Research on the relationship between service delivery and perceived legitimacy of states indicates that this relationship is contingent on a multitude of factors. Access to services does not necessarily result in increased state legitimacy (Mcloughlin, 2014; Mallett et al., 2015). Some research indicates that the quality of services can have a positive impact on perceptions of state legitimacy (Mallett et al., 2015) but in other situations, satisfaction with a service did not correlate with trust in state (Brinkerhoff et al., 2012). In situations where quality does improve perceptions of the state, it does not guarantee ongoing legitimacy; in Colombia it was found that, once expectations were met in one area of service delivery, satisfaction diminished as citizens turned their attention to other services that needed improvement (Guerrero, 2011).
Some of the apparent contradictions in different studies could be attributable to the different methods used to measure and assess legitimacy. The study conducted by Mallett et al. (2015) was part of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) funded by DFID. It sought to measure legitimacy by assessing the degree to which citizens thought their government’s decisions reflected their own priorities, and the degree to which it cared about whether its decisions reflected their priorities or not. Brinkerhoff et al. (2012) used willingness to pay for water services as a proxy for trust in government. While these two studies are probably measuring different things (albeit both related to legitimacy), the research conducted by SLRC included cross-country comparisons. Even when using the same measure, there were significant variations in factors which affected perceptions of legitimacy. For example, security is often considered one of the core services that a state should provide but perceptions of safety do not necessarily correlate with increased legitimacy. In Pakistan and Sri Lanka, perceptions of safety were correlated with legitimacy while in Uganda, they were negatively correlated.
In her paper analysing when service delivery improves the legitimacy of a fragile state, Mcloughlin (2014) draws on Beetham’s concept of legitimacy but also represents legitimacy as a social construction. Using this, these variations across countries would be expected. Thus, in one place the provision of good quality services in one place may be interpreted as evidence that the state is efficient and worthy of support whereas, in another, it could be seen as evidence of increasing state control and an attempt at pacification (Van de Walle & Scott, 2011). Mcloughlin found that, in practice, a number of factors interrupt any direct causal relationship between a state’s performance in delivering basic services, and its degree of legitimacy. She concluded that this relationship 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.
This understanding of legitimacy in relation to service delivery has several repercussions for the aid industry. Mcloughlin recommends that donors look beyond the material to the ideational and relational significance of services for citizens’ evaluations of the state. There are several examples of specific current approaches that are worth discussing in more detail.
First, the dominant position in aid policy has been that parallel (non-state) service delivery structures undermine state legitimacy because they reduce the state’s visibility as provider (Bellina et al., 2009). There is some supporting evidence of this from Zambia, where citizens who (rightly or wrongly) credited non-state providers with service delivery were found to be significantly less likely to have confidence in their government, or to pay tax and comply with regulations (Sacks, 2009). However, if people do not expect their state to deliver services, their concept of a legitimate state may be unaffected by a non-state actor delivering services. Stel (2011) found that, in Burundi, as people did not expect the state to be involved at the point of delivery, they were not disappointed when it was not. Thus whether the delivery of services by non-state actors will influence legitimacy depends on people’s understanding of what the state’s role is. It will also be influenced by the socioeconomic status of the population; if a population can afford to pay for private education, they may not expect the state to provide it.
Health is often understood as a core service that is likely to increase the legitimacy of a government. Indeed in her statistical analysis of cross-country public opinion data, Sacks (2011) concludes that basic health services potentially have a greater overall effect on the general population’s approval of the incumbent government, compared to water and sanitation services, and she attributes this to the acute significance of health for people’s daily lives. However, although sanitation and water services could be directly linked to health considerations, and that the relative weighting of different services will vary according to population needs, numerous other studies have concluded that the evidence that health contributes to increased state legitimacy is ‘flimsy’ at best (Gordon, 2013; Rubenstein, 2009). Gordon highlights how, in Afghanistan and Iraq, health provision has become part of counter insurgency and stabilisation strategies which may engender suspicion towards these programmes. This seems to have already happened in northern Pakistan where it is widely believed by local communities that the polio vaccination programme is really a scheme by the West, in collaboration with the Pakistani government, to make Muslims infertile (Murakami et al. 2014).
There are some tentative findings that indicate that there may be common features to service delivery which engender perceptions of legitimacy. Qualitative research in Liberia, Nepal, and Colombia found that unequal or exclusionary access to public goods was detrimental to citizens’ views of the state’s right to rule (Dix et al., 2012). Of course, the definition of ‘unequal’ or ‘exclusionary’ will be shaped by normative values. Citing the case of Iraq, Brinkerhoff et al. (2012) note that the redistribution of services to previously excluded groups in the post-war period diminished the state’s overall legitimacy gains. The opportunity to influence the form of service delivery either through decision-making opportunities or grievance mechanisms also seems to be a feature of service delivery that is associated with more positive perceptions of government. This effect was found in post-conflict, developing and developed countries (Mallett et al., 2015; Roos & Lidström, 2014).
- For further information, see the GSDRC Topic Guide on service delivery
- Bellina, S., Darbon, D., Eriksen, S. S., & Sending, O. J. (2009). The legitimacy of the state in fragile situations. OECD/DAC/NORAD. See document online
- Brinkerhoff, D., Wetterberg, A., & Dunn, S. (2012). Service delivery and legitimacy in fragile and conflict-affected states. Public Management Review, 14(2), 273–293. See document online
- Dix, S., Hussmann, K., & Walton, G. (2012). Risks of corruption to state legitimacy and stability in fragile situations (U4 Issue No. 3). U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre. See document online
- Gordon, S. (2013). Health, conflict, stability and statebuilding: A house built on sand? Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 7(1), 29-44. See document online
- Guerrero, A. (2011). Rebuilding trust in government via service delivery: The case of Medellin, Colombia. Washington, DC: World Bank. See document online
- Mallett, R., Hagen-Zanker, J., Slater, R., & Sturge, G. (2015). Surveying livelihoods, service delivery and governance: baseline evidence from DRC, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Uganda (Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium Working Paper 31). London: ODI. See document online
- Mcloughlin, C. (2014). When does service delivery improve the legitimacy of a fragile or conflict-affected state? Governance (online publication). See document online
- Murakami, H., Kobayashi, M., Hachiya, M., Khan, Z. S., Hassan, S. Q., & Sakurada, S. (2014). Refusal of oral polio vaccine in Northwestern Pakistan: A qualitative and quantitative study. Vaccine, 32(12), 1382–87. See document online
- Roos, K., & Lidström, A. (2014). Local policies and local government legitimacy. The Swedish case. Urban Research & Practice, 7(2), 137–52. See document online
- Rubenstein, L. (2009). Post-conflict health reconstruction: new foundations for U.S. policy. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace. See document online
- Sacks, A. (2009). Non-state actor provision of services, government legitimacy, and the rule of law. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, San Francisco, CA.
- Sacks, A. (2011). The antecedents of approval, trust and legitimating beliefs in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and six Arab Countries. Washington, DC: World Bank. See document online
- Stel, N. (2011). State legitimacy and MSP service delivery: Experiences from Burundi. The Hague: Peace, Security and Development Network.
- Van de Walle, S., & Scott, Z. (2011). The political role of service delivery in state-building: Exploring the relevance of European history for developing countries. Development Policy Review, 29(1), 5–21. See document online