For one reason or another, I have been thinking about trust this week. Trust is regularly cited as a critical factor in effective aid organisations, is seen as the essential for partnerships, and creating it is seen as a primary task for aid leadership.

But all too often trust is mentioned as if it can simply be designed, imposed and managed. As a concept, trust is both over-used and poorly understood.

From the viewpoint of aid organisations as complex social processes, and drawing on Chris Rogers’ Informal Coalitions approach, trust has three specific features which are overlooked or ignored.

First, trust is a property of relations and interactions. Second, trust is multidimensional. Third, trust is emergent. It’s worth looking at each of these in turn.

1. Trust as a property of relations and interactions

…people’s sense of trust is embodied – or not – in the unscripted detail of each and every interaction that they have with one another.  It is personally and socially constructed – both consciously and subconsciously – in these moments that people come together.  As such, it reflects participants’ past history of interactions, their future hopes and expectations about this and/or other important relationships, and the current immediacy of the exchange. At the same time, the emerging outcomes of this ongoing process shift the ways in which ‘the past’ is recalled, ‘the future’ is constructed and the present is lived – all in the here and now.”

2. Trust is multidimensional:

…we might believe that someone is being genuine and truthful when they say that they intend to do something, and yet still not trust them to do it because we don’t think that they have the necessary competence.

The dimensions include:

– character (perceived integrity and trustworthiness)…
– community (whether the person is recognized as being ‘one of us’, with shared perspectives, common interests and sense of identity)
– communication (perceived openness, honesty and straightforwardness);
– confidentiality (sense that it is ‘safe’ to share confidences) – “I believe that I can be open with you, without fear of you taking advantage of me or breaching that confidence.”
– credibility (whether or not the ‘story’ makes sense and is believable in it’s own right) – “I believe that your ‘story’ (proposition, strategy, system etc) is credible and makes sense in its own right.”
– capability (perceived knowledge, skills and abilities in relevant areas) –“I believe that you have the necessary capacity and competence to do what is needed in this situation.”
– commitments (dependability in keeping agreements and promises) – “I believe that I can depend on you to do what you say you will do.”
– context (whether the patterns of taken-for-granted cultural assumptions are tending to channel behaviour in ways that enhance or undermine trust) – “I believe that the organizational culture and climate fosters an environment of trust.”

3. Trust is Emergent

Complexity science has long been used to understand issues of trust and cooperation. In his now-classic work, noted complexity thinker Robert Axelrod showed how trust can emerge even in situations where there are self-interested actors with no central authority. More generally,

People derive their sense of trust from the detail of the actions, interactions and transactions that comprise everyday life in the organization. The sense they make of their world, including the feeling of trust (or mistrust) that this evokes, emerges from this ongoing interactional process.  Also, the more that a particular ‘sense’ of trust is ‘taken up’ by others, through the diverse interplay of conversations across an organization (or fragments of it), the more generalized it becomes. It is then more likely to be taken up in similar ways by those same people in future – and, potentially, by others with whom they interact… It is the self-organizing process of ‘shared’ meaning-making, through which patterns of assumptions emerge and become taken-for-granted over time. These patterns create expectancy and tend to channel ongoing sensemaking, imperceptibly, down familiar ‘pathways’.  Since this patterning process is self-organizing, it means that trust cannot be ‘designed and built’ by managers, as part of a structured ‘culture change programme’. However, a major influence on this ongoing sensemaking and action-taking is people’s observation of the behaviours of those in formal leadership positions – throughout the organization.”

These different properties of trust may be essential to understand if we are serious about furthering aid efforts. For example, in aid reform processes, trust is repeatedly highlighted as one of the enduring challenges facing progress. On the development side, the Paris Declaration advocates for harmonisation between donors and mutual accountability with national governments; on the humanitarian side, the Cluster approach seeks to coordinate international relief efforts by bring the NGOs together in UN-led, sector-specific networks. Both approaches have been stymied by, among other things, a lack of trust between diverse actors.

The central take-away from the above should be that trust is not some box to be ticked in order to achieve aid success. Trust takes time, effort, presence, engagement, commitment and humility. Trust means putting a human face on overtly technical endeavours. Trust means starting something without necessarily knowing how it is going to end. Creating the space for trust in aid may mean re-casting aid as being primarily about relationships, as Ros Eyben and others have argued, and seeing what might emerge as a result.

Scary, eh?

FOOTNOTE: All of this makes the recent revelation in the Economist all the more intriguing. New research seems to indicate that just having a dog around can boost human cooperation levels—potentially altering well known game theory results.

….The researchers explored how the presence of an animal altered players’ behaviour in a game known as the prisoner’s dilemma…Having a dog around made volunteers 30% less likely to snitch than those who played without one.”

So, should the next Paris Declaration meeting have canine observers??

Join the conversation! 7 Comments

  1. Interesting post. While I’d agree that trust is multidimensional, those are a lot of dimensions to pack into a single concept. More to the point, and following Niklas Luhmann to some extent, I think there needs to be some kind of distinction between ‘trust’ and ‘confidence,’ the key difference being whether one identifies and defines relevant risks and dangers to ‘trusting behavior’ as emanating from interactions and decisions or from properties of systems. I may ‘trust’ my doctor, but have little ‘confidence’ in the medical system; I may ‘believe in marriage’ but not trust my spouse, etc. A loss of confidence can impact willingness to trust, while gains in trust may lead to increases in confidence, and so on.

    Whenever I talk to aid workers – I am, admittedly, drawing from a limited sample – the problem doesn’t seem to be so much trust but from a belief that the political economy of the overarching ‘system’ is structured in ways that undermines the well-intentioned and trustworthy behavior of capable and credible actors.

    • I’m not sure. I think when it comes ‘patterns’ or processes, trust and confidence boil down to the same thing. Making the distinction could create more complexity than there needs to be.

      Spotting such subtle differences can have upsides, but when considering/modeling/predicting/managing what emergence may occur in a system or organisation, the two constructs have the same relevance and effect. (Or very similar).

      It’s only when communicating (not strategizing) that the distinction gains weight.

  2. “Trust means putting a human face on overtly technical endeavours.” Yes, and yes!

    Working with community and grassroots development initiatives over the past decade, I can tell you that the further you reach on the ground, the more important trust becomes in any sort of aid, which at that level, is most often person-to-person.

  3. […] their uncertainties while simultaneously eliciting trust of key stakeholders (for more on trust, see the previous Aid on the Edge post). This may ultimately mean that aid agencies need to go for smaller, more humble, more realistic, […]

  4. Very interesting topic!

    I’m a big believer in openess. e.g. security (in IT) can, and I believe should, be built on “Open” technology. That is to say, the source code (or the logic behind a secure system) should be something you can publish, without compromising the security of confidential information within that system.

    Security by obfuscation is very much frowned upon in the security world. Not least because its often insecure. But also because its fosters mistrust. It actually encourages poeple to break the security of a system. This can be analogous to many managerial methods and practices, which I think should also be frowned upon.

    i.e. How an organization works should not be hidden from anyone (its members, or the greater comunity). As the glimpses of the unknown garner intrigue. But this does not exclude privacy of critical private information or knowledge.

    Openess can lead to greater trust, which is counter intuitive to many, but becomes very clear to those who use such systems.

  5. […] Rethinking Trust (and a Doggy Footnote) […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Conflict and peace building, Facilitation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Organisations, Public Policy, Strategy