Unifying disparate peoples at national and local levels and promoting cohesion in conflict-affected and fragile states are important intangible aspects of statebuilding and peacebuilding. A legitimate political order needs to be based on some agreement about the boundaries of the political community, national priorities and collective identity. In addition, a shared over-arching identity can focus attention away from ethnic and sectarian identities that may have become the source of divisions in violent conflict. This leads to ideas of nationhood.
A ‘nation’ implies a shared sense of political community and elements of identity. Nation-building as defined by DFID is ‘the construction of a shared sense of identity and common destiny, to overcome ethnic, sectarian or religious differences and counter alternative allegiances’ (DFID, 2010, p. 18).
Citizenship and nationality cannot be conflated. In some cases, citizenship may be conferred based on belonging to a particular ethnic group, or may be effectively exercised only by dominant groups (see ‘statelessness’ section). Thus, nationals of a country may still be denied citizenship and rendered stateless. In other cases, nationality is defined solely in ethnic terms, whereas citizenship is seen as broader, encompassing various ethnic groups living within a country.
Statebuilding and peacebuilding may enable nation-building but do not necessarily guarantee it. Effective state institutions may not result in a sense of nationhood; and a sense of nationhood may not improve the likelihood of strong institutions. There is a growing body of literature that argues, however, that the line between statebuilding and nation-building is not clear-cut.
State structures permeate through to societal structures and statebuilding processes affect socio-political cohesion. Constitution drafting and elections, state policies on language and educational systems, for example, can have a profound impact on nationhood. They address and shape fundamental questions related to nationality, citizenship, identities, trust and values. They also impact on the degree to which a state is politically inclusive. Participatory and inclusive deliberation in constitution drafting can provide a forum and process to bring divided groups together to negotiate controversial issues and to think about a common vision of the state. A constitution serves as a symbol that disparate groups have agreed to live together.
It is thus important for external actors to address the reality that statebuilding can bring them into the realm of nation-building, instead of avoiding it. Trying to build institutions without linking them to shared values and inclusive notions of citizenship and political community can result in the persistence of divisions. Perceptions of nationhood and state legitimacy are fostered through a sense of belonging and connection to the state and to wider society. In addition to attention to inclusive institutions, this can be fostered through educational, cultural and sports programmes.
It is also important to recognise that nation-building is a long-term indigenous process and that, similar to issues of legitimacy, there is a limit to which external actors can play an active role. In many cases, legitimacy and nationhood require that central institutions engage with local, community and customary governance. This can give people a stronger connection to the state and a greater sense of belonging.
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.
International IDEA, 2011, ‘Constitution Building After Conflict: External Support to a Sovereign Process’, Policy Paper, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Stockholm
This paper examines the challenges and nuances of external support to constitution building, which can, it argues, be both constructive and problematic. It calls for a restrained approach to such support, based on ‘invitation points’ rather than ‘entry points’. The quality of the process used is crucial to successful constitutional design, and the choice of process needs to be left to national actors.
Kausch, K., 2011, ‘Constitutional Reform in Young Arab Democracies’, Policy Brief, FRIDE, Madrid
Revolutionary Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are about to embark on drafting new constitutions as a clean break with their authoritarian past. Challenges include sequencing constitutional reform with elections; ensuring broad legitimacy; preventing polarisation via inclusion; and the deconcentration of political and economic powers. A look at constitutional reform experiences from around the world sheds light on how similar challenges were confronted.
Brown, A. M., 2009, ‘Security, Development and the Nation-building Agenda—East Timor’, Conflict, Security and Development, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 141-164
State-building has been seen as the path to both security and development in East Timor. However, this article argues that this approach neglects situating key government institutions within a social context. There has been little effort on the part of central institutions to engage with local, community and customary governance. A nation-building agenda needs to support the emergence of networks of communication and exchange between government, social institutions and people and between different levels and kinds of governance. Building deep connections between different forms of governance, and so grounding government in communities, is slow and difficult, yet essential.
Thida Lun, M., 2009, ‘Reconnecting Joined-up Approaches: Nation-building Through Statebuilding’, SPIRU Working Paper 25, Strategic Policy Impact and Research Unit (SPIRU), Overseas Development Institute, London
How can sustainable peace be built in fragile states? This study shows that while donors have largely focused on statebuilding, stability requires a deeper process of nation-building. External actors are restricted to using statebuilding as a means of enabling nation-building. They can assist in the establishment of rule of law, create a fertile investment climate for economic regeneration and agree an exit strategy. However, only the partner country can take the lead role in nation-building.
Helling, Dominik, 2009, ‘Anatomy of a ‘Political Chameleon’: Re-examining Fluid Shapes and Solid Constants of Nationalism and Nation Building’, Discussion Paper No. 17 (series 2), Crisis States Research Centre
Why has the number of ‘failed’ states increased in spite of international intervention? This paper argues that this is in part attributable to the neglect of ‘nation-building’. The social and cognitive processes of creating a common national identity during post-conflict reconstruction are paramount. Capacity-building and institutional reforms are important activities. However it is the ability of people, and mainly elites, to use such structures to construct a ‘nation’ that prevents a state from collapsing.
Samuels, K., 2008 ‘Postwar Constitution Building: Opportunities and Challenges’, Chapter 8 in The Dilemmas of Statebuilding: Confronting the Contradictions of Postwar Peace Operations, eds. R. Paris and T. Sisk, Routledge
What role does constitution-building play in post-war statebuilding? This chapter looks at the political dynamics, choices and implementation challenges that confront constitution-building. It suggests that the process can provide a key opportunity to shape the institutional and governance framework, and opens the door to societal dialogue. However, ensuring that such a process supports the establishment of a peaceful and legitimate state requires careful balancing of the compromises needed to maintain the peace and the people’s involvement in deciding the future of their country.
For discussion and resources on power-sharing, see peace agreements in Chapter 4 (Recovering from Violent Conflict) of the Conflict guide.
For discussion and resources on state legitimacy and non-state institutions, see the ‘state-society relations’ section of this supplement.
For discussion and resources on cultural heritage preservation in conflict contexts, see: