State-building scholars have argued that the effective provision of highly desired public services can be a source of legitimacy for fragile and conflict-affected states, yet few studies have examined this relationship in-depth, or over time. Likewise, the reverse proposition, that poor public services might undermine a state’s legitimacy and contribute to processes of state de-legitimation, remains relatively neglected. This paper explores the role of public service provision in undermining state legitimacy. It analyses why higher education aggravated a dual crisis of the legitimacy of the Sri Lankan state during the critical juncture of 1956-1974. During this period, political manipulation of the rules governing entry to higher education was a significant radicalising force behind an insurrection in the south of the country and the germination of what would become an armed separatist movement in the north.
This case study’s findings suggest that perceptions of fairness in service provision – whether distributive justice or procedural fairness – can be significant for processes of state legitimation and de-legitimation. The perceived fairness of the allocation of highly desired public goods can symbolically and materially represent the state’s commitment to upholding certain rights and entitlements. At the same time, unfair services can symbolise broken promises, discrimination, predation or neglect on the part of the state. There are no universal criteria against which fairness is evaluated. Rather, perceptions of fairness are subjective, tied to group identity, formed within the temporal political climate, and historically contingent. Fairness may be closely linked to group identity where access to services is considered a marker of group self-esteem and social status. The fairness of service provision is evaluated in, and cannot be divorced from, the perceived fairness of the political system and the distribution of resources and power in society a whole. Likewise, the fairness of who gets what services, where and how is evaluated in the context of expectations of rights or entitlements that are historically embedded in the social contract between the state and different social groups.
Particularly in divided societies, different understandings of fairness in the allocation and distribution of public services among groups represents a potential source of contested legitimacy and an associated risk to stability. Sri Lanka’s experience shows that nationalistic or particularistic policies can undermine legitimacy and create legitimacy trade-offs, where reforms intended to realise one group’s understanding of fairness confront and contradict another (competing) group’s understanding of fairness. Public and political narratives about the fair allocation of highly desired public goods can matter for perceptions of the state and people’s willingness to comply with its authority. A challenge, for both states and aid actors, is that how service provision is perceived by different groups may be as significant for legitimacy and stability as how equitably services are actually distributed. This suggests the public and political discourse on service delivery may influence its significance for the state’s legitimacy as much as the hardware of investment.