Hunt for Illusive Public Trust

The world does not lack for statistics. From economic growth to country livability, from crime rates to worker’s productivity, there remains little that has not been measured. Even the results are somewhat similar. Depending on the subject matter at hand, at the top or the bottom, one usually finds Nordic or African countries.

Analysing those measurements is tricky, though, and no survey better indicates this than 2018’s Edelman Trust Barometer, which gauges citizens’ trust in institutions. For instance, the United States’ institutions, especially the public ones, became far-less trustworthy in the eyes of their citizenry compared to that of any other country’s. Other nations such as Italy, Brazil, South Africa and India followed on the losing board.

On the other side of the spectrum were the likes of China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the top earners in citizens’ trust of government institutions. Why nations that are far more authoritative, allow their citizens less freedom in their day-to-day activities (cleavage and depiction of time-travel are censored on Chinese TV), are losing the battle of the all-important factor of democracy is baffling.

But I have a theory. Perhaps faith in institutions is not objective. Take Ethiopia, a nation that has gone through three widely varied regimes through the past century. One was a monarchy, which did not put up any pretence of democracy, or any sense of egalitarianism. That regime was followed by a military dictatorship (which took egalitarianism to literally) , whose time in office is best remembered as bloody, and greatly dominated by a dilapidating famine that took too many lives.

And then the Revolutionary Democrats came, which have their faults but authored a very good constitution, which of course could have used some changes. They undertook privatisation of state enterprises in less strategic sectors (377 and counting), built more schools and hospitals than ever before (even if quality was rarely prioritised), allowed free media (kind of) and instituted a sort of normalcy in governance. They also held free and fair elections, or at least they said they did, which is far more than can be said for the Dergue.

Such that any measure of the trustworthiness of an institution, or its independence from outside influence and the quality provision of its services, will be benchmarked on what came before, the Revolutionary Democrats have little to worry about. And this goes for everyone else. It is not much of a surprise that Americans are looking at the administration of President Donald Trump, with all the contradictory statements that are creating confusion, and finding them incompetent since it was not as such with the previous administration.

Such subjectivity towards governance does not last though. Expectations evolve. Citizens, like customers, always expect better. And governments have to work to improve the lives of their people further to meet that demand, which is perhaps why the Revolutionary Democrats are facing significant resistance and public discontent.

Growth in gross domestic product (GDP), employment and university graduation rates, or infrastructure development are not creating the sort of optimism that they used to.

The standard of living is higher than it has been for decades, but people want it to be even higher. Only the very unfortunate still dream of three meals a day; the majority hope to run their own business, have a two-storey building, and own a car or two. More than anything else, they are looking for a more equitable distribution of wealth.

And it is not just the economy. People want more political rights to be afforded to them. An excellent sounding constitution does not suffice anymore, as much as its enforcement, and the assurance that even the most senior of officials abide by it, would.

Think of governance as a smart-phone. It is not enough that it has good features, as long as they stay static. It has to be upgraded continuously – be slicker and more advanced. Change – for the better, or just any sort at times – is critical, if one wants its customers consistently engaged and enthusiastic.

For that, though, there needs to be competition, without which political parties will be hard-pressed to find the drive in them to reinvent themselves, the workings of government or the livelihoods of their citizens.

How often would Samsung drop newer versions of the Galaxy if they were not afraid Apple would eat into their market share?

The Revolutionary Democrats have not been as lucky or allowed themselves to be. Much like the citizenry, they are starved of the necessary benchmark or at least a genuine one. This is a regime that is still measuring itself against a monarchy and a communist junta, both of which are the poster boys of incompetent leadership.

The only cure for lack of trust in public institutions, or the government, is political pluralism that can create the needed cheques and balances. That will replace discontent with the government to discontent with a political party, the latter of which should absolutely be considered natural.

As long as trust in institutions does not fade, citizens will always find peaceful means to channel their frustration, such as through the ballot box, or the media. If they believe that such means will be distorted, or muffled, then we shall have more of what is ailing the nation at present.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye ( is Fortune's Op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in both directions of print and audiovisual storytelling.

Published on Feb 15,2018 [ Vol 18 ,No 929]



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