Today a general consensus prevails that sustainable development and security rely on legitimate and effective governments that can provide basic services to their populations and be held accountable both to their citizens and to the international community.

In fragile situations, where state capacity is weak or has broken down, the international response in most cases has been state building—increasing the capacity of the state to provide core services, including security and justice.

That is, given adequate capacity, the state will be able to provide public services effectively through rule-based, meritocratic, and politically accountable public agencies.

According to this logic, a capable state objectively assesses the needs of its citizens from a set of predetermined criteria for what it deems good for the population and identifies and applies a technical solution.

Although no one contests that the state is pervasive—there are not many communities in the world today where the state has not penetrated and had an effect on society in one way or the other.

Many scholars argue that the state is not able to, and should not strive to, exercise power in an unadulterated and coherent manner independently from society. States may have unmistakable administrative strengths in penetrating society, however, they are surprisingly weak in effecting goal oriented social changes.

Moreover, the assumption of a stable state does not explain how it derives its coercive power and how it survives. It is only through exploring how social order comes about that we can reach a more fundamental understanding of the relationship between state and society and how a state can be sustained.

Recognition is growing that the state is entwined with society in a mutually dependent relationship, and the quality of the relationship determines the state’s ability to direct change.

Scholars across a range of disciplines and theoretical perspectives assert that groups in society offer fundamental elements of support to the state, and, likewise, the state provides critical elements for collective action in society.

Indeed, a state needs legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens to be able to perform its function and that legitimacy needs to be ingrained in the beliefs of the citizens. In other words, state legitimacy is embedded in the social infrastructure rather than in the mechanics of bureaucracy.

The idea that the state and society are interdependent underlies the concept of citizenship.

The citizen–state relationship implies mutual responsibility between the state and citizens and provides certain norms for how citizens should treat one another. The state is the bearer of the rights of citizens.

The state promises to provide legal standing to all citizens and basic services, including security, while citizens promise to remain loyal to the state and abide by the laws of the state. Citizens also feel an affiliation with a broader community and accept certain responsibility for the collective good.

The state–society relationship therefore, is one of mutual interdependence.

The state is not an autonomous authority; rather it is a social actor in constant evolution through its interactions with groups in society.

Various interactions are possible.

The state can prey on different social groups; the state and society can collaborate productively on some issues; an authoritarian state can leave little space for society to influence governance; and so on. When the state is viewed in this way, it becomes clear that effective state institutions are the product of a high-quality state– society relationship.

The relationship between quality institutions and desired development outcomes is now also well established.

What is less understood is exactly how the state–society relationship translates into more effective institutions. Which factors matter most in improving the quality of the relationship, such that it translates to better institutions? What types of societal dynamics can derail progress in building good institutions?

No simple formula exists for improving the state–society relationship, but solid evidence indicates that building social cohesion is a critical component.

How true this hypothesis is in the current context of our country, South Africa.


Lee-Roy Chetty

Lee-Roy Chetty

Lee-Roy Chetty holds a Master's degree in Media studies from the University of Cape Town and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. A two-time recipient of the National Research Fund Scholarship, he...

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