Why services won’t always buy legitimacy: everyday experiences of the state in Swat, Pakistan

Aoife McCullough, Shehryar Toru, with Rubab Syed and Shujaat Ahmed

Type: Pakistan, Theme 3: Services and legitimacy, Working Paper

Organisation: ODI and SDPI

Country: Pakistan

Date: 01/07/2019

Full summary

This working paper seeks to understand the construction of state legitimacy in Swat, Pakistan.  In 2017, the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium published a set of unexpected findings. Between 2012 and 2015, services improved in Swat and Lower Dir districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, but this improvement in services did not change people’s opinion of the government. This finding raised questions about key assumptions informing international development programmes in post conflict contexts, namely that if people’s satisfaction with services improved, this would repair state/society relations and strengthen state legitimacy.


However, the survey asked people about their perception of government, not about their perception of state legitimacy. Measuring perceptions of government is only one slice of the overall perception of state. It is quite possible for citizens to consider a particular government illegitimate while believing that the state is legitimate. This present research seeks to examine experiences of the state more broadly. Using qualitative research, the authors explore whether there is a role for services to play in the construction of state legitimacy in Swat, Pakistan.


The report provides a political settlement analysis of Swat to identify groups that have different relationships with the state. Two groups are categorised: ‘insiders’ – groups that have disruptive potential but are part of the political settlement; and ‘outsiders’ – groups with disruptive potential but that are outside of the current political settlement.  The findings of the paper result from interviews with 79 insiders and outsiders from across Swat. The report concludes with a number of recommendations for donors, practitioners and implementers working on service delivery in Pakistan.


Key findings:

  • Both insiders and outsiders imagined the state as a provider of basic services and a constructor of infrastructure.
  • But there were significant differences in how insiders and outsiders experienced the state.
  • In Swat, services work to reproduce class relations – in this case, distinctions between upper and lower classes.
  • The state is experienced as much more than a provider of basic services.
  • The findings reveal the differential treatment by service providers of people according to their social status.