I learned about institutional weakness for the first time from a book called The Politics of Institutional Weakness in Latin America. Initially, I thought it was just another name for state capacity. But Mala Htun and Francesca Jensenius point out, “Weak institutions are not just a matter of weak state capacity or ineffectively formulated legislation. Noncompliance with institutions involves resistance on the part of state and societal actors.” State capacity involves the resources necessary to deliver outcomes. Institutional weakness is much broader. It also includes cultural attitudes and social norms. It can include attitudes about political or social legitimacy.
Institutional weakness is pervasive in democracies in hard places. Ineffective political institutions lead to demands for strongman leadership. Strongman leaders wear away at institutional guardrails, so a vicious cycle develops. It takes the right sort of leader to recognize the need for strong institutions. South Africa was blessed to have Nelson Mandela as its first President. Mandela recognized the role of social institutions to strengthen political institutions. His embrace of the Springboks was an attempt to strengthen national unity through a cultural institution. Moreover, Mandela recognized how institutions build upon one another.
Unfortunately, democracies in hard places also face flawed institutions. Citizens may want to create new institutions rather than strengthen old ones. Sometimes this is the right decision. But it can also lead to serial replacements where institutions never have the time to take root. So, leaders must decide whether it makes sense to strengthen flawed institutions. Consolidated democracies like the United States face similar dilemmas as well. Still, problems like these compound in less favorable environments for democracy to thrive. Weak institutions make democracy that much harder to succeed in hard places.