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

September 20, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

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?

September 20, 2016
Duncan Green