For CPAID, public authority is any kind of authority beyond the immediate family that commands a degree of consent – from clans, religious institutions, aid agencies, civil society organisations, rebel militia, and vigilante groups, to formal and semi-formal mechanisms of governance. The Centre recognises too that families may be large, and that the boundaries of public and private authorities may occasionally blur.
A ‘public authority’ lens seeks to understand the full range of actors claiming or being allocated power through appeals to popular social norms, the provision of public goods, and, sometimes, coercion and violence. This includes those considered part of the state, such as village or street-level bureaucrats, and those seemingly far removed from or even standing in opposition to it – like customary leaders, civil society organisations, religious leaders, and armed groups.
Thinking in terms of public authority
A public authority lens focusses research on who benefits and who is excluded from different actors’ claims to authority, and how they are received by their rivals and those they seek to govern. While not excluding state institutions from analysis or overlooking the fact that those seeking power may co-opt or subvert those institutions, a public authority lens tends to challenge state-centric normative frameworks and biases at various scales – not just the local and the national, but also the regional and global, as nonstate actors increasingly shape global governance.
Thinking in terms of public authority also enhances our understanding of what is actually happening on the ground, and why some policy interventions persistently fail. That is especially so in challenging places affected by acute social upheavals, such as those associated with armed conflict, displacement, and epidemics, or where the legitimacy and reach of formal governance is challenged or weak. It also usefully reveals the potential of existing arrangements to contribute to or obstruct provision of services, promotion of wellbeing, and economic development.
Learn more about public authority.