy analyses (PEAs), for example, explore formal and informal rules within society. However, PEAs which focus on elite bargains tend not to analyse whether the allocation of power, dictated by an elite bargain, is perceived as legitimate by the non-elites.

Perception surveys can provide insights into the degree of legitimacy an authority enjoys however there are a number of methodological problems associated with this. Legitimacy is too unwieldy and complex a concept to be measured with one indicator; virtually all perception surveys break it into component parts. This means that perception surveys on legitimacy are measuring a range of different indicators which are related to legitimacy but are not necessarily measuring the same thing. Furthermore, expressing dissatisfaction with an authority may not be strategic for interviewees. Finally, legitimacy is not only constructed through perceptions, but also through people’s acts of consent. More robust approaches to measuring legitimacy should include a measurement of perceptions and of behaviour.

Suggested citation

McCullough, A. (2015). The legitimacy of states and armed non-state actors: Topic guide. Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.