This overview article looks at the emergence of failed and post-conflict states on the international relations and assistance agenda, and at the importance of governance in establishing peace, pursuing state reconstruction and preventing conflict. It introduces the topic of the special issue, how effective governance can be re-established following societal conflict or war. After a brief review of the terminology of failed states, post-conflict and governance, the article discusses governance reconstruction in terms of three dimensions: reconstituting legitimacy, re-establishing security and rebuilding effectiveness. The article summarises key points made by the contributors to the special issue, who look at donor governance reconstruction agendas, security-sector governance and subnational governance. Several common themes emerge and are elaborated upon: similarities between development and post-conflict assistance; linkages among governance's legitimacy, effectiveness and security dimensions; rebuilding versus creating governance systems; local versus national governance reconstruction; formal versus informal governance. The article concludes with a call for further work to elaborate frameworks that can incorporate the particulars of individual countries in addressing legitimacy, security and effectiveness. Copyright © 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.