Blog Post

Can Services Deliver Legitimacy and Build Peace?

While it seems that the ability to provide public services is important to measure a government's legitimacy, this is not always the case.

Date Published
7 May 2015
Rachel Gordon

Much of the money spent on fragile and conflict-affected situations in recent years embodies and reflects popular ideas about the “virtuous circle of State-building”. In this picture, increased donor aid to state institutions supports better delivery of more public services, making citizens not only healthier, wealthier and wiser, but also encouraging them to feel more positively toward their governments. It is a very attractive and influential idea in State-building and, lately, peacebuilding circles. As noted in the recent “Thematic Paper on Statebuilding and Service Delivery” for UNU-CPR, the problem is that, so far at least, it doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.

It is not that people don’t care about the services they receive, or that people living in post-conflict environments are not in dire need of basic services, much less the more specialized needs often present in post-conflict environments. Let’s be very clear about this, lest we seem to teeter on the edge of a perverse argument against delivering services. In many places around the world, the need for security, water, sanitation, health, education, livelihoods support, and other protections is urgent, and deserves attention from everyone concerned with basic human security and wellbeing. In short, service delivery matters – regardless of whether it generates state legitimacy.

But what does the evidence actually say about this often assumed relationship? Our research findings at the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC), as well as those of other studies, suggest that services can shape how people feel about their government, but probably not in the ways or for the reasons most of us think, or donors hope. The simple delivery of services does not appear to have a linear relationship with citizens’ perceptions of local or central government, and – following that – better service delivery does not neatly correspond to more positive perceptions of governance.

There is currently a lot of concern that non-state service delivery, while often essential (and in some states or regions ubiquitous), should nonetheless turn over to state-led service delivery as soon as possible. Yet, SLRC’s survey data from five countries show that who delivers services seems to not influence citizens’ views of governance in a particularly significant way.

Rather, what does seem to matter is the quality of services: people who experience a greater number of problems with the health clinic, the school or the water service they use are also likely to be less happy with the government. Related to this, the data also show that people’s perceptions of the government can be strongly influenced by whether there are “grievance mechanisms” or complaint procedures embedded within services, through which people can voice their dissatisfaction and try to hold providers accountable. And interestingly, it does not seem to matter if people use those mechanisms or not: just having them available appears to improve perceptions!

These findings support the view, long suggested in academic literature, that services should be understood not simply as a good to be delivered but as a channel of interaction between citizens and the state – though it is not as straightforward as saying ‘services lead to legitimacy’. This, in turn, supports the view that state legitimacy is an ongoing process that governments must continually engage in, rather than an outcome they can achieve and be done with.

Unfortunately for results-based, value-for-money purists, the research supports a much more multidimensional and context-specific approach to supporting state legitimacy than the linear capacity-building approach. As the UN’s 10-year review of the global peacebuilding architecture gets underway, it will be important to test prevailing assumptions about the relationships between service delivery, peacebuilding and State-building that research suggests might be significantly more nuanced than dominant approaches suggest.

The article is an adaptation of a longer paper on peacebuilding and service delivery.

Suggested citation: Rachel Gordon., "Can Services Deliver Legitimacy and Build Peace?," UNU-CPR (blog), 2015-05-07,

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