Is Trust the missing piece in a lot of development thinking?

I have a kind of mental radar that pings when a word starts cropping up in lots of different conversations. Recently trust-v-fearit’s been ‘trust’, which surfaced throughout my recent trip to Myanmar, but also during a fun brainstorm with Andrew Barnett and Louisa Hooper, two systems thinkers from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

The search for trust drives a lot of economic behaviour. Enforcing contracts in the court is usually an expensive and unpredictable last resort, much better to conduct business with people you can trust, either because you’ve dealt with them before, or because they have great ratings on ebay or Airbnb. Finding lower cost ways of ensuring trust around contracts is one reason for all the hype around blockchain.

Trust is also at the core of good marketing. Yesterday I chatted to Nilan Peiris, who works for Transferwise, a finance tech company that has disrupted the cosy profit machine of money transfer operators gouging fees out of migrant workers and others, and shot from a turnover of £100,000 per month to £1 billion a month within 3 years. Nilan says 70% of the growth is on friends’ recommendation to friends – a much cheaper and more effective way to build trust than conventional marketing (he’s going to write a post on it for FP2P).

It’s no different in the aid business, a lot of which seems to be designed around overcoming the lack of trust. One way is to minimize the room for discretion – detailed project plan, shopping lists of KPIs and if you can pay by results, so much the better – then the only trust you need is in the people verifying the results.

Umm, maybe
Umm, maybe

But as we know, that effort to squeeze out discretion results in dumb linear projects that often fail to work in an effective, adaptive way, so people have been developing other forms of trust-building.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, for example, are proactive in choosing their partners (so don’t bother applying if you haven’t been asked), starts small and sees how it goes, and then if it works, they are willing to consider scaling up the funding. That has some positives, especially if the result is core funding that allows organizations to experiment, innovate, adapt and if necessary, fail, without suffering death by logframe.

Another way they get over the trust problem is through networks and ‘trust brokers’. They are usually informal – you’ve never worked with this organization, so you find a friend who has and give them a ring. Sometimes it is more formal – intermediary organizations of, say, social innovators, who can take a look at a proposal and quickly tell you if it makes sense, and if the organization is OK.

Permanent networks are brilliant for generating trust, allowing their members to come together and respond rapidly to events, seizing opportunities for change, as when garment companies, unions and NGOs got together when days of the Bangladesh Rana Plaza disaster to push through a new fire safety accord.

But there are some downsides to these approaches. At worst, it can be a recipe for an Old Boys’ Network that

But how do they stand up?
But how do they stand up?

effectively excludes new entrants, or unusual suspects. What other sources of trust might be available?

  • An ebay system allowing anonymous reviews of partners, reviewers etc etc?
  • An equivalent of microfinance arrangements where trust is built on the social pressure on borrowers to repay loans

Andrew Barnett also remarked that grants to individuals rather than organizations can sometimes generate higher levels of trustworthy behaviour, which raises the question of why the aid business is so reluctant to fund individuals rather than institutions. Even when we acknowledge that we are really funding an outstanding individual, we usually insist they cloak themselves in an organization before we sign a cheque – why?

As for Myanmar, I ended up concluding that ‘trust-building’ in an exceptionally low trust environment is (or should be) our overarching purpose. That starts with us – why should local people and organizations trust us? What have we done to earn it, in terms of our behaviours and lifestyles? Taken seriously, that would entail developing good ways to map trust: where do we have existing trust links? What can we do to build trust?

Trust-mapping may also provide a way into responding to shocks and other ‘critical junctures’ in risky environments. Such moments may be windows of opportunity, as political actors churn, change allegiances and accept new ideas, but in fragile contexts they are also high risk – people threatened by change and uncertainty may lash out. Outsiders could minimize the risks involved in responding to such moments by starting with their existing trust links, rather than trying to initiate new relationships and initiatives.

Thoughts? Is trust-mapping already a thing, and if so, any links to guides/examples?

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12 Responses to “Is Trust the missing piece in a lot of development thinking?”
  1. Alice Evans

    You say, ‘as we know, that effort to squeeze out discretion results in dumb linear projects that often fail to work in an effective, adaptive way’. Is there evidence that paying by results has led recipients not to adapt, but to dogmatically focus on results chosen at the beginning at the project?

    No matter how great a person is, no matter how much you trust them, if the aid modality has perverse incentives then you may not benefit from their greatness. So, another option is for donors only to facilitate networking and shared learning, not paying people (as I understand is the case with DFID’s SAVI in Nigeria).

    Also, I’m not sure about anonymous, anecdotal, TripAdvisor style reviews. What about trust based on prior evidence of organisational effectiveness? – as used by GiveDirectly? Think about the implications of the two, disparate systems of evaluation if they became widespread and widely-expected. If I expected anonymous TripAdvisor reviews, I might be nicer and friendlier and helpful to key colleagues, buttering them up. But if I thought there was going to be GiveDirectly style evidence-based scrutiny of my results, then I might focus more dogmatically on those?



  2. Heather Marquette

    There are so many people working on trust right now. My personal favourite is Bo Rothstein, including his 2011 book on The Quality of Government: Corruption, Inequality and Social Trust in International Perspective. He and I took part in a panel on trust and democracy in May this year where I was decidedly depressed about the state of my own country and levels of trust –
    The problem with trust is that trust is extremely hard to build, and the role for external actors in this is limited. But it’s very easy to break, and external actors can do this very easily. A friend of mine working for a donor in a highly conflict-affected environment told me how he was resisting the pressure to set up an RCT, because no one really knows what happens when you set up a control group in a low trust environment. Just one example, but there will be millions of them. Like Claire Mcloughlin’s work on service delivery and legitimacy, trust may be a fundamental component of the social contract, but, man, do you need to know your political context.

  3. Jamie Pett

    Re: TripAdvisor style reviews, it’s worth reading through the recent exchange between Branko Milanovic and Diane Coyle on commodification and the gig economy:

    Branko: “Gig economy with one-off deals and extremely fast turnover of labor breaks the relations of confidence and trust that are often established between people (buyers and sellers). If my tax driver changes all the time, dry cleaner stays in his job one week, my professors fluctuate quarter by quarter, it seems to me obvious that this type of flexibilization of labor market —while probably leading to gains in productivity—reduces incentive to establish longer term relationships and thus to invest in being “nice”.”
    – from the most recent post here:

    So there’s a difference in the quality of the trust that you get from an Uber driver who you meet once, and someone with whom you build up a relationship over time and have a personal connection with. That works for me when I’m looking for a taxi driver in Delhi but perhaps undermines the overall social fabric of relationships between drivers by introducing competition where there was a cartel.

    The risk with trying to map trust is that you take something which is personal, even intimate, and try to systematise it – almost in a ‘Seeing like a State’ sense so that it can be understood by donors. That exercise itself may be useful in the short term but undermine trust further on.

    Is trust one of those slippery things that is great until you try to grab hold of it?

  4. John Magrath

    How interesting. Oxfam has just published a paper that I co-wrote on making maize markets work for all in Southern Africa – It argues that a major reason markets fail is because there is so little trust or cooperation between governments and private traders, both large and small. It concludes that unless the trust deficit is addressed, markets will continue to operate at woeful levels of inefficiency, no matter what other reforms are undertaken. And how to do that? – as this workshop in Malawi concluded - – A platform for communication: Information sharing between government and private sector regarding the operations and regulation of the maize market in Malawi is currently ad hoc. More consistent and formalized communication channels could facilitate access to information, assuage fears and limit speculation in times of doubt, and increase trust between government and the private sector.

  5. Narayan Manandhar

    I read somewhere Eric Uslaner writing: You cannot build a trustful society by reducing corruption but you can reduce corruption by building a trustful society. Like to have more insights on corruption and trust.

  6. Yes, agree, though we think trust is the wrong word. When people talk about ‘how do we get them to trust us’, the answer is usually a communications one and the wrong one. We flip it and talk about Trustworthiness. I was inspired by a phrase evolved from a quotation from Baroness Onora O’Neill in a radio broadcast, she said “..the slightly plaintive question: ‘How can we restore trust?‘ is on everyone’s lips. The answer is pretty obvious. First: be trustworthy. Second: provide others with good evidence that you are trustworthy.”

    Trustworthiness builds trust. How are they being trustworthy is a really good question to ask.


  7. Mike Morris

    Talking trust is always intriguing – as indeed are the comments here – thanks Duncan. At the onset of a recent 5 year programme piloting social learning we were seeking to provide very limited amounts of ‘seed money’ – both the individual ‘awards’ and the amount in total – to enable unaffiliated champions to initiate exploration and development of solutions to mutually identified and prioritised issues with other stakeholders. Perhaps unsurprisingly management and accounts were not persuaded by reference to the measurable and limited risk, nor by articles suggesting that organisational ‘mishaps’ were as or more likely than misbehaviour by individuals. Nor unfortunately were they persuaded by the underpinning rationale that the associated initiatives were ‘experiments’ in social learning, being deliberately facilitated to identify what and why groups do or don’t work well together. So a less than suitable fudge, with the facilitating agency purchasing and supplying various resources – not necessarily what might have been sought – was resorted to.

    This experience and growing awareness of other episodes of risk-averse and/or overly bureaucratic behaviours, prompted our interest in the third dimension that Richard Hummelbrunner and Harry Jones had introduced to the complexity space, that of the distribution of knowledge and capacities (e.g. see Planning in the Face of Complexity, ODI). The perception that public authorities might lack competences and capacity, be inefficient or worse, is relatively widespread and often in some part justified. That NGOs, either small or large, might be similarly afflicted seems widely resisted (at least by the NGOs?), with explanations of such limitations often formulated in terms of events being ‘exceptional’, or just plain denial. Our experience is that such behaviours coupled with staffing discontinuities and other issues are often the norm, and we feel that interventions need to be better designed (and budgeted for) to take this into account. From the ‘seed money’ episode it also seems likely that the apparent lack of trust exhibited by formal organisations towards individuals may itself be a corollary of their own, often embedded, non-resilient behaviours.

  8. Ken Smith

    I think again the aid business has a lot to learn from the religion business. How have they built up trust over the years , how does a new religion set up building trust when they arrive in a village , what happens when they lose trust ?

  9. Emma Proud

    I’m with you Duncan – trust is so important, and seems to be popping up a lot at the moment. As part of ADAPT, IRC and Mercy Corps conducted six case studies of what enables and constrains adaptive management (thank you, for reviewing the report – Adapting Aid recently) – and trust popped up so often, at so many levels.

    Trust between a donor and implementer was really crucial (if there was a good relationship, the implementer was more likely to ask for a change, and the donor was more likely to grant it quickly). Trust between implementers was important and could be broken down by ‘hygiene factors’ like different per-diem policies. And, vitally, trust *within* teams made so much difference to how a team function together, challenge one another and feel they have the safe space to experiment and adapt.

    On the last bit, thinking about mapping trust within teams is an interesting challenge. At Mercy Corps we’re starting to look at the individual capabilities for adaptation, but I think understanding trust in teams is the next bit. And then seeing what difference it makes to programme impact. (There’s some interesting stuff to draw from in the HBR article ‘is yours a learning organization?’)

  10. Allan Moolman

    Much of the focus of these discussions is – as usual – about the trust relationship between donors and recipient organisations. Far more important is the trust that exists between communities and the implementing agency. Working in South Africa with more than 40 partner organisations at any one time, a key criteria fro partner selection was the trust community displayed in the organisations they worked with. Trust is probably a metric that would be nearly impossible to quantify (thus making it a non-starter conversation for the bean counters) but is fundamental and worthy of attention. In my experience, the trust relationship allows for: (i) higher levels of participation and ownership of the development ‘projects’ being undertaken (ii) a much better understanding of the issues and potential strategies that may be useful in a particular context (iii) more rapid startup by reducing the time taken to gain entry into community life (iv) much increased accountability.

    The preferred partners, in my opinion, should therefore be embedded organisations who enjoy the trust of communities they work with and in , often originating in communities and staffed and directed by community members themselves – good old fashioned CBOs. Just a point to note through ‘community based’ does not refer to geographic communities only, the idea of community is extended to its broadest definition – interest groups, associations, collectives, etc.

    A more thought out piece documenting this experience will be forthcoming and hopefully shared through this forum.

    • Duncan Green

      Good points Alan, but I can’t believe that the devt community couldn’t draw on work in measuring trust from other settings, eg behavioural economics etc – any references, anyone? Does WDR 2015 cover this?

  11. Trust seems like something that keeps getting rediscovered by amazed development pros every now and again. Isn’t it a key component of social capital as well?
    – In our learning community one of the thematic groups is focusing on this issue directly: how to improve trust between alliance partners (for better food security and -sovereignty alliances). In this case our participants are working with relatively few people, a couple of dozen at the most, and can use traditional methods: revealing concerns in safe spaces, talking through them in a way that won’t hurt anyone’s feelings (a delicate job), and getting drunk together.
    But let’s not forget that sometimes your team does include bastards who don’t have the greater good as their priority, and key members who won’t change their difficult behaviour. Then you need to use the non-trust based mechanisms of paper trails, anonymised bureaucracy and impersonal sanctions.

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