This video goes deeper into what exactly strong states and weak states look like.  Huntington argued that strong states are highly institutionalized, but how do we know when a state is institutionalized?  What does that actually mean in terms of organizations and policies?  How would we measure it?

This question is made more difficult by the fact that there are many, many terms used to describe the general concept of state strength or weakness.  They all get at the idea of “good” vs “bad” state institutions, but refer to slightly different aspects of it.


Governance, typically referred to as “good governance,” tends to be a catch-all term that refers to positive outcomes from government actions.  The World Bank Governance Indicators are a good example of this.  The World Bank, defining governance as “the traditions and institutions by which authority in a country is exercised,” then breaks the idea down into six, more specific dimensions (including rule of law and corruption).  While the academic world sometimes defines governance more narrowly as the quality of public administration – an idea similar to state capacity – international organizations and development agencies tend to go broad, including the quality of state institutions as well as measures of democracy – how those institutions incorporate public opinion.  International organizations also sometimes use governance not to describe institutions themselves, but the outcomes of government policy, equating good governance with sustainable development.

Rule of Law

Rule of law has a generally accepted definition — the principle that all people and institutions are equally subject to the law; that government is not arbitrary or in service of an individual but rather is conducted through formal rules.  In both academic and policy circles, however, rule of law tends to refer to narrower concepts:  judicial independence and due process.  Rule of law usually means something related to the legal system rather than the executive bureaucracy.  Rule of law assistance tend to focus on helping parliaments write legislation, providing training for judges and law enforcement officials, and promoting legal aid programs. 

One concept that has gained popularity recently is the idea of rule of law contrasted with rule by law.  The idea is that the ability to change the law to the benefit of those in power (for example, extending the number of years a president can serve in office), aka rule by law, is not the same as lawful (legitimate) authority, or rule of law.

State Capacity

State capacity is an academic term, although you will also find a wide variety of development assistance programs focused on “capacity building.”  My preferred way to think of state capacity is how well a government is able to form and implement policy.  The term has its origins in the concept of infrastructural power, but scholars break it down into a variety of dimensions. 

Hillel Soifer, discussing infrastructural power specifically, breaks the concept into three dimensions: the capabilities of the central state, the relationship between state and society, and subnational variation in these two elements of state power. 

From Soifer, Hillel. 2008. “State Infrastructural Power: Approaches to Conceptualization and Measurement.” Studies in Comparative International Development 43: 231-251.

Other scholars, such as Levitsky and Murillo, add the element of time, focusing on whether institutions are stable and durable.  In other words, does a country change its election laws every year, or have they kept the same system for a long time?  Has a country changed leaders through a series of coups, or has it kept the same political system for years?  

From Levitsky, Steven and Maria Victoria Murillo. 2009. “Variation in Institutional Strength.” Annual Review of Political Science 12: 115-33.

Finally, scholars who focus on the capabilities of the state itself (one element of Soifer and Levitsky/Murillo — what is most commonly referred to as state capacity in the academic literature) tend to break it down into three dimensions:

  • Extractive capacity – A state’s ability to obtain revenue
  • Coercive capacity – A state’s ability to maintain order within its borders
  • Administrative capacity – The degree to which a state’s bureaucracy has the professionalism, autonomy, and expertise to implement policy

In the development community, “capacity building” tends to have an even narrower focus, emphasizing job skills training for bureaucrats.


While corruption has many non-political meanings, in politics it is one aspect of state weakness, but it isn’t the opposite of any of the prior terms.  Political corruption covers aspects of both a legal system and a bureaucracy.  As Rose-Ackerman and Palifka note, corruption covers activities such as bribery, extortion, embezzlement, and nepotism within a civil service.  Corrupt activities allow abuse of power, but tend to degrade governance, rule of law, and state capacity indirectly.  When civil servants undertake actions in exchange for money rather than because they are the best policy, the quality of governance decreases.  When civil servants are hired based on family connections rather than qualifications, they tend to perform poorly, and so forth.

Anti-corruption assistance programs tend to focus on legislation banning conflicts of interest, bribery, nepotism and other corrupt activities and creating mechanisms to make corruption transparent to the public (reporting requirements, for example).

Principal-Agent Problems

Political scientists and economists talk about “principal-agent problems” in a wide variety of contexts. The core idea is that one party to an agreement (the principal) delegates authority to another (the agent) to act on behalf of the principal. The problem is that the agent doesn’t always do what the principal wants.


Lastly, I want to note that what we have talked about in terms of corruption does not usually cover election-related matters.  The influence of money in elections tends to be discussed in terms of interest group influence (including the extent to which campaign donations influence policy) and clientelism.  Clientelism covers a range of activities, including direct and indirect vote buying, and offering civil service jobs in exchange for support.  The core idea of clientelism is patronage – a politician or party builds support by offering personal benefits – while corruption is a more general phenomenon.