In international development, legitimacy has been heavily influenced by Weber in two ways. The first is through the fragile state discourse which draws heavily on Weberian definitions of the state. Weber’s ideas on the ideal-type bureaucracy, based on legal rational principles, influenced an understanding of state strength in terms of capacity to provide for the security and wellbeing of its citizens, while state fragility is understood in terms of a lack of capacity to provide these services (DFID, 2005; OECD-DAC, 2007). As fragile states are presumed to be suffering from weak legitimacy, strengthening legitimacy is thus imagined in terms of strengthening state capacity to provide services (Lemay-Hébert & Mathieu 2014). For example, the OECD report on Service Delivery in Fragile States state that the ‘effectiveness of service delivery’ is the core component of ‘the legitimacy of the political order’ (2008a). In another OECD report which explores the dilemmas of state-building in fragile situations, it is proposed that state legitimacy can be threatened if the state does not deliver core services (2008b).
The second way that understandings of legitimacy in international development are influenced by Weber is in the dominant treatment of legitimacy in terms of sources. Weber identified three sources of legitimacy:
- legal rational (rules and procedural correctness);
Similarly, the OECD-DAC (2010) conceptualises legitimacy in terms of sources which expand on Weber’s original categorisation.
While the OECD-DAC 2010 report emphasises the importance of shared beliefs and that sources of legitimacy are relevant only to the extent that the relevant constituency considers them to be so, the discussion of the potential sources of legitimacy under each of these categories tends towards a conceptualisation of a legitimate political system based on the principles of liberal democracy (a normative understanding of legitimacy). For instance, sources of input legitimacy identified include participation (although it is acknowledged that elections might not necessarily represent a source of legitimacy), 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 acknowledged as a source of input/output legitimacy but, even with this inclusion, 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 (in a cross country analysis of state legitimacy, China is ranked 17 out of 72 democratic and non-democratic countries – see Gilley, 2006).
DFID’s approach to working in fragile states has been influenced by the OECD’s treatment of the concept of legitimacy. The 2010 DFID practice paper Building Peaceful States and Societies draws on the OECD report on legitimacy when it states that legitimacy lies at the heart of state-society relations. 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] (p. 16). The legitimacy of the UN and international donors as peace-building and state-building actors is assumed (p. 11). The 2011 Strategy document Building Stability Overseas does not define its understanding of legitimacy but it 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.
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. As the OECD report on legitimacy emphasised, there are likely to be many sources of legitimacy in fragile states, including tradition, religion and patronage. The effects of normative approaches to legitimacy which are based on western values can be subtle. For example, the 2010 OECD-DAC report on legitimacy is explicit about treating legitimacy empirically and clearly states that donors need to broaden their understanding of legitimacy to encompass aspects of it that derive from people’s shared beliefs and traditions, not just from a western state model. Yet, the analysis of the distinction between western and non-western states and their vulnerability to legitimacy/illegitimacy builds in a teleological understanding that the stronger a state becomes, both in terms of its institutional capacity and its state-society relations, the more legitimate the state is likely to be.
- For further information, see the GSDRC Topic Guide on fragile states.
- DFID (2005). Why we need to work more effectively in fragile states. London: DFID. See document online
- DFID. (2010). Building peaceful states and societies (DFID Practice Paper). London: DFID. See document online
- DFID. (2011). Building stability overseas. London: DFID. See document online
- Gilley, B. (2006). The determinants of state legitimacy: review for 72 countries. International Political Science Review, 27(1). See document online
- Lemay-Hébert, N., & Mathieu, X. (2014). The OECD’s discourse on fragile states: Expertise and the normalisation of knowledge production. Third World Quarterly, 35(2), 232–51. See document online
- OECD. (2008a). Service delivery in fragile situations: Key concepts, findings and lessons. Journal on Development, 9(3). See document online
- OECD. (2008b). Concepts and dilemmas of state building in fragile situations: From fragility to resilience. Journal on Development, 9(3). See document online
- OECD-DAC. (2007). Principles for good international engagement in fragile states and situations. London: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Development Assistance Committee. See document online
- OECD-DAC. (2010). The state’s legitimacy in fragile situations: Unpacking complexity. London: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Development Assistance Committee. See document online