Global Cooperation

How to rebuild trust in institutions: results, results, results

Trust is being eroded in institutions worldwide. The solution is to deliver results.

Trust is being eroded in institutions worldwide. The solution is to deliver results. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Lord Mark Malloch-Brown
President, Open Society Foundations
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Global Cooperation

  • From the US to Europe and beyond, trust in national, supra-national and philanthropic institutions is at an all-time low.
  • There are no cosmetic solutions to the global crisis of confidence in liberal institutions.
  • To rebuild trust, these institutions and philanthropies must demonstrate their value through results.

Politicians, real estate agents and lawyers are no longer alone in the dock of public opinion. Today, a wide range of liberal institutions stand accused of having lost people’s trust. That is true of everything from multilateral bodies like the United Nations and the Bretton Woods architecture to democratic institutions within states and philanthropies.

This should concern us all. Just as low levels of trust within states hamper economic development and good government, so too does this deficit undermine global efforts to reach common goals on everything from economic equity to the climate crisis.

The global trust recession

In the United States, trust in major national institutions is at or is close to an all-time low. Similar patterns have been observed in the EU and are true across the world. Notwithstanding inter-state differences, studies like Edelman’s Trust Barometer chart what the authors of its latest edition call a global “lack of faith in societal institutions triggered by economic anxiety, disinformation, mass-class divide and a failure of leadership.”

The Open Society Foundation’s Open Society Barometer supplies additional insights. This global poll of 36,000 people was conducted in summer 2023 across a representative group of 30 countries with a collective population of over 5.5 billion. It depicts a world of newly intense anxieties, with 58% concerned about political violence in the next year and 70% worried that climate change could affect their lives over the same period. Most major categories of international leadership command the confidence of under half of respondents.

This paints a gloomy picture of the prospects for democracy and multilateralism, which need trust to function. But the polling also reveals a silver lining. Across an array of questions, respondents indicated that they still have faith in both democracy and multilateralism. Strong majorities support democracy and individual rights, as well as greater equity and ambition from global multilateral cooperation. For example, 68% said rich countries should give more money to the World Bank to support developing countries.

But that faith is running on fumes. In another alarming finding, younger respondents were both somewhat less attached to democracy and somewhat more inclined to believe in strongman leadership than their elders. It would not be unreasonable to extrapolate that finding onto democracy’s sibling: multilateralism. On both fronts, people’s enduring faith in the principles needs to be confirmed in practice.

Delivering results to build trust

Liberal institutions need more than better PR, then. Tempting though it is to blame the crisis of trust on the rise of the internet, social media and authoritarian populism, those are better viewed as symptoms than causes. As Robert Putnam, the doyen of academic analysis of social capital, put it of the blame-the-internet tendency: "Voting, giving, trusting, meeting, visiting, and so on had all begun to decline while Bill Gates was still in grade school.” The causes are rooted in the conditions of people’s lives and the underlying health of their societies.

The answer therefore has to be substantive. Liberal institutions need both to deliver better results and to be widely seen and understood to do so: stronger individual and group rights; more inclusive prosperity; serious strategies to bring the crises of our time back within our collective control, from the climate crisis and cost-of-living inflation to artificial intelligence and disorderly migration. In particular, a new emphasis on “security” in all its forms — personal, geopolitical, economic, environmental, digital — may point the way back to legitimacy.

What this means concretely depends on the institution in question. The most promising national governments today are those that have recognized that the so-called “neoliberal era” that began in the 1970s and 1980s has now fallen away, just like the “New Deal era” before it. The contest for what will succeed it is underway, with open questions as to whether or not more economically activist states will also be empowering and pluralistic ones. Governments alive to these realities are starting to define the successor paradigm in all manner of innovative ways.

At the supra-national level, multilateralism is on the back foot and often seems inadequate for the scale of the crises it faces. But there too certain leaders, coalitions and initiatives who are showing the way forward. I witnessed that first-hand on a recent visit to eastern Africa. At the mid-term review of the International Development Association, I saw the energy and dynamism of the new leadership of the World Bank. Then, at the annual board meeting of BRAC, by some measures the world's largest NGO, board management and staff alike were inspirational.

The task on all fronts is to pick out the bright spots, crowd in support and scale up success faster. But the metabolism of the polycrisis is growing faster. Events threaten to overwhelm us.

Philanthropies for progress

Philanthropies too have a vital role to play in delivering the substantive change needed to confront the crisis of trust facing liberal institutions more widely. The sector has suffered too from that crisis, with the likes of foundations like the Open Society Foundations and others like the Gates Foundation in recent years treated as suspect. Here too the answer is: results, results, results.

Philanthropies can do remarkable things that governments, international institutions and private firms cannot. They have a greater risk-taking capacity than others so can be both more urgent, moving fast in response to a crisis, and more patient, investing for the long-term and sticking to a course over many years.

With capability comes responsibility. The philanthropic sector has freedoms others do not. So, judge philanthropies by the impact we achieve by harnessing them. And join us in our bid to restore trust in the liberal institutions — one substantive success at a time.

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