Political Trust: Key for Overall Well-Being

Do citizens trust the Ethiopian government? Ask a rational person this question, and their answer would probably be something like ‘yes and no’ or ‘well, it depends’. Perhaps trying to answer such broad a question is apparently futile since, first of all, not all citizens will trust their governments.

Secondly, the notion of trust is so complex that there is no definite line delineating strong public satisfaction from a strong despise or the continuum in between, apart from expressing an overall indication of how confident the average citizen is about the political institutions and the politicians. Not unexpectedly, the state and its political system can at best hope to make as many people happy for as long a time as possible, and there will always be segments of the population complaining, inter alia, about having too small a ‘pie’ (i.e. GDP) or getting an unfair share thereof or both.

One way to get around the level of political trust the Ethiopian government enjoys would be to conduct a comprehensive survey. This has not been done yet to which the prohibitively high cost it requires is reasonably due. Nevertheless, lack of scientific evidence on the level of political (dis)trust should not leave us oblivious of some self-evident trends. In fact, that we do not have a measure and concrete evidence is by itself a significant concern if we recognise the link between political trust and overall socioeconomic well-being.

With the presumption that the level of trust the government can garner is additively determined by how much trust each citizen bestows it, I can look inward and ask myself ‘do I trust the government?’ Again, I can set aside the simple yes or no answer and focus on establishing what it means for me to trust the government and how it affects both of us; the government and me.

Political trust is a multidimensional concept. I prefer to look at it regarding the degree of trustworthiness of the government, on the one hand, and the level of confidence or belief the people have, on the other. Both perspectives are important. Trustworthiness has to do with the characteristics and values of institutions, as gauged against their respective ‘Platonic ideals’. A government that puts the people at the centre of its mandate enjoys more legitimacy.

Listening to the voices of the mass and, relentlessly and selflessly, burning the candle at both ends to ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest mass for as long as possible will likely make a government, an institution or a public service employee not only trustworthy but also a paragon of hope. This being great in and of itself, the level of belief and confidence on the beholder’s side, the public, also matters. Looked at from a much longer run, the emergence of the insatiably critical citizen makes economic performance and democratic culture far from reassuring. Studies show that the level of political trust in industrialised countries has been declining, a phenomenon that proves economic performance alone does not guarantee public satisfaction.

Distrust is contagious. It can germinate in ignorance, just some form of information asymmetry, or misunderstanding. Lack of timely and disinterested public information creates an ideal ground for political distrust. Thirst for public information is to distrust as lack of water is to xerophytic plants that grow in deserts. To the extent that government institutions strive to improve economic conditions and build democratic culture, they should work to win the hearts of those whom they serve. More precisely, trust should be seen, though not only, as an end. I am convinced that entrusting some of the most important variables affecting someone’s welfare to a trustworthy government system brings joy. Above all, however, it reduces a great deal of uncertainty and hence is a means to other, often greater, goals. Viewed this way, political trust results from and in better socioeconomic well-being.

Arguably, the next investor will normally make an assessment of the political atmosphere before they decide on which basket to put their eggs in. The next loyal taxpayer reacts to their conviction on the possibility of their hard earned money being squandered by a corrupt politician. Our finances, education, law and order, compliance and cooperative behaviour are all strongly linked to political trust.

As such, we mindlessly reflect on our degree of satisfaction and level of confidence in the existing political system either directly through our verbal support or indirectly during our decisions based on the rational expectations we form.

Despite the dearth of concrete scientific evidence on public political trust in Ethiopia, I often contemplate about it starting with my level of confidence in the existing system and ask a series of questions. I question whether the rule of law is the norm or an exception. I wonder if key government positions are held, and strategic decisions are passed by authentic representatives of the mass or a few interest groups. I debate whether or not most public servants are likely to be corrupt. And I also probe if a robust mechanism to deter power abuse has been in place and may give a picture of one’s hunch on balance between trust-enhancing and trust-eroding trends.

Without succumbing to the unsolicited claim that politicians are liars, one could easily make a case for how many times they have fallen short of their promises, and make a judgment about whether the promises were genuine, to begin with. To witness a great discrepancy between what a government plans to do and what it delivers is, holding all things constant, not a good way to stay legitimate in the hearts of the public.

It is absurd to hear that the government has sound policies and good plans, but it fails during implementation, for policies, programs, and plans that do not take into consideration the implementation capacity are doomed to fail and thus are not sound and not good enough. At this point, I want to underscore that trust is another channel through which a failed and delayed or allegedly cancelled project directly erodes public well-being and instils a sense of uncertainty and hence indirectly promotes ‘rationally’ irrational behaviour.

Dear reader, do you trust your government? I would like to remind you to take this question seriously and reflect on it, which I usually do. Once you understand how you feel about it, you can then go a step further and meditate on the likely reflections most rational men and women will have if they do the same. I think we are now close to being on the same page.

To the extent that, and although there are several grounds on which each of us would happily confer our support to the existing system, it is also hard to deny that the number of times our innocent, unexamined and herd-like gestures have led us astray is not insignificant. Or say it your way as I may sound a little too optimistic here!

It may be too obvious to warrant a mention here, but the essence of values such as transparency is a part of this inherent interaction between political trust and overall well-being. The government and its institutions in general and the politicians and public servants, in particular, may benefit from being reminded that timely and accurate information quenches public interest both as an end and due to its instrumental role. If you are a politician, please do not lie nor deceive nor put unrealistic goals that end in smoke.

By Aman T. Hailu
Aman T. Hailu is an economist by profession and a thinker with a strong conviction that great ideas matter. He does not have any political affiliation, nor does he want one, as his sole objective is to serve truth by engaging in disinterested discourse. He can be reached at amanthinkth@gmail.com.

Published on May 20,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 890]



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