IDD Policy Brief: Rethinking the Institutional Approach to Statebuilding

Posted on Friday 14th December 2012

Definitions of 'the state' in the academic and policy literature on statebuilding are influential, yet often unacknowledged. In this Brief, Nicolas Lemay-Hébert outlines the implications of the dominant ‘institutional’ understanding of statehood, and of an alternative.

Key messages

  • Every contribution to the academic or policy literature on statebuilding adopts, consciously or unconsciously, a definition of the type of state that is to be built. These definitions need to be examined because they influence statebuilding interventions.
  • The dominant understanding of the state focuses on institutions. This has led to an approach to statebuilding that equates a state’s strength with the capacity of its institutions to assert state authority.
  • This ‘institutional’ approach promotes: 1) the measurement of states against a Western model of statehood; 2) an apolitical perspective in which institutions are dissociated from their socio-political context; and 3) the belief that more external intervention is better.
  • The other main understanding of the state focuses on the broader social system, and has influenced a ‘legitimacy’ approach to statebuilding. This approach highlights the need for indigenous institutions to develop a collective identity and foster social cohesion so as to be considered legitimate by citizens. Its implications include the importance of donor sensitivity to socio-political processes that promote or undermine legitimate governance.

Read the full Policy Brief: Rethinking the Institutional Approach to Statebuilding (PDF, 256)