Most people do not trust their governments. Surveys suggest that worldwide, across the general public and among decision makers, the figure is now below 45 percent. This growing deficit looks set to drive future instability and conflict as increasing numbers of people feel excluded and shift their loyalties. Fractures can occur along regional, ethnic and tribal, or economic lines — and typically a combination of them. Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Nigeria, and the states of the former Yugoslavia are just a few examples of broken states.
The picture is not all bleak, however. In the last decade, Colombia, Rwanda, Nepal, and Sierra Leone, to name a few, have all made impressive strides in advancing accountable and inclusive governance. Some are breaking free of conflict traps and many more are harnessing drivers for growth and stability: young populations, significant natural resources, and technology.
What does governance mean, and what is good governance? Getting governance right is both political and technical. What can appear as tedious technicalities in functioning states assume critical importance in states where good governance is lacking. The heart of governance is accountability, which requires knowledge of procurement, accounting, and auditing. Governance is not abstract. It exists in reference to the governance of particular sectors, services, and assets: governing the security sector is quite different from governing the health sector or the extractive assets. The shape of governance will, of course, vary by state.
Some countries, however, remain locked in a self-reinforcing trap of conflict and weak governance wherein dissatisfaction drives conflict which in turn fuels mistrust. Pakistan, Nigeria, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have recently dropped on several international indices. Subnational conflicts persist in Nigeria, India, and the Philippines, where popular grievances over exclusion and governance continue. Meanwhile, violent crime is on the rise in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala; their citizens’ loss of trust in their countries’ futures has fueled a wave of migration quickly becoming a humanitarian emergency.
In many such places, the drivers of economic growth are a double-edged sword; growing populations, expanding cities, and hyper-connectedness are also risk factors. Many struggling cities and states are already unable to provide services to their populations, a problem that dramatic population growth will only compound. The illicit economy’s tentacles choke government resources and capacity, and illegitimate flows often overwhelm the legitimate.
Weakening states, strained resources, shadow economies, and swelling and increasingly digitalized populations challenge government legitimacy. Their cumulative effect tends to widen the gap between what is expected of governments and what they deliver. In many cases, the gap leads to violence.
How can this trajectory be reversed? External intervention has recognizable limitations, as demonstrated by the gap between investment and outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Successful transformations are more commonly driven from within when internal conditions create momentum for change, such as in Colombia. Can external aid reduce the legitimacy gap? In theory, yes. In practice, it can exacerbate it. Aid problems result from unequal distribution, practices that fragment rule of law, and population marginalization and alienation. Bypassing government institutions, an aid-based shadow state — however benignly intentioned — can cause exactly the same problems as a crime- or corruption-based shadow state, such as in Equatorial Guinea.
What, then, is behind successful transformations? The key drivers appear to be a combination of good leadership and the creation of favorable political conditions. Good leadership is characterized by inclusiveness: the will and means to reach beyond a narrow constituency of self-interest. Favorable conditions enable coalitions of moderate constituencies to coalesce around an agenda for political change. Peace processes and elections certainly contribute to transformations, but are not enough on their own.
The key to resolving legitimacy gaps is governance quality—the extent to which it meets citizen expectations, for fairness and inclusion in particular. Successful peace processes generally embody this principle, and if the internal processes are well designed, external support can reinforce stability.
The wrong kind of peace deals, such as pacts among extremist elites, can exacerbate legitimacy gaps because of their inherent unfairness as well as the conditions for corruption and misgovernance they create. Peace deals, even elite pacts, are certainly compelling given their promise of temporary respite from conflict. Elite deals often propel countries back to conflict however, in an ever-worsening spiral of bad governance, criminality, and mistrust.
Natural resources are also critical to most peace deals. Sound resource management can drive prosperity and peace; poor management, and especially inequitable distribution, all too often drive conflict. Power-sharing deals that carve up the state and its ministries as spoils of war struggle to achieve long-term peace. By allocating the right to live off revenues and to sell assets and sinecures, they entrench networks of corruption, and by formalizing inequalities they sow the seeds of their own destruction. When the driving grievance is bad governance, providing large constituencies with fair governance will fare better than providing narrow groups with a license to steal.
With these principles in mind, peacemakers must scrutinize which type of peace process will lead to greater stability and when, as well as what the linkages between peace and governance are. A few common principles underpin recent peacemaking efforts:
1. Recognizing that the citizenry provides the most durable source of stability and legitimacy, that broad engagement rather than token representation is critical.
2. Having a plan for the day after, because governing — inclusively, fairly, and justly — is far more important than either forming the government or striking the deal if peace is to last.
3. Allocating decision rights judiciously and establishing the right forms of accountability at the most appropriate level because decentralization alone is not the whole answer.
4. Finding the right mesh between bureaucratic and tribal and traditional forms of governance because one model never fits all.
5. Understanding that, for most citizens, security is a good and maintaining order a key priority — the question of establishing a legitimate monopoly on the use of force is still a concern in many countries.
Recognizing that all contexts are different from each other, these principles can offer some guidance for peacemakers both within civil society and government in their efforts to build, create, and maintain peaceful societies.