Participants of the Beyond Access program in Myanmar, which sought to bring communities together using libraries as community centers. (Photo courtesy of IREX, 2013)

Plummeting public trust is sweeping the globe. It is infecting relations among people, between people and their governments, and between people and a range of societal institutions. We sense this erosion of trust in social media and domestic politics, in our communities, and even at our dinner tables. Distrust infuses public rhetoric and political debates, obstructing action in the public interest. Together, this cumulative distrust is undermining the ability of social institutions to function and serve the people they are intended to benefit. And if researchers are correct that trust is easier to destroy than construct, the consequences of today’s trust deficit could haunt societies around the world for many years to come.

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, which surveys people across 28 countries, found declining public trust across business, media, NGOs, and government for the first time in 17 years of research. The Gallup World Poll shows that in 26 out of 38 countries polled between 2007 and 2016, trust in national government dropped in the aggregate, and many countries have seen a decline of more than 20 percentage points. Meanwhile, a 2017 Pew Research Center study of 38 countries suggests that trust in government is alarmingly low, with a global median of only 14 percent of people saying they trust their national government “a lot” to do what is right for the country. Other studies suggest an overall decline of trust among people in many countries—particularly in nations where income inequality, educational attainment levels, gross domestic product, and civic engagement are low.  

As Harvard professor Tarun Khanna describes in his book Trust: Creating the Foundation for Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries, trusted institutions move societies forward by playing two important roles: They dramatically simplify daily life, and they enable new collaborative solutions. In other words, trusted institutions are grease in the social machine. In contrast, a dearth of trust in institutions carries costs. Khanna and others point out that when citizens lack trust, they are less likely to comply with laws and regulations, pay taxes, tolerate different viewpoints or ways of life, contribute to economic vitality, resist the appeals of demagogues, or support their neighbors. Without trust, societies are at risk of chaos and conflict. They are less likely to create and invent.

Finding a Cure

There is no one culprit driving the widening trust gap, but leading candidates include: public- and private-sector corruption, poisonous public rhetoric, governments’ inability to provide essential security and human services, breakdowns in the rule of law, rising economic inequality, perceptions that neither individual voices nor votes matter, and the sense that elites and the powerful have rigged the system—all systems—to benefit themselves. A volatile media and social media climate, which contributes to the spread of disinformation and polarization, exacerbates divisions and a sense of social grievance.

“When citizens lack trust, they are less likely to comply with laws and regulations … contribute to economic vitality, resist the appeals of demagogues, or support their neighbors. … They are less likely to create and invent.”

Quite possibly, this rising epidemic of distrust may burn out on its own. It is not the first escalation of public distrust in world history. Alternatively, the public trust deficit may contain the germs of its own cure: By highlighting dysfunction and inequity, people may rise up with new coalitions and new solutions that, in turn, bridge social divides, realign power structures, and rebuild public confidence.

The biggest worry is that neither will happen and that societies will rely on wishful thinking—rather than proactive effort—to bring about change. This is a frightening prospect. In all too many countries, dysfunction and distrust feed on themselves, and consume the very institutions that should be finding solutions.

Indeed, weak, distrusted institutions create a kind of trap. What can we do to escape?

Six Paths to Greater Trust

Societies can replenish trust and social cohesion, short of social or political revolution, by taking several concrete steps:

1. Make sure institutions are effective and deliver real benefits for people.

The most important determinant of social trust in institutions—whether schools, hospitals, libraries, law enforcement agencies, sanitation departments, or local governments—is how well they do their jobs and whether they provide real value to citizens. Day-to-day execution (what the Australian scholar Valerie Braithwaite calls “trust by performance” in Communal and Exchange Trust Norms: Their Value Base and Relevance to Institutional Trust) may not be glamorous or headline-grabbing, but it is ultimately what matters.

The good news is that institutions can learn and improve on execution, and there are many resources—among them, the book Execution: The Discipline of Getting It Done—to help. Of course, those who wield power usually won’t give it up easily or necessarily provide others with opportunity, but improving the efficacy and impact of institutions is possible. It requires that organizations align their commitment and incentives, and have the will to follow through. It also helps if citizens are aware of their timely, reliable, and effective performance, since awareness of past behavior builds trust in the future. Businesses, governments, educational institutions, aid agencies, and others can all contribute to making institutions more effective.

2. Develop future leaders who work for the greater good, not for themselves.

In far too many countries, government leaders hold on to office for decades. Many of them suppress opposition, use their offices to benefit themselves and their allies, and do little to strengthen overall accountability or transparency. It’s often more challenging to reform entrenched leaders like these, than to nurture new ones who will work for the public good and not enrich themselves at public expense.

Leaders who cling to power present a global challenge, but it may be particularly evident in Africa, where aging officials lead some of the youngest populations in the world. Indeed, 28 of the 30 youngest countries in the world are in Africa, as are 7 of the world’s 10 oldest leaders. This mismatch leaves precious few opportunities for young, aspiring leaders to emerge, despite increased pluralism and democracy at the national, regional, and local levels. And when opportunities are lacking—both in Africa and elsewhere—many young people go abroad, draining their countries of precious talent.

Countries everywhere need to develop pipelines of talented leaders and opportunities for people with diverse views and backgrounds to participate in governance, business, and civic life. That’s the idea behind the Mandela Washington Fellowship, which identifies promising young Africans and nurtures their skills and knowledge to eventually build the institutions and strengthen the democratic norms in their home countries. It’s also what animated the Ford Foundation’s $280 million investment in the International Fellowships Program, which sought to support the next generation of social changemakers in developing countries.

3. Strengthen accountability and transparency.

In many countries, corruption is insidious, and Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index found that most countries are making little or no progress in their quests to eliminate it.

But, as Transparency International has advocated, there are remedies, including: breaking the cycle of impunity through effective law enforcement; improving financial management and auditing; ensuring greater government openness, freedom of the press, and information access; giving citizens greater abilities to monitor and call out potential corruption; and stopping banks and other offshore financial institutions from laundering illicit flows of money. We tend to think of corruption as something so entrenched it can’t ever change. But many countries have overcome legacies of corruption, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Georgia, and Rwanda. In Kazakhstan, a US effort is returning money stolen by officials to citizens, to support social services and education programs.

Many institutions can contribute to greater transparency and accountability. An independent media sector can expose corruption and missteps. Courts and law enforcement agencies can ensure that even powerful figures can’t act with impunity. So-called “sunshine laws” can require that government makes its data, including spending and budget information, public. Open government and e-government services can reduce corruption by making procurement processes transparent and bringing services directly to citizens.

4. Engage citizens in solving community and societal challenges.

Trust builds when people feel they are part of a community- or society-wide enterprise that takes their concerns and voices into account—particularly in circumstances where trust is low.

Consider Ukraine, where citizens historically distrusted the notoriously corrupt police force, which routinely stopped citizens arbitrarily to demand bribes. Following the 2014 Euromaidan revolution that ushered in a reform government with an anti-corruption mandate, Ukraine’s government instituted nationwide police reform, recruiting a whole new cadre of community police. But trust didn’t come overnight; the government needed to take deliberate action to change public attitudes and set new expectations. One such effort is a program called the Citizen Engagement and Reform Communication Program, which has so far brought together more than 11,000 Ukrainian citizens, NGO leaders, and media to meet with local police. The encounters have given police more sensitivity to community needs and concerns; have led to meaningful policy reforms, such as creating a specialized force to respond more effectively to instances of domestic violence; and have resulted in greater understanding and respect for the role police play in society. Citizens who participated in the initiative increased positive attitudes towards police from 40 percent to 73 percent, suggesting they now hold significantly greater trust in police officers. 

5. Strengthen social inclusion.

When people feel they’re blocked from opportunities because of their gender, race, age, ethnic or religious group, disability, or other reasons, it’s hard to expect them to trust the institutions they feel are marginalizing them. Sectarian divisions in many countries have profoundly undermined good governance and economic prosperity, and all too frequently formed the pretext to group violence and displacement.

The Citizen Engagement and Reform Communication Program seeks to rebuild trust between the Ukrainian police and the communities they serve. (Photo courtesy of IREX, 2017.)

An exhaustive 2013 World Bank study, as well as successive World Bank reports, identifies a multitude of ways to improve social inclusion. Land-redistribution reforms that give longstanding residents an opportunity to own land; access to banking, and finance, education, and skills training help many people overcome economic barriers. The report also advocates for accommodations for people with disabilities; affordable transportation; fair treatment in courts; better “cultural competency” among health and social service providers working with people from diverse backgrounds; use of multiple languages in public communications; and conscious, concrete efforts to integrate immigrants and others into mainstream social systems. It also means giving girls and women the basic and higher-level education they need to thrive, quality healthcare, and full access to economic and political opportunities.

6. Establish real commitment.

None of these steps can occur unless government, business, civic, and other institutional leaders make a sincere effort to acknowledge the problem of social trust, and to take steps to improve their policies, practices, and rhetoric.

Leadership that addresses the trust deficit can come from many quarters. It can come from institutions themselves, whether business, government, civil society, or the media. It can come at the global, national, regional, local, and even neighborhood level. Citizens can organize and drive grassroots change. Each of us can take steps to rebuild trust within our communities. We can also demand that the government officials we support with our votes and tax dollars, and the businesses we patronize, behave in ways that contribute to social trust.

Philanthropists, NGOs, and social investors have a role to play too. By developing and supporting initiatives that advance social trust, they can create building blocks that add up to greater trust. They can also support efforts to study what works. We know a lot about what erodes trust. We know too little about how to rebuild it. The data, evidentiary base, and analytical underpinnings for how to restore social trust are weak, yet the stakes are high. Communities and even whole nations that don’t follow through with these and other ways to rebuild and maintain their citizens’ trust risk facing compounding crises; they will likely lack the unity and social capital they need to compete, let alone thrive.

In her book A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security, author Rachel Kleinfeld suggests that trust is society’s immune system. We need it to protect us against a host of other social ills. Rebuilding social trust is possible and, perhaps, the wounds of social distrust will heal on their own. But hope is not a strategy. A more responsible approach is to take steps, proactively and preventively, to restore trust across government, business, and civic institutions. It’s a goal we can all advance.