Tuesday, February 15, 2011

When Trust Goes.

No society can tolerate a lack of trust for too long. This is one of many lessons unfolding in the unrest in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. It’s not about the vote. The right to vote is no guarantee of trust – only the chance for those in power to earn that trust.

clip_image002Trust will be eroded to the point where citizens take to the streets when governments are not tangibly responsive to people’s needs, fail in the delivery of services, cannot enable a milieu where aspirations can be pursued, and are unable to contain envy and resentment that follow wide inequalities. Sound familiar? These shortcomings can happen in democratic societies as easily as anywhere else.

Of course, in many cases governments don’t have the resources or ability to meet civil expectations and all the stone throwing could be in vain. The real question is the extent to which they contributed to creating those expectations in their pursuit of popular support.

More than anything else, trust is the real fabric that holds a society together. That fabric spreads through virtually every facet of our lives to strengthen the tapestry of social co-existence. It has to exist between individual people, between groups, between individuals and institutions, electorate and government, business and customers, teachers and pupils and wherever we interact socially and in transaction. The stronger that fabric, the less chance there will be of the tapestry unravelling. Yet we play with it as if it is robust: rumour mongering, making false promises, relying on caveat emptor and legal recourse rather than our word and a sense of honour and the occasional act of kindness.

Trust is mostly very fragile. It is fickle, volatile and erratic. It is one of those human traits that confirm how complex and unpredictable we are as a species. Ultimately we give or withhold trust on our perception of whether the other has our interest at heart. That can mean many things at many different times. It makes the measuring of trust on a national or global level virtually impossible, let alone achieving a sensible interpretation of the data. This is a failing of all “opinion surveys”, especially those dealing with emotive issues like trust. Yet, given its importance to our lives, it can only be hoped that in time and with greater sophistication and comprehensiveness we can produce surveys that will come closer to reality.

In the meantime and with something of a health warning, one cannot ignore the annual research findings of Edelman, the most quoted in the world in this field. My real beef with Edelman is the exclusion of Africa. The survey is done in 23 leading countries and with a sample of more than 5000 “informed” adults. Its latest Global Trust Barometer says some quite revealing things against the background of civil unrest.

It is fair to conclude that given the informed nature of the respondents, the responses themselves will tend to be more rational and tempered. This implies that because it is an emotive issue, the level of distrust among the less informed masses will be even more intense.



Edelman concludes from the above graphic that trust in business has “stabilised”. I interpret the findings as showing a further decline, especially in the developed economies. In fact in most of the mainstream economies apart from Germany and France where it is still neutral to negative, the number of people who trust business to do the right thing has fallen. In both the United States and Britain it has declined to below half. It is more than a little ironic that in the bastion of capitalism, the United States, fewer than half of the informed public trust business to do the right thing and in China, the former bastion of communism and only a recent entrant into the free enterprise fold, more than 60% trust business.

The champions of greater government control and intervention may rub their hands in glee at these findings. But governments are still trusted even less than business to do what is right.


Apart from Brazil, China and marginally Japan, less than half of the informed public in the countries surveyed, trust governments to do the right thing. Germany has shown a sharp decline in trust in government, despite a strong improvement in trust in business. This is attributed to public distrust of European bail-outs. Trust in government in the United States has dropped to 40%, which is on par with Russia.

The results for China and Brazil are quite astounding…to the extent that the accuracy of the Chinese finding has been questioned in China itself. It may be partly explained by the focus on “informed” respondents who may have lost some touch with grassroots sentiment. But it could also be explained by both countries having fairly recently “freed” their economies. The restrictive practices of the past and the very low expectations held by the average person are still fresh in memory. So there is a honeymoon giddiness and flirting with, as Paul Merton’s BBC programme on China put it: “capitalism on steroids.”

On sectors, the Edelman Barometer shows trust in American Banks down a startling 46% to 25%, while trust in British banks slumped 30% to only 16%. On the other end of the scale, 90% of Chinese and 87% of Indians trust their banks to do the right thing.



But before we in the media start pointing our fingers at any sector, the above graphic shows an appalling distrust of the media in the developed world. Indeed, banks are trusted more!

Despite the inescapable shortcomings of the survey, there are some absolutes that can be argued. The inter-country comparisons show that trust is not inseparably linked to grand notions such as living standards, human rights, labour rights and the right to vote. Average incomes in Brazil and China (where trust is the highest) are way below that of the U.S, where trust is much lower. China also has no political freedom and an appalling human rights record.

Trust is far more strongly influenced by unrealistic expectations, an absence of hope and the squashing of aspirations. Give people some hope for the future with a healthy dose of self help aspirations and trust is restored. With it too comes a good measure of personal serenity. These things are more easily found within ourselves than sourced from others. They are seldom found in throwing stones in the streets.

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