Trust in humanitarian action

Nick van Praag, Louise Maranda & Emma Pritchard • 9 December 2019

Source: ICRC


Aid cannot succeed without the trust of everyone involved,1 argues Hugo Slim, head of policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross. But what does trust in humanitarian action really mean, and how can we do a better job of fostering trust in the field? Interviews with 7,000 people across seven countries in Ground Truth Solutions’ Humanitarian Voice Index2 offer some clues. 

When we ask affected people whether they trust aid providers to act in their best interests, we get an overwhelmingly positive result (see Fig. 1). Across our multi-country sample, some 70 percent of respondents consistently say they trust aid providers. 

Fig. 1: Do you trust aid providers to act in your best interest?

On the face of it, this seems encouraging – if it weren’t for the fact that those same people’s answers to other questions addressing the quality, accountability, and outcomes of aid were much less rosy. We have tended to explain away this seeming contradiction as the result of “courtesy bias”. That may play a part, but we were never completely satisfied with this explanation. Revisiting the data in the Humanitarian Voice Index and reviewing theories of trust, another explanation suggests itself: one that stems from the vulnerability of affected people caught up in the unequal power dynamics of the humanitarian space. Trust between people requires vulnerability to the possibility that trust can be broken.3 The greater the power imbalance, the greater the vulnerability. People affected by crisis, who are dependent on support to meet their basic human needs, compensate for this uncertainty and anxiety by hoping that they won’t be let down.4 In other words, our trust question gets at hope much more than it does at trust.

Trust and outcomes

Most people caught up in a humanitarian response hope for nothing better than support in standing on their own feet. This is their desired outcome and delivering on it is a litmus test of trust. So, to try to understand more about the roots of trust itself, we asked them whether they believe that the aid they receive will help them to live without aid in the future.

Fig. 2: Do you believe the aid you receive will help you to live without aid in the future?

Here the responses are a lot less positive (see Fig. 2), with more than 50 percent of respondents saying that the actions of aid providers will not enable them to achieve self-reliance in the future.

To determine what might influence affected people’s  views on achieving the self-reliance they hope for, we looked at the way they respond on aspects of aid provision that might influence their views on this issue. These are: access to information, participation in decision-making, fairness of aid provision, people’s physical safety, and the relevance of the aid they receive in meeting their priority needs – all core themes for humanitarian actors.5 

The associations are stronger for some questions than others (see Fig. 3). People who feel informed about available aid or believe they are able to participate in decision-making are one and a half times more likely to believe they will be able live without aid in the future. While the “odds ratios” between responses to these two questions and the question on outcomes are positive, only half of the respondents feel informed about the aid available to them, and considerably fewer believe they are able to participate in decisions that influence their lives  

Fig. 3: Odds ratios and outcomes

The fairness of aid provision is also a factor strongly associated with outcomes. People who believe aid goes to those who need it most are nearly twice as likely to feel that they will be able to live without aid in the future. In Bangladesh and Lebanon, they are four times as likely to believe this. However, only 43 percent of all respondents across the seven-country sample feel that aid is actually provided equitably.

In contrast, responses to questions about safety show little relationship to people’s belief in positive outcomes. Somalia is an exception; people there are three times as likely to feel that they will be able to live without aid in the future if they feel safe in their everyday lives. But overall, the odds ratios are low, meaning there is little association between a sense of safety and outcomes – perhaps because safety is influenced by many factors beyond the control of aid providers.

The relevance of aid in meeting people’s needs has the strongest overall relationship to people’s sense of outcomes. People who feel that current aid meets their needs are nearly 5 times as likely to feel that it will help them to live without aid in the future, rising to 13 times as likely in Afghanistan. With humanitarian aid focusing primarily on immediate and pressing needs, there is no obvious link to providing what is necessary to become self-reliant. However, when affected people trust an aid provider’s ability to meet short-term needs, they are more likely to trust their ability to support longer-term outcomes. This striking correlation is itself a concern when 75 percent of the 7,000 respondents say that aid does not meet their most pressing needs.

Looking forward

The contrasting responses of affected people to what we initially considered a question on trust and their views on likely outcomes suggests the triumph of hope over experience. If, like a brand, a bond of trust is a promise kept, then the data suggests that making aid more participatory, enhancing the provision of information, improving fairness, and doing a better job of meeting needs will have a dramatic impact on perceptions about the outcomes of humanitarian intervention. This, in turn, can only strengthen the relationship of trust between the supplier and the receiver of aid.


End notes

[1]    Hugo Slim, “Trust me, I’m a Humanitarian”, Humanitarian Law and Policy, IFRC Blogs, 24 October 2019.

[2]    The Humanitarian Voice Index is a database that combines the data from all of Ground Truth Solutions’ major perceptual surveys since 2017. We use this data to analyse the state and trajectory of the humanitarian system from the perspectives of affected people. Currently the Index contains the perceptions of over 20,000 respondents from 12 countries. This project is made possible by the generous support of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

[3]    Barbalet, Jack, “A Characterization of Trust, and Its Consequences”, Theory and Society, vol. 31 no. 4, Special Issue: Emotion and Rationality in Economic Life (July 2009), pp. 367–382

[4]    Schilke, Oliver, Martin Reimann, and Karen S. Cook, “Power decreases trust in social exchange”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 112 no. 42 (20 October 2015), pp. 12950–12955.

[5]     See the Grand Bargain.

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