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Are we experiencing an epidemic of distrust?

Published:Wednesday | April 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Lawrence Powell, Polling Director for the Centre for Leadership and Governance at the UWI. - Ricardo Makyn/Staff Photographer

Lawrence Alfred Powell, Contributor

To what extent are we, as Jamaicans, prone to 'trust' other persons? How much confidence do we have in the good intentions of our political leaders, our government, the private sector and the major institutions of our society — schools, police, the media, the Church, the family?

Social scientists tell us that a shared sense of trust, a basic belief in the cooperativeness and unselfishness of human nature, is vital to building a strong civil society. It is essential to building 'social capital' within organisations, and in all human relationships. Trust is the glue that holds a society together. The efficiency, and indeed survival, of individuals and groups within the society depends heavily on the presence of such trust. It is essential to modernisation, to the development process, and to achieving sustained economic growth.

Where people lack a basic faith in the trustworthiness of other people, they tend to become more cynical, manipulative, exploitative, antisocial, violence-prone. They become, as development specialist Lucian Pye once observed, "unsure of their control over the world and hence, fearful that the world is either against them or indifferent to them."


Since its creation by Professor Trevor Munroe in 2005, UWI's Centre for Leadership and Governance has made a point of tracking these 'trust and confidence' trends in its national surveys. For the first time, these trends are being consistently monitored, asking Jamaicans the same questions over time. Using a carefully-constructed sampling design that is representative of the Jamaican population, the 2006, 2007 and 2008 Leadership and Governance surveys uncovered some sobering trends. In three successive surveys, we found that between 83 and 84 per cent of Jamaicans do not trust other people generally. These percentages were very consistent over the successive years of the survey (83.5 per cent in 2006, 83.3 per cent in 2007 and 83.3 per cent in 2008 — in national samples of 1,338, 1,438 and 1,499 respectively). Those agreeing that "most people can be trusted to keep their promises" were only a small minority, averaging 14 per cent over the three years.

If this were an ailment related to physical health, rather than social health, it would be considered a national epidemic. Any time a contagion spreads to 80-plus per cent of the population, it begs to be taken seriously - if not as a social illness per se, at least as a symptom that the social fabric is beginning to unravel in significant ways.

This widespread distrust can also be seen in our perceptions of corruption. Whereas about 25 per cent of those interviewed in the 2008 survey reported that they had actually witnessed some form of corruption, an overwhelming 96 per cent said they believed corruption is "common" in Jamaican society.

What is remarkable about this latter 'perceived corruption' figure is not just how high it is relative to the actual experience, but perhaps more importantly, that Jamaicans have the highest levels of 'perceived' corruption in the entire region - as measured among 23 Central and South American nations in the United States Agency for International Development/Latin American Public Opinion Project (USAID/LAPOP) survey. In contrast, Jamaicans ranked seventh in their actual personal experience of corruption - with Haiti, Bolivia, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador all being higher.


We are not, of course, the only society with this problem. To a greater or lesser extent, many nations worldwide struggle with chronic distrust. Some rank above us, and others below. World Values Survey figures (2005-2008) using this same survey question, help to locate Jamaica within the larger global picture. In some countries, those predisposed to trust others greatly outnumber those who do not. In the Scandinavian demo-cracies, for example, 74 per cent of Norwegians and 65 per cent of Swedes say they trust other people, while those who distrust only amount to a quarter to a third of the population. Trust also exceeds distrust in China, Vietnam, Switzerland and New Zealand. In many other nations, the tendency to distrust slightly outweighs trust, but the imbalance is not that extreme. Thus for example, 42 per cent in Canada, 41 per cent in Thailand, 39 per cent in the US and 37 per cent in Japan, say they trust others.

Unfortunately, Jamaica's average of "14 per cent trust," as measured now across three successive national surveys, clearly places us within the 'lower cluster' of countries where the sense of distrust substantially overpowers trust — with the result that social cohesion and social capital building become more difficult. Countries with similarly low levels of trust in the World Values Survey include Burkina Faso, Serbia, Colombia, Chile, Morocco, Iran.

If all of this sounds dis-couraging, we should note that there are some mitigating trends in the data that paint a somewhat less harsh picture when the Jamaican trust findings are viewed alongside Central and South American countries only. In the 2008 USAID/LAPOP study of 23 countries in the region - which featured a similar question about "trustworthiness" - it was found that Jamaica ranked 9th in social trust, with 14 of the other countries doing 'worse'.

Also, when the trust question is asked in a way that takes into consideration one's basic concept of human nature, the reported trust levels in Jamaica then go considerably higher. In the 2008 survey, 42 per cent of the respondents agreed that "most people are essentially good and can be trusted." This is much higher than the 14 per cent one gets by asking trust alone. It suggests that the low levels of trust showing up in these surveys might be a temporary cautious personal response to the crime rates and perceived worsening social conditions in recent years, rather than reflecting any permanent, culturally-based scepticism about other people and human nature generally.


If we go beyond this to look more closely at what institutions Jamaicans do and do not have confidence in, this distrust pattern comes into finer resolution. Our Centre for Leadership and Governance surveys have consistently shown that Jamaicans have "a lot of confidence in" the family, schools, universities and churches as bedrock institutions undergirding the society, but considerably less faith in the integrity of the government, private sector companies, the political parties, trade unions, and the police force.

It seems evident that this lack of confidence in basic institutions of public and private sector governance, combined with such high levels of interpersonal distrust, are likely to present serious impediments to civil society and development efforts in coming years. This, in turn, suggests a need for national strategies that focus more intensively on building 'social capital' within communities, as a precondition to any sustained economic development, violent-crime reduction, etc.

Unfortunately, the data from these national surveys - no matter how well measured, or how often - cannot give us a prescription for a remedy. They can only suggest a diagnosis - that the overall atmosphere of trust within the Jamaican society is disturbingly low at present, based on repeated measures in these national socio-barometers. One thing is clear, though. Like any symptom of degeneration, when it occurs, it would be unwise to ignore it.

Lawrence Alfred Powell serves as Polling Director for the Centre for Leadership and Governance, University of the West Indies, Mona.