Trust is absolutely fundamental to any community-based work. Whenever I am asked about our own projects, I always cite a good trust relationship with the communities we support as fundamental to our successes, and indeed building that trust relationship is one of the things I am proudest of*, even though it is usually the subsequent achievements which we end up trumpeting more.
Trust is vital if you want to bring about social change, whether it is wearing condoms during sex or looking after your local environment. In particular communities need to be able to trust that:
- You are there for the long haul. They are, but are you?
- You will come back when they need help, not just when you decide to plan a visit.
- You will listen to their concerns, and adapt your plans to fit with them.
- You are on their side.
It’s not quite unconditional love, but the parallels with good parenting are obvious. Work in the poor, remote rural communities in which we work inevitable has a strong tinge of paternalism, however much one might shy away from the implications of such a relationship. That said, when I come across failed community projects, a common underlying factor is that the relationship with target communities combines all the negative aspects of paternalism without any of the positive elements of a mutual trust relationship listed above. In particular, projects whose primary field staff are government workers often seem to fall into this trap.
In tropical conservation and development work one always starts as an outsider. It is thus critical that before you can really move the dial on any of the issues that brought you to a particular community in the first place, you must first bridge that gap with a solid trust relationship. Where, perhaps for political or religious reasons, that gap is especially hard to bridge, consider finding an appropriate intermediary who can. This is not just about hiring local staff, but presenting an acceptable institutional face, and may require aid organisations to cut back on their usual copious and prominent display of logos.
In my next two posts I will talk about other significant trust relationships in the aid industry: with donors and with local government. These work in substantially different ways, and also contribute to successful project delivery, but fall far behind, in my own estimation, the absolute central importance of the trust relationship with your beneficiaries. If you work on getting one thing absolutely right in your project, make it that one, and you have a good chance of succeeding.
* Most of the credit, however, belongs with our field staff.