The three paradoxes of aid and State legitimization in post-2001 Afghanistan

Hervé Hutin, December 2009


  • State
  • legitimacy
  • post-conflict
  • Reconstruction
  • economic transition
  • international aid
  • corruption
  • Afghanistan

For a Post-conflict State, reconstruction is a vital stake. The economic situation is generally characterised by heavy indebtedness, budget deficit, external deficit, inflation, disorganisation of production, depreciation of human and material capital, increases in spending, and a lack of revenue. This article looks at the impact of foreign aid on the emergence of a legitimate and sovereign State in the context of Afghanistan.

The economy of the country is not able to save to finance reconstruction. It can’t be done without external aid, except to risk a crisis that can cause reoccurring conflict.

Certain economic conditions are required for a State to exist: the generation of a surplus, its collection and its distribution. The economic power conferred by this surplus permits its holder to legitimise its taxation and subsequent allocation towards the public utility. Exercising a fiscal monopoly is a fundamental characteristic of the State, inseparable from the military forces’ monopoly. These two monopolies, according to Norbert Elias , stand together and are necessary for the construction of a State, which operates in an internal manner, through an autonomous dynamic.

In a fragile State, the lack of legitimacy makes this tax collection more difficult, which in turn weakens the State’s role and further undermines its legitimacy, as it is the case with improper or ineffective public expenditures. Legitimacy depends on efficiency and efficiency on legitimacy.

The consequential necessity for this external aid and the fact that a State is structured by an inner dynamic (N. Elias) poses the first paradox of aid and legitimacy. Can this paradox be resolved? Aid arriving from the outside can hinder the process of State legitimisation. This matter is of first order given the fact that a loss of legitimacy can lead to a new civil conflict.

This stake is at the heart of Afghanistan’s reconstruction insofar as the country has experienced a long period of conflict that has further weakened a State with an already limited scope. When added, the military stake with the pursuit of Al Qaïda and the geo-strategic stake, given its location between Iran and Pakistan, explain the deployment of numerous foreign actors and the amounts of aid.

State legitimacy depends on many factors, among their efficiency of public services, charisma of the Head of the State or respect of legality. Two methods can define legitimacy: positively (Weber), what makes legitimacy and negatively, what deteriorates it. In our case, this second method is more appropriate, because it is easier to evaluate given the situation of Afghanistan. The main factors that deteriorate legitimacy are as follows : oppression, corruption, embezzlement, inefficiency, patronage and contested sovereignty either by external influence or by inner protestation. These five criteria will help us to answer our question in the scope of the impact of external aid. Some of these concepts may have a close resemblance, though if embezzlement of funds can appear to be a certain form of corruption, it has to be differentiated because, in the case of foreign aid, it potentially implies considerable amounts of money. In which ever case and however economically efficient these practices may turn out to be, they always play against the establishment of State legitimacy.

Lastly, foreign aid taps into a multitude of actors with different strategies and goals and these strategies and goals are not always compatible with those of the State under reconstruction.

Therefore the question arises: Are actor’s strategies and the foreign aid they bring compatible with those of State reconstruction ? In order to respond in the case of Afghanistan, we will see to what degree this aid reinforces the institutional capacity of the State and which are the determining factors for an increasing efficiency of the aid.

* * *

The full article can be found in the publication “Rethinking these Foundations of the State” (forthcoming 2010)