The Importance of Social Trust Lessons Learned from a Decade Working to Resolve Conflicts Globally

protestors at US Captiol social trust in US COVID
Thousands of Donald Trump supporters gather outside the U.S. Capitol building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. A large group of protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

OEF’s theory of war is based on the idea that the decision to use violence to achieve political goals is not taken lightly, but under the right circumstances—when the perceived value of the end goal is high, when the perceived chance of non-violent political solutions is low, when state security is deemed illegitimate, and when would-be perpetrators of violence feel they have little to lose—such violence is likely to erupt. This week we learned that this is just as true—and just as contemptible—in the United States as it is anywhere else in the world. 

Just as the decision to use violence is not taken lightly and has deep roots, the path to peace is never quick or easy. It takes time and requires a long-term perspective. Structural factors must be addressed visibly and effectively through nonviolent means, or we should expect cycles of violence to persist, even grow. We believe at OEF that social trust—both among individuals in a society and between individuals and government—is key to breaking cycles of violence and getting back on the path to peace.

Social trust is a belief in the honesty, integrity and reliability of others. A consultancy called Behavioural Insights sums up the basic research and state of affairs regarding social trust nicely when it says, “Levels of social trust, averaged across a country, predict national economic growth as powerfully as financial and physical capital, and more powerfully than skill levels – over which every government in the world worries about incessantly.” 

The Covid-19 pandemic was the first time in living memory that the entire world had an acutely-felt, universally-shared experience. It changed patterns of life around the globe and shocked the economy in an unprecedented way. The pandemic also showed that social trust is crucial in the face of a shock, and that the world is made up of trust haves and have-nots.

Social Trust Correlates with a Successful Response to Global Crises

In the absence of institutional capacity, we saw that trust networks can perform miraculous logistical feats, like 65,000 rural women in India utilizing self-help groups to produce and distribute 20 million masks in the first month of the pandemic alone. We saw how faith based organizations can mobilize communities rapidly via trust and shared identity. These groups, and the trust they create, will be essential to ensure that a sufficient proportion of the world’s population gets vaccinated. 

And as is the case with most valuable commodities, we saw that those who already had trust could benefit from a self-perpetuating cycle of continued trust. A study of civil society in 20 countries by the Carnegie Endowment found that, while the pandemic led to increased public demand for government transparency, the wins from such activism fell almost entirely to pre-existing networks. That same study found that civil society organizations that had already developed trust with local communities fared much better than those who did not.

There are also trust haves and have-nots at the national level. The superstars of Covid-19 response like Singapore, New Zealand, and Canada have levels of trust between citizens and government that range between 65% and 75%. Contrast that with countries that responded poorly, such as Brazil, Spain, and Italy which have levels of trust ranging between 14% and 34%. Sadly, in 2020 we learned that the United States is pretty clearly a trust have-not. Fewer Americans say that they trust Washington to make good decisions than at any point since the question has been polled, and only three in 10 Republicans believe that the 2020 U.S. election was free and fair. The lack of trust in the U.S. is evident in its Covid-19 response, and between the time I wrote this and it was published, culminated in political violence against the U.S government at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Absent major shifts we will see more negative consequences of mutual distrust in the United States in coming years.

Trust Networks at OEF 

Although 2021 will be my first year as Executive Director and COO of OEF, these lessons ring true to me from my 10 years with the organization. I have never seen better value for money at OEF than when we were building trust and using it to align and extend what exists, rather than building something new. Our agricultural extensionists in Colombia and our “focal points” in Somalia, who provide our permanent local presence, were truly invaluable in helping us achieve our goals in 2020. A core premise of OEF is that trust networks are key to peace, and these are woefully under-rated in public problem solving on a broader scale. I think our collective experience with the Covid-19 pandemic underscores the value of that premise.

I wish I could say that the Covid-19 pandemic would be enough to bring about a sea change in the value policy makers and funders place in social trust and those able to generate, sustain, and perpetuate it. I fear, though, that the story of Covid-19 will be remembered by how it ended, with science and large-scale logistics saving the day in the form of vaccine development and delivery. Harnessing the power of science and undertaking large-scale logistical challenges are things that governments are already good at. It will be tempting to write the pandemic off as an anomaly and return to business as usual.

It is up to those of us who value social trust and know how to use it to solve problems to ensure this does not happen again. We need to be more explicit about the role trust plays in our successes, to find pockets of trust wherever they can be found and build upon them, and to do a much better job of telling the counterfactual stories about what could have been possible if we only had more social trust. By doing so, we can honor the sacrifices made by so many in 2020, and have a more peaceful and prosperous 2021 and beyond.

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