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Modus Operandi

En librairie

Transformation de conflit, de Karine Gatelier, Claske Dijkema et Herrick Mouafo

Aux Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer (ECLM)


, Grenoble, juillet 2010

Sovereignty Gap

The concept of the sovereignty gap comes from the fact that many states in the international system that are recognised as sovereign in international law do not necessarily fulfil all the criteria of what it means to be a sovereign state.

The sovereignty gap is the difference between the de jure sovereignty of a state, which allows it to be recognised by other states and function within the international system; and the de facto sovereignty of the state which refers to ability to perform the functions that would define them as a state. The core functions that a de facto state should fulfil are stated in Ghani, Lockhart and Carnahan (2005) Closing the Sovereignty Gap: an Approach to State-Building to be:

  • Legitimate monopoly of the means of violence

  • Administrative control

  • Management of public finances

  • Investment in human capital

  • Delineation of citizenship rights and duties

  • Provision of infrastructure services

  • Formation of the market

  • Management of the state’s assets (including the environment, natural resources and cultural assets)

  • International relations (including entering into international contracts and public borrowing)

  • Rule of law

The idea behind this concept is that a state fulfils these functions will enter a ‘virtuous circle’ where the state’s capacity will be beneficial to the population, thus increasing the legitimacy of the state, the trust in its capacities and therefore its ability to carry out functions and decisions etc.

Where a state is identified as unable to perform the above functions the international aid system often intervenes, but through addressing the symptoms rather than cause of problems can create an obstacle to sustainable state sovereignty. Obstacles from the aid system to the removal of the sovereignty gap are identified as: the creation of parallel systems by aid agencies, for example with higher wages than the local government can afford; lack of harmonisation between aid structures; non-state provision of core functions; and lack of predictability of the flow of aid, damaging the ability of the state to make long term guarantees or plans. The sovereignty gap is seen as a significant obstacle to the creation of global peace and stability, as well as affecting the internal human security of a state.


An example of a state that can be considered to have a sovereignty gap is that of Afghanistan, which cannot be considered to meet the ten criteria outlined above. The continuing conflict with the Taliban and presence of international armed forces within the country show that the current de jure sovereign state does not have a monopoly of the legitimate means of violence on its entire territory. The continuing conflict in part of the country means that the central state does not have administrative control of the whole territory; cannot provide adequate infrastructure services; cannot guarantee the rule of law. Investment in human capital and citizenship rights and duties exist at least in policy, though how well these function in practice; for example in the provision of qualified teachers (1) and the rights of women, is still a matter of concern.

The control of the economic and financial factors mentioned as part of the ten measures of sovereignty are all nominally under the control of the Afghan state, though dependence on international aid and the conflict certainly are certainly obstacles that prevent the state meeting the criteria for sovereignty on these points. The only one of the ten core functions that the Afghan state definitely has is that of international relations.

The situation of sovereignty described above would seem to back up the hypothesis that the sovereignty gap is an issue in the maintenance of global peace and security as the instability of the state and its borders could well be considered to be having a destabilising affect on the region.

Related Concepts

The concept of the hollow state could be considered to be describing a state where there is a sovereignty gap. However, the approach in the definition of the hollow state is less about identifying and solving a short fall following the western state model, and more about describing how this model can lead to dysfunction when imposed from without.


  • Delfeld, H. (2010) ‘The Nation and the Hollow State, Imaginary of the Nation-State; reality of grassroots governance’ in Rethinking the state: Understanding the processes of post-crisis state transformation Bruylant: Brussels.

  • Ghani, A., Lockhart, C., and M. Carnahan (2005) Closing the Sovereignty Gap: an Approach to State-Building Overseas Development Institute Working Paper 253.

  • Guistozzi, A. (2009) The sources of state “dysfunctionality” in Afghanistan Paper presented at the conference ‘Post-crisis State Transformation: Re-thinking the Foundations of the State, Linköping 1-5 May 2009.


  • (1) : Guistozzi (2009) The sources of state “dysfunctionality” in Afghanistan.

  • This concept definition was developed as a result of the work carried out in the international conference Post-crisis state transformation: Rethinking the foundations of the state in Linköping, Sweden held 1-5 May 2009. This conference was run by Modus Operandi in collaboration with the Université Pierre Mendès France (Grenoble, France) and the European Science Foundation.