Improving local governance in fragile states - practical lessons from the field

by Timothy_Liptrot5 min read12th Aug 20207 comments


Institutional decision-makingCause candidatesPolicy changeGlobal health and development

Crossposted with Lesswrong and personal blog

Summary –

Over the past 15 years, major international donor agencies shifted their approach to local politics in fragile states. In order to build stable state-society relations in conflict-affected societies, they committed to studying popular expectations on states, which may differ greatly from international norms like competitive elections and service provision. This blog post examines donor interventions to improve service provision in refugee-crisis-affected communities in Lebanon and Jordan from 2011 to 2019. Donor states hoped that improving service provision capacity of municipalities would increase public trust, but encountered problems with block voting and patronage, leading them to question the value of service provision. Future posts discuss alternate strategies that some donors attempted.

Legitimacy in fragile states -

Legitimacy is the extent to which the people being ruled consent to being ruled. Ruler’s who people trust to exercise coercision are legitimate. Authority is force (coercion) with legitimacy. A majority of Americans may dislike Donald Trump, but they continue to pay taxes to him and few people are advocating we instead address our taxes to Hillary Clinton or Jill Stein. The hanging chad controversy in 2000 was a legitimacy question because it called into question whether the electoral college should confer the right to rule.

Readers from developed countries are used to always knowing the relevant public authority due to a clear division between state and society. The mayor decides who can park where, and whoever wins the biannual mayoral election gets to be mayor. The president appoints the head of the IRS, and whoever gets the most electoral college votes becomes president, et cetera. But in fragile developing countries the question of who wields authority is more often contested. If there is no mayor or the mayor is a figure head appointed by a distant authority, communities some other authorities must judge which spaces are for parking or market stalls and provide other local governance services. In the absence of legitimate, functional state actors, other actors such as tribes, sheikhs, armed groups and charities often compete for legitimacy. We call these diverse, competing local actors public authorities.

Why do we care -

In the 2000s the concept of legitimacy became important to the international donors. The donors are government and intergovernmental agencies who fund overseas assistance projects, like USAID, DFID, the World Bank and the Kuwait Fund. Among other factors, the 2000s saw well-funded donor attempts to create stable, legitimate governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. These projects did not go as well as intended, particularly given the sums involved. In fancy reports at the Development Assistance Committee, USAID, and DFID studied how both state and non-state actors legitimate themselves, hoping to reform state-building and improve assistance in fragile states.

The primary outcome of these studies we call the empirical legitimacy agenda. Previous interventions had assumed normative legitimacy, meaning that states achieved legitimacy by adhering to normative standards such as competing in elections, providing services, following clear and transparent rules, etc. Now donors recognized that they could not predict popular expectations of the state. Legitimacy is instead constructed through a variety of complex, idiosyncratic practices which may not resemble western legitimacy-making. At least some legitimacy-making practices will likely be shared in non-western systems, such as providing security and social services, or listening to citizen participation, sometimes through intermediary representatives like tribal leaders. Some legitimacy-making practices which are frowned-upon in the west are common in fragile states, such as claiming a right to rule through shared religious belief. Patronage is especially common, in which higher elites provide resources in exchange for support to clients. While patronage degrades state capacity and alienates non-elites, in practice it can be a source of legitimacy. Anecdotally, I doubted people could say “What our political system needs is more nepotism, but directed toward my ingroup”, until I heard people say it myself.

According to their global strategies, donors adopted empiricism to understand how legitimacy is constructed, but their goal remained the creation of legitimate, rules-based governance. The purpose of understanding practical legitimacy-making is to help states emerge from fragility, meaning to become legitimate and effective with strong connections to their societies.

This blog series investigates how the empirical legitimacy has affected aid policy in practice in Jordan and Lebanon during the Syrian crisis.

Improving service capacity

[I am now switching to academic jargon, so this language can integrate directly in my paper]

The most common theory of change involving local legitimacy is that improving the services of municipalities will increase the their legitimacy (LCRP, 2016). The Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP) cites this narrative, writing “the sector will then develop and strengthen a wide range of community support and basic services projects, which will serve the dual purposes of alleviating pressure and competition of resources at the local level, and - more importantly – building the confidence of local populations in municipal capacity (…)” (LCRP, 2016: 18). This narrative is presented frequently both in project proposals and in multi-donor strategies. USAID’s Lebanon strategy for 2014-2019 reads “In order to deepen connections between the public and their local representatives, USAID will build the institutional capacities of municipalities and strengthen their ability to deliver quality services, (…).” Proposals usually support this narrative using survey data that indicates service failures caused by refugees are a source of tension, as in the UK CSSF’s programme document which reads “The increase of refugees is placing considerable strain on already overburdened municipal systems, and in doing so, threatens social stability and cohesion” (CSSF, CLCR; 2). The implicit assumption is that municipal leaders currently rely on performance based legitimacy from successfully providing services, that the influx of residents from the crisis has worsened the quality of said services, and that increasing the services will therefore legitimate the municipal leaders. Several proposals in turn assert that greater municipal legitimacy will lead to greater social cohesion, possibly implying less animus against refugees.

The capacity increasing programs provide direct grant funding to municipalities, assist with procurement, and provide training to municipal staff. The UK’s CSSF has provided municipal grants depending on the refugee portion of the population in a region. The World Bank’s Municipal Services and Social Resilience Project (MSSRP) in 2015 provided US$ 54.5 M to 21 municipalities calculated by a base allocation per municipalities plus 19$ per Syrian. USAID’s CITIES program provides qualifying municipalities with HR audits, training on development planning and zoning among other services. The DMFA, through UNDP, funds facilities repairs and trains municipal police forces in Lebanon (DMFA, 2016; Activity Number 29568).

Overtime in Jordan and Lebanon donors became less confident that capacity building along would accomplish their governance and stability objectives. Most importantly, the large donors with major stability investments in Jordan noticed that many municipal elections were determined by bloc voting along tribal lines. Mayoral candidates are often selected in an internal tribal election after which all tribe members vote for the candidate, or candidates may negotiate an alliance of tribes for the election. In turn, the tribal supporters expect family members will receive positions in the municipality. As a result, personnel costs dominate municipal budgets, averaging 60-65% of their budgets to the detriment of capital costs (for institutions providing road building and sanitation services), leading to dependence on overseas aid (UNDP, 2014). Most workers had not completed high school (Ibid). Mayors complain that they cannot accomplish objectives due to demands from their councils to hire relatives [Janine Clark]. Municipal leaders prioritized visiting local elites and resolving disputes over advertising their service provision. This evidence suggested that patronage and tribal identification were more important to municipal legitimacy-making than process (elections) or performance.

Secondly, they became aware that municipalities had severe capacity problems prior to the crisis, such as intermittent transfers from the central government, budgets overinvested in payroll rather than capital, and over division into municipalities too small to function (particularly in Lebanon). The actual reduction in municipal capacity caused by the refugees may have been overstated given the low baseline of service provision (USAID, 2016).

Thirdly, in Jordan elite-populace conflicts shifted away from refugee issues toward disputes over the amount and distribution of patronage among Jordanians. Protests in 2019 occurred more in low-refugee cities and participants did not cite host refugee issues, according to interviewees. In Lebanon host-refugee issues remained important in municipal politics, although informally donors in the security cluster doubted that capacity enhancement influenced municipal policy toward refugees[1].

All of these observations suggested that enhancing municipal capacity was unlikely to legitimate them. Firstly, they did not rely heavily on performance legitimacy so did not heavily advertise their services. Secondly, the incentives created by the patronage system could direct funding toward ghost jobs and away from actual service provision. One optimistic report noted in Lebanon that the expectations for municipal service provision were low enough that any services would be a pleasant surprise (Mourad, 2016).

Policymakers at larger agencies with leadership roles in governance cogently described the issues with block voting and differing incentives. The UK’s CSSF had commissioned a series of reports on legitimacy making and service provision in municipalities in both Jordan and Lebanon. CSSF hired a research agency to conduct in-depth studies in addition to commissioning regular surveys. USAID’s democracy and governance office kept a close eye on these problems through regular reports from implementing partners and occasional field visits. One agency went so far as to survey attendants at town-hall meetings (described below) for the demographics of participants. The results of these studies and the donors collected statements broadly agree with independent academic work on Jordanian and Lebanese municipal politics (Municipal politics in Jordan and morocco).

As a result of these concerns, donors now rarely site only the services-legitimacy connection to justify large projects for municipalities. They usually add one or more of the following methods: teaching new methods of legitimacy-making to local leaders, increasing public participation in government, and increasing participation of vulnerable groups. The subsequent sections (posts) explore these interventions in greater detail.

What I need from you, dear readers!

Thanks for reading this opening sections. In you comments, tell me to what extent you understand the issues presented.

- Were any conclusions unsupported?

- Were all sections necessary?

  • I struggled to combine data from both Jordan and Lebanon due different due to their different political systems. Did this interfere with comprehension?


7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:17 AM
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Nice article.

At least on first read I didn't experience any confusion with the co-mingling of Lebanon and Jordan, but when I re-read looking for that specifically there were a few anecdotes I struggled to identify the country for. But I don't think that is a big issue, especially if you have citations anyone really interested could follow.

One thing I would like to see discussed is to what extent this separation between service provision and perceived legitimacy affects the motivations for donors. If the two went together then donors interested in stability would support the same policies as those interested in service consumption. But if they separate then this doesn't hold: presumably some donors will want to support e.g. roads, even if they don't increase stability, while other donors might want to support e.g. clerics who support the divine mandate, even if they don't provide services.

Incidentally one subject that might be interesting is the extent to which western corporations can be a positive influence. For example I hear that Uber is very successful in Jordan precisely because there is no need for the constant haggling and graft that many interactions require: it is all handled cleanly in the app.

What do you think is the probability of a civil war in Lebanon now and what are the best giving opportunities for donors looking to reduce the risk of war?

(first I'm a huge fan)

I'm not calibrated and I am not an expert, but I can comment as an amateur. I would give a 15% probability of a civil war in the next 5 years. There are a few reasons for my perspective.

The elite perspective

1. The faltering Lebanese economy has, so far, not lead to elite defection from concosiation.

From a game theory standpoint, the higher the value of the economy the lower the incentive on each faction to start a civil war. A civil war would drive the value of the Lebanese economy down hugely, so they would all prefer to split the pie than to upset it. If the splitting institutions have low trust and the economy isn't valuable anyway, defection is more beneficial (this may explain South Sudan). In Lebanon the splitting institutions have been effective at preventing civil violence for 3 decades. In theory I expect that escalations become cheap as the economy collapses (less to lose). But there has not been evidence that major armed groups like Hezbollah are pulling out of the government. Instead the best armed factions seem most determined to stay in the consociational government and delay any reform. Therefore it is unlikely that armed elite factions will make a play to dominate the government [1].

2. The international environment is not favorable for a war. Much of the Lebanese civil war was caused by outside states (Syria, Israel, etc.) providing arms and motivation to internal Lebanese factions. Several states do have strong influence over Lebanese factions - Syria, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and France. The thing is, none of them want a major escalation. Syria is recovering. Iran's economy is struggling and they already have good deterrence against the Saudis in Iraq, Yemen. The Saudi's are overextended in Yemen. The Israeli response to the Beirut explosion was pro-detente. The French have committed to stability in Lebanon through both their public statements and their aid commitments (they've avoided explicitly excluding Hezbollah affiliates as a matter of aid policy, unlike others). I'm not an IR specialist, but I don't expect any of these countries to flood Lebanon with weapons soon.

Currently, the preferred strategy of the parties in power seems a middle road between the Axis of Resistance and the West. Hezbollah keeps their guns, so the AoR is happy. But Hezbollah is held in check by the other parties, so western aid can continue.

The local perspective

1. At the local level, conflict between the people and the consociational elite is escalating. The failure of the peg is viewed as violation of the social contract and the government service provision has always been poor and politicized. The revolution has lead many Lebanese to belief that consocatiation is at the root of the problem (which I agree with). But there are plenty of Lebanese people who believe that consociation protects them from civil war and that removing the current generation of elites will solve the problem.

Its possible for anti-state protests to escalate into violence and further escalate into a civil war. I would say such escalation is unlikely with the current parties in power set against it, but its possible.

What can be done

1. Proposing new power-sharing models to Lebanon's elites

Political Scientists have been hard at work designing new voting and governing models to transition Lebanon away from dysfunctional consociation to a more liberal or a more majoritarian model. In the past the parties have not been interested, but as the pressure for reform mounts, they may be willing.

This would look like an NGO reading lots of political science papers and selecting a few of the most workable models. Then you would try to meet with revolutionary figures (easy), the party leaders (hard), and Lebanon's neighbors (good luck!). Activists in Serbia had all the opposition parties sign a joint statement of intent, so do something like that if possible. I do not know if anyone is trying that currently. If not, the utility could be very high but you need great connections.

I have not looked into it closely, but this area could be highly neglected. Most of the donors and NGO's are terrified of being associated with Hezbollah in any way. But most solutions that can achieve elite buy-in need to accommodate Hezbollah's interests. For that reason, a small organization focused just on preventing the civil war could have high influence despite the crowdedness of Lebanon aid in general.

2. Encouraging new legitimacy-making practices

In the next section we will discuss donor techniques for changing legitimacy-making practices. I'll add a discussion of this option there.


1. Possible exception if Hezbollah perceives their weapons to be threatened, since Hezbollah might not trust the other faction.