State-Society Relations and Citizenship

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Huma HaiderHuma Haider is a research fellow in the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre. Her areas of interest include transitional justice in the context of peacebuilding; coexistence and reconciliation in divided societies; and diaspora, identity and citizenship. This post is based on a new topic guide supplement published by the GSDRC on state-society relations and citizenship in situations of conflict and fragility

Until very recently, efforts undertaken by the international community to promote statebuilding have focused on the state, resulting in a top-down approach centred on formal institutions. Those working in peacebuilding, on the other hand, have often advocated a bottom-up civil society approach. Increasingly, however, statebuilding and peacebuilding concepts and strategies have evolved in ways that have brought them closer together. Establishing strong public institutions is now considered essential in the promotion of peace; and developing institutions that are responsive to the demands of citizens are considered important to statebuilding. The concept of state-society relations and efforts to foster positive, mutually constructive relations has thus received greater attention.

State-society relations are defined by DFID as ‘interactions between state institutions and societal groups to negotiate how public authority is exercised and how it can be influenced by people’. The focus is not on particular institutional forms but rather on the relations and relational functions of state and society institutions.   Institutions must resonate with societies such that citizens consider them legitimate.  In many conflict-affected and fragile contexts, it is informal institutions that persist and retain legitimacy.  These are diverse and may include community mechanisms or customary local governance institutions. Often, they fulfil some of the functions expected of the state.

Social and political fragmentation and weak civic and inter-group trust are also often characteristics of conflict-affected and fragile contexts. In situations of fragility, political identity, fragmentation and weak state institutions reinforce each other. They undermine state legitimacy, the formation of strong nation-wide governance systems and social cohesion. In situations of violent conflict, processes of ‘othering’ and dehumanisation destroy social relations and networks and leave a legacy of mistrust and fear of others.

Weak social cohesion and distrust not only heighten the risk of instability but also impact negatively on perceptions of political community and on civic action. People are reluctant to engage with the ‘other’, hindering the development of civic engagement and collective action. In addition, fear and insecurity and feelings of powerlessness and marginalisation from conflict can also weaken a sense of individual civic agency. Where the state is involved in violence and repression, such sentiments can be more pronounced.

It is important for donors to invest more in understanding socio-political contexts, how local societies relate to the state and how historical and cultural factors shape public perceptions and expectations. They should seek to engage with communities and informal institutions. This would contribute to an awareness of institutions that resonate with the population and the conditions in which state legitimacy is likely and unlikely to develop.   Statebuilding and peacebuilding efforts also need to take into account and to understand the role of state weakness and state and private violence in limiting civic agency and undermining socio-political cohesion. Efforts are needed to ensure that citizens can relate to each other in civil or non-violent ways and to foster a national identity that transcends divisions.

There is a growing body of literature that argues that the line between statebuilding and nation-building is not clear-cut.  State structures permeate through to societal structures and statebuilding processes affect socio-political cohesion. Constitution drafting and elections, state policies on language and educational systems, for example, can have a profound impact on nationhood. They address and shape fundamental questions related to nationality, citizenship, identities, trust and values. They also impact on the degree to which a state is politically inclusive. Participatory and inclusive deliberation in constitution drafting can provide a forum and process to bring divided groups together to negotiate controversial issues and to think about a common vision of the state.

It is thus important for external actors to address the reality that statebuilding can bring them into the realm of nation-building, instead of avoiding it. Trying to build institutions without linking them to shared values and inclusive notions of citizenship and political community can result in the persistence of divisions.  It is also important to recognize that nation-building is a long-term indigenous process and that, similar to issues of legitimacy, there is a limit to which external actors can play an active role. In many cases, legitimacy and nationhood require that central institutions engage with local, community and customary governance. This can give people a stronger connection to the state and a greater sense of belonging.

For more on these issues, see the GSDRC’s topic guide supplements on:

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