Recently, as I sat on a train headed from Washington, D.C. to New York City, I ran across the 2012 barometer readings from the Edelman Trust Barometer. For the past 12 years, the PR firm has evaluated public trust in four key institutions—government, businesses, media, and NGOs—by collecting and analyzing data drawn from 25,000 general population respondents across 25 countries. As the CEO of NetHope, a member organization of 35 of the world’s largest NGOs, I was not surprised to see that for the fifth year in a row, NGOs ranked as the most trusted institutions in the world. While ratings did fall slightly from last year, NGOs continue to outrank the trustworthiness of governments and businesses. And, in markets like China and India, trust in NGOs has surged.

NGOs by their mission are created to serve, connect, and provide for the needs of the many—the barometer rating is well earned. As the leader of an organization built to harness the power of technology with NGOs, I was also heartened that technology companies have consistently emerged as the world’s most trusted industry according to Edelman’s study. To me, this demonstrates how much people view technology as a force for improving their quality of life.

Conversely, banks and the financial sector rated the lowest of all businesses on the trust barometer. This is a particularly fascinating confluence of public opinion when you consider the rapidly growing ecosystem for mobile money, in which trust is built one transaction at a time. It’s also the ecosystem by which much of the world’s unbanked population will enter the formal financial services sector for the first time. 

A significant portion of the global population—about half of all adults and three-quarters of the world’s poor—lacks access to financial institutions. Financial inclusion, however, offers people greater security through access to tools such as savings accounts to safely store money and loans to start businesses that can help them combat poverty’s vicious cycle.

As I rode the rail up the east coast, I began to wonder: What if we capitalized on the trustworthiness of NGOs and the technology industry to bridge the gap between the unbanked and access to financial services? Surely there is an opportunity here to combine forces in the public and private sectors, and develop affordable and accessible banking solutions that benefit the world’s poor.

NGOs serve as a trusted advisor for much of the world’s unbanked. NGO workers deliver aid after disasters, build schools, help farmers rotate their crops, bring clean water and sustainable energy to villages, and much more. When NGOs serve as the introduction point for new technology and establish a relationship of trust, they can propel technology adoption among the populations they serve.

The role of trust is particularly important when dealing with the unbanked. Convincing a person to change the way they manage their money often requires a high level of trust. In 2010 and 2011, Microfinance Opportunities conducted qualitative market research on mobile money adoption by low-income consumers in India, the Philippines, Zambia, and Malawi. It found that trust was a major, common hurdle in reaching higher levels of adoption, as consumers had limited trust in the technology to keep their money safe. These new consumers of mobile money also said they lacked the confidence to use technology correctly and had a limited understanding of the full range of mobile money products and benefits. This is an area where I know NGOs can make a difference.

While the mobile phone is now a familiar device in most of the world, it is not surprising that its varied uses (beyond SMS and voice calls) are frequently unknown, not trusted, or intimidating. In Haiti, for example, following the 2010 earthquake, many of our NetHope member NGOs provided mobile phones, training, and customer support to recipients of assistance via mobile money applications. In a recent report on its use of the mobile money product, T-Cash, in Haiti, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) cited overcoming resistance and mistrust as one of the top barriers to adoption. CRS’s willingness to provide intense one-on-one training and education was a powerful factor in creating the necessary level of understanding and trust for further adoption. Fast-forward to July 2012, when we learned that two operators in Haiti offering mobile money services, Digicel and Voila, shared in a $3.2 million (USD) prize from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development for reaching the five million transaction milestone for mobile money in Haiti.

As we look to harness mobile networks to provide financial inclusion for the world’s unbanked, we must also invest in developing partnerships and trust that will make our ambitions a reality. Only then can we deliver a sustainable continuum of support for the communities we serve.