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.
The importance of understanding legitimacy
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. Quasivoluntary compliance is compliance motivated by a willingness to comply but backed up by coercion, particularly coercion that ensures that others will obey the law (Levi & Sacks, 2009). This holds for both power exerted by a state and by armed non-state groups. Thus legitimacy can be understood as an acceptance of authority by both elite and non-elite groups, although not all citizens are equally able to confer legitimacy.
Legitimacy lies at the core of state-citizen relationships and thus of the whole state-building agenda. In theory, a lack of legitimacy should be closely linked to instability, however this relationship has not been adequately investigated in the literature. If an authority which experiences weak legitimacy has access to resources to exert power through coercion, its power may not be widely challenged (for example Algeria, North Korea). There is evidence to support the idea that citizens who perceive their government as relatively effective, competent, and procedurally just, are more willing to comply, albeit quasi-voluntarily.
Ways of assessing legitimacy
There are two principal approaches to assessing legitimacy. One is concerned with normative standards to which an actor, institution or political order must conform in order to be considered legitimate. Using this approach, there is a right way to exercise authority. A normative approach to state legitimacy, based on western liberal values, typically understands a legitimate state as a state which features democratic elections and respect for human rights. An empirical approach assesses legitimacy through the perceptions and acts of consent by both the governed and the authorities in a given society.
In his exploration of how to think about legitimacy and illegitimacy, Robert Lamb (2014) emphasises the importance of not only identifying what entity is being evaluated for legitimacy/illegitimacy (which he termed the ‘conferee’) but who is making that judgement (the ‘referee’). It follows that the legitimacy of individual actors, political parties, states or political settlements will vary according to who the referee is. Using the normative approach to evaluating legitimacy, the referee is the evaluator him/herself whereas, in the empirical approach, the referee is the population over which the conferee exerts authority.
Dominant understandings of legitimacy
Donors’ understanding of legitimacy has been heavily influenced by Weber’s theory of state and by his categorisations of sources of legitimacy. In the first instance Weber’s ideal type of bureaucracy, based on legal-rational principles, influenced an understanding of the state in terms of institutions and service delivery. Fragile states were defined as states which failed to fulfil these core functions. A lack of service delivery in fragile states was understood as a key factor in their weak legitimacy, which can be seen, for 4 example, in the OECD reports on Service Delivery in Fragile States, (2008a) and the Dilemmas of State building in Fragile Situations, (2008b). As a result, legitimacy was understood as something which could be strengthened through service delivery.
Just as Weber categorised legitimacy in terms of sources (rational-legal, tradition and charisma), the OECD’s 2010 typology of legitimacy identifies sources of legitimacy (input legitimacy, output legitimacy, beliefs and international legitimacy). While Weber’s approach to legitimacy was distinctly empirical and the broad categories identified by the OECD report are non-normative, the treatment of potential sources of legitimacy under each of these categories tends towards the conceptualisation of a legitimate political system based on the principles of liberal democracy. For instance, sources of input legitimacy which have been identified include participation, transparency, checks and balances on centres of power, procedural norms, auditing of public funds, appropriate media coverage and public political debate, the principle of legality and rule of law following bureaucratic institutions. Patronage is also acknowledged as a source of input/output legitimacy in non-western states although, even when this is included, this account of the sources of input legitimacy fails to explain the high levels of legitimacy enjoyed by countries such as China, which feature few of these characteristics.
The risk of using a normative approach to understanding how to build legitimacy in fragile states is that interventions, which support western interpretations of legitimate states, will encounter the same problems that were encountered when state-building was understood as an exercise in building institutions which mimicked western ones.
The 2010 DFID practice paper Building Peaceful States and Societies uses an empirical approach to legitimacy. However, the understanding of the interaction between state and society in building legitimacy tends towards a state-centric approach: ‘states are legitimate when elites and the public accept the rules regulating the exercise of power and the distribution of wealth as proper and binding’ [italics added] (DFID 2010, p16). Furthermore, the legitimacy of the UN and international donors as peace-building and state-building actors is assumed (DFID 2010, p11). The 2011 DFID Strategy document Building Stability Overseas does not define its understanding of legitimacy but tends towards a normative understanding of what a stable state looks like. For example, it states that democracy can provide an effective mechanism for allocating political power and managing conflict, and understands elections as a ‘critical part’ of building legitimacy.
Legitimacy is symbiotic, multidimensional and constantly shifting
The symbiotic, multidimensional and shifting nature of legitimacy was discussed in the OECD 2010 report; however it is the typology of sources of legitimacy which tends to be extracted from the report leaving behind the nuance. David Beetham’s (1991) theory of legitimacy emphasises the symbiotic and multidimensional nature of legitimacy. Beetham understood legitimacy not in terms of the different sources from which authority arises, but in terms of three dimensions upon which all legitimacy relies. According to Beetham, for an authority to be legitimate:
- it must conform to established rules;
- the rules must be justifiable in terms of people’s beliefs;
- there must be evidence of consent by the subordinate.
This allows for a level of symbiosis; that people’s perceptions of legitimacy are influenced by the justifications provided by an authority and that an authority’s justification for its legitimacy, in turn, is influenced by the shifting beliefs of the people. Furthermore, the acts of consent displayed by the subordinate contribute to the construction of justification for an authority. In a similar way, Robert Lamb’s research on how gangs establish legitimacy in slums in Colombia emphasises the multidimensional, multilevel and bilateral nature of legitimacy (2014).
Legitimacy, institution building and service delivery The evidence reviewed indicates that the influence of service delivery, job creation, formal institutions, and international interventions on legitimacy will depend on whether the intervention is aligned with the values and expectations of the population. In her review of the impact of service delivery Mcloughlin (2014) concludes that the relationship between a state’s performance in delivering basic services and its degree of legitimacy is likely to be conditioned by:
- shifting expectations of what the state should provide;
- subjective assessments of impartiality and distributive justice;
- the relational aspects of provision;
- how easy it is to attribute (credit or blame) performance to the state;
- the technical and normative characteristics of particular services.
Donors cannot assume that better service delivery through state channels or delivery of ‘core services’ will increase the perceived legitimacy of the state. Security is often considered one of the core services that a state should provide but perceptions of safety do not necessarily correlate with perceptions of increased legitimacy. In Pakistan and Sri Lanka, perceptions of safety were correlated with legitimacy while, in Uganda, they were negatively correlated. Even in places where people’s expectations are met, the legitimising effects of service delivery is 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. In addition to being subject to variations over time, legitimacy is rarely monolithic and perceptions of legitimacy among a group of referees vary according to their beliefs which are influenced by age, gender, socioeconomic status and location.
More inclusiveness does not necessarily result in increased legitimacy Inclusiveness in political settlements and peace processes is often understood as a key factor in ensuring the legitimacy of the process and the resulting agreement. However, the theory of legitimacy reviewed for this Topic Guide indicates that inclusivity will only contribute to the legitimacy of a process or agreement when the level of inclusiveness achieved aligns with the mainstream expectations of inclusivity among the group the process or agreement affects. There is some evidence to support the theory. For instance, 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. In the Algiers Peace Accords signed in 2006 between the Government of Mali and the Tuareg insurgency groups, provisions were included which attempted to increase the participation of Tuaregs in the government and bureaucracy. This provision led to lower class Tuaregs accessing positions of power within the state which in turn, began to threaten the ‘traditional’ power structure among the Tuareg clans, thus giving some of the more elite Tuareg increased incentives to attempt once again to establish a Tuareg state (Ag Erless and Kone, 2012).
Non-state groups gain legitimacy through a range of strategies Non-state groups gain legitimacy through a range of strategies which 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); redistributing wealth through taxation (e.g. Al Shabaab and FARC), and challenging existing states that are perceived as illegitimate by significant parts of the population (e.g. LTTE, Provisional IRA).
Approaches to influencing legitimacy
Despite the increasing attention legitimacy has received in critical research and donor strategies, the translation of this into tangible interventions has been slow. Legitimacy is rarely explicitly discussed in state-building strategy documents, although it is occasionally addressed indirectly, through strengthening mechanisms of accountability. Yet, there are some indications of an ‘emerging consensus’ among donors that interventions need to include a mix of activities most likely to contribute to increased legitimacy in the short-term (what the World Development Report 2011 calls restoring confidence) and longer-term efforts to legitimise the state by strengthening its links to society. Examples of this approach include the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) in Afghanistan and social protection programmes which have been used in emergencies and situations of acute poverty.
The evidence reviewed for this Topic Guide suggests that, if these programmes are well designed, they could play a significant role in strengthening state-citizen relations. ‘Well designed’ does not necessarily mean a programme that efficiently meets its top-down and externally-defined outcomes but one that is designed to consider the ideational and relational significance of an intervention; how a programme relates to beneficiaries’ values and expectations. Donors considering interventions which are intended to contribute to either short-term and long-term state legitimacy will need a greater understanding of the dynamics of legitimacy construction in contextually-defined power relationships to assess whether the intervention is appropriate and likely to be effective.
Some existing analytical frameworks can be helpful in understanding expectations around 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 (the elite bargain) is perceived as legitimate by the general population.
Interventions which don’t attempt to understand issues of legitimacy can have unintended impacts
Interventions which deliver services outside of 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. However, it should be noted that the impact of delivering services outside state channels 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 got its approval to operate in areas it controlled. Interventions which aim to work with formal and informal governance structures can also work to 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 to people’s expectations about the role of chiefs.
Measuring perceptions alone may not be adequate for assessing legitimacy
Development programmes commonly measure legitimacy through perception surveys. These can provide insights into the degree of legitimacy an authority enjoys, however, there are a number of methodological problems. 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.