What role can public service delivery play in state-building? This article explores lessons from Western European history to argue that the design of public services is a far more political matter than is often recognised. Rather than being a neutral process, a historical review of service provision shows that it has been used as a political tool for building state legitimacy and concepts of nationhood. The paper concludes that donors need to rethink their approaches to service provision in fragile states in light of these findings.
Concerns about failed and fragile states have put state- and nation-building firmly on the academic and policy agenda. The crucial role of public services in this process, however, remains underexplored. While significant focus is placed on ‘how’ to deliver services in weak or fragile contexts, less attention is paid to the political impact of these interventions. This omission ignores the inherently political role public service delivery has played in state formation and consolidation throughout history.
Public services make the state visible to its citizens, often forming the principal tangible link between governments and their people. Public services carry and diffuse the values of the new nations and contribute to the bonding between the state and citizens. An analysis of Western European history reveals three main processes through which public services have contributed to state- and nation-building:
- Penetration: A process of establishing control and the presence, authority and visibility of the state or the ruling powers. The aim of penetration is to contribute to the cohesion and legitimacy of the state through a process of political and territorial socialisation.
- Standardisation: The creation of a common culture through the presence of similar and readily identifiable public services.
- Accommodation: Public services serve as instruments for dispute settlement and for the creation of political loyalty. Service provision becomes instrumental in ‘binding critical elements of the population to the state’.
Public service delivery, then, is a highly political matter. While lessons from European history cannot be applied unquestioningly to developing countries where statebuilding ventures are currently taking place, there are some broad principles drawn from history that can inform current and future practice. Donors, historically reluctant to admit to the political role they play in the countries in which they work, are unlikely to fully embrace the potential role of service provision in promoting state- and nation-building. However, the following questions are addressed to policymakers for their consideration:
- Is efficiency always the best guiding principle for the design of public services in fragile contexts? There may be situations where a political decision could be made to sacrifice efficiency for the ‘greater good’ of furthering penetration, standardisation or accommodation.
- Can we really think of state-building as a democratic process? Historical analysis shows that much of the statebuilding process is about coercion and the accommodation of certain groups or power factions. Harsh compromises may be necessary, and will not always be popularly supported.
- Where is the line between supporting nation-building and facilitating excessive nationalism. Should external actors even be involved in this or is it necessarily an endogenous process? The right balance between public services that function effectively, efficiently, and economically, and public services that reflect and propagate a national or a state identity may be particularly hard to find.