New article: When does service delivery improve the legitimacy of a fragile state?

Claire Mcloughlin’s new article in Governance takes stock of the theory and evidence on the relationship between service delivery and state legitimacy in fragile and conflict-affected states, challenging received wisdom.

Understanding the key sources of legitimacy available to a state, and whether and how external aid interventions might seek to influence them, is a rapidly growing area of concern for development agencies.

Received wisdom holds that providing vital public services – like health, education, water and sanitation – is likely to enhance state legitimacy, especially in fragile or conflict-affected environments where services are likely to be poor or non-existent.

But what do we actually know about when service delivery improves the legitimacy of a fragile or conflict-affected state? Can delivering services in such environments fulfil the dual imperative of meeting basic needs and state-building?

This article finds that in practice, there is no straightforward relationship between how well a state performs in delivering services on the one hand, and its degree of legitimacy on the other.

Emerging research demonstrates that where citizens do evaluate the state's right to rule through the services they receive, this evaluation is likely to be affected by a number of intervening factors, including:

  • Expectations of what the state should provide: Aligning capacity and expectations is not straightforward because expectations may be non-existent, vary between groups, and tend to quickly shift over time.
  • Subjective assessments of impartiality and distributive justice: Perceptions of equity in the distribution of services between groups, and of impartiality in how they are delivered, matter.
  • The relational aspects of provision: Who is expected to deliver, and whether forms of provision are locally legitimate, matters more than who delivers services (i.e. the state or non-state actors).
  • How easy it is to attribute performance to the state: Sometimes citizens have no information to credit or blame the state for relative improvements/deteriorations. Misattribution has been documented.
  • The characteristics of the service: Different services are more or less visible to citizens, or politically salient, affecting their significance for state legitimacy. 

These findings question the dominant institutional model underpinning contemporary state-building literature, which views the role of services in (re-)building state legitimacy as just a means to an end.

They call for a more nuanced and rounded account of the significance of service delivery for state legitimacy; one that includes the effects of services on citizens' ideas about the state and relations with providers and that engages with the criteria (e.g. of equity) by which citizens judge them.

See this open access Governance article in full in the Wiley Online Library: When Does Service Delivery Improve the Legitimacy of a Fragile or Conflict-Affected State?