New concept brief: state legitimacy
In this three-page Brief (pdf), senior researcher Claire Mcloughlin unpacks a contested, yet important, concept.
She notes that, in its simplest form, state legitimacy means people accept the state's right to rule over them.
But legitimacy is also a political process of bringing order to social relations, and political actors are often central to it. Political leaders and state institutions typically have resources at their disposal – such as influence over the media and processes of political participation – to create and maintain the belief that the system they represent is the most appropriate one for society.
The paradox of legitimacy is that it is usually only when it is absent that its true significance becomes clear. Legitimacy crises often precipitate periods of intense political contestation or violent conflict.
One of the key challenges for academics and policymakers concerned with legitimacy is how can we tell apart cases of legitimate rule from those of illegitimate rule? Legitimacy thinking calls for an empirical approach to understanding what citizens in a particular country context expect from the state and how they evaluate it, as opposed to one based on preconceived universal values.
The depth and durability of a state's legitimacy has direct effects on the feasibility of development processes, and on the effectiveness of external efforts to support them. See the full Brief (pdf).
Claire Mcloughlin is a senior researcher with DLP and the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC) at the University of Birmingham. Her current research focuses on access to basic services and state (de-)legitimation in conflict-affected situations. See a summary of her recent open access article in the journal Governance: When does service delivery improve the legitimacy of a fragile state?
DLP Concept Briefs offer concise introductions to key ideas related to leadership and the politics of development. The first, on Political Settlements (3pp; PDF, 260 KB), is by Edward Laws and Adrian Leftwich, and was published in October 2014.