While formal state institutions may be weak or deemed illegitimate in fragile and conflict-affected contexts, there are often informal institutions that persist and retain legitimacy. These institutions are diverse and may include community mechanisms or customary local governance institutions. Often, they fulfil some of the functions expected of the state.
Statebuilding initiatives have often focused primarily on formal institutions and their capacities at the central level, sidelining sub-state and informal institutions. This has prevented the evolution of an organic process of reform driven by local actors that could allow for greater resonance and legitimacy with citizens.
There is a growing awareness of a need to pay attention to existing informal institutions. This may stem from pragmatic acceptance of their existence; a recognition that they represent local culture and practice; and/or the view that they can provide a bridge between state and society. Informal institutions may improve public service delivery; help stimulate investment; facilitate the transition to more inclusive, rules-based governance; and promote social reconciliation in situations of conflict.
In some cases, informal local governance institutions can work synergistically with formal institutions. In other cases, however, they may compete with formal institutions in negative ways and undermine them, particularly in the case of patronage networks. Critics view such informal institutions as undermining norms of governance and citizenship. Further, local and informal institutions may not necessarily function better than the state and can in some cases be discriminatory, particularly towards women and youth. Working with informal actors does not necessarily mean endorsement though if donors can engage in dialogue with them with a view to securing inclusive rights.
The key to adopting an institutionally diverse approach in statebuilding and peacebuilding processes is to avoid competition between informal and formal state institutions. It is important to understand the conditions in which they can be beneficially linked.
Unsworth, S., 2010, An Upside Down View of Governance, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton
How can effective, accountable public authority be increased? This paper synthesises research findings from the Centre for the Future State. It explores how public authority is created through processes of bargaining between state and society actors, and the interaction of formal and informal institutions. Findings highlight the need for a fundamental reassessment of existing assumptions about governance and development. Informal institutions and personalised relationships are pervasive and powerful, but they can contribute to progressive as well as to regressive outcomes. Rather than focusing on rules-based reform, policymakers should consider using indirect strategies to influence local actors.
Marc, A., Willman, A., Aslam, G., and Rebosio, M. with Balasuriya, K., 2013, ‘Social Cohesion and interactions between institutions’. Chapter 5 in Societal Dynamics and Fragility. Engaging Societies in Responding to Fragile Situations, World Bank, Washington, D.C.
The interaction between institutions in society is a crucial aspect of social cohesion. This chapter focuses on interactions between formal, state institutions and customary institutions. These institutions can, in practice, operate in conflict or in synergy. Sometimes the relationship between customary and formal institutions can be unproductive -for example, where customary leaders transfer their accountability from local people to state institutions, or where customary institutions are completely co-opted by the state. The cumulative effect of unproductive interactions is increased fragmentation in society, whereas positive interactions have been shown in some cases to improve social cohesion, particularly where civil society organizations have been able to act as mediators between the state and society.
Heathershaw, J. and Lambach, D., 2008, ‘Introduction: Post-Conflict Spaces and Approaches to Statebuilding’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 269-289
What can an analysis of ‘space’ in post-conflict situations tell us about existing theoretical approaches to statebuilding and peacebuilding? This article argues that post-conflict spaces have to be understood as fields of power where sovereignty is constantly contested and negotiated among global, elite and local actors. Understanding these spaces means breaking out of the dominant liberal peace model and ‘single sovereign’ framework. It requires recognition of the resilience of local space and importance of elite-subordinate dynamics of patronage and informal structures of authority. This makes it possible to discern some of the logics that govern how power and space shape each other in post-conflict settings.
Giovannetti, G. et al., 2009, ‘Statebuilding and Social Cohesion’, Chapter 7 in European Report on Development: Overcoming Fragility in Africa – Forging a New European Approach, European Communities, Brussels, pp. 90-103
How can the international community help national reformers to build effective, legitimate and resilient states in post-conflict settings? This chapter discusses the complex intangible dimensions of state-building – state-society relations and negotiation processes. It argues that building the capacity of formal institutions needs to be complemented by actions that take into account the roles of perceptions and expectations, of bottom-up consultations and of the degree to which populations feel represented by public institutions. It recommends a gradual, long-term and socio-culturally engaged approach to state-building, which external actors may support but not lead.
For further discussion and resources on non-state actors, see:
- Working within local contexts and institutions in Chapter 5 (Statebuilding in fragile contexts) of the fragile states topic guide.
- Non-state actors and peacebuilding in Chapter 4 (Recovering from violent conflict) of the Conflict guide.