Measuring Jamaica's trust deficit - a retrospective

Published: Sunday | July 22, 2012 Comments 0
Members of the First Battalion of the Jamaica Regiment of the Jamaica Defence Force during the ceremonial opening of the 2012-2013 session of Parliament at Gordon House in Kingston on May 10. Unlike the army, public trust in parliamentarians have been extremely low since the 2000s.-Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer
Members of the First Battalion of the Jamaica Regiment of the Jamaica Defence Force during the ceremonial opening of the 2012-2013 session of Parliament at Gordon House in Kingston on May 10. Unlike the army, public trust in parliamentarians have been extremely low since the 2000s.-Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer

Lawrence A. Powell, world watch

There we sat in a University of the West Indies (UWI) office back in 2006, brainstorming appropriate questions for the first national leadership and governance survey. I can still remember how my colleagues' brows rose, and eyes rolled, when I suggested we include 'trust'. There had been easy agreement on questions about voting habits, party preferences, and attitudes to the economy.

But trust seemed too 'psychological', too 'cultural' to put in a survey of political opinions. There was not enough room for such pedantic questions - they were of little practical consequence and would make the survey too long.

Yet when reviews of the first survey report began to roll in, it was the 'trust findings' that generated the most heat. Claude Robinson, in a February 4, 2007 Observer column, lamented the absence of trust that we had discovered between citizenry and national leaders and institutions:

"Now a group of researchers from the UWI have measured the lack of trust and the data look frightening ... . We neither trust each other nor our government ... . Trust and confidence are key ingredients for building social capital, the 'resource' that comes when people perceive a sense of fairness in their dealings with one another, as well as with the State. Where there is abundant social capital, there is less corruption and more efficiency because people do not have to pay bribes to get things done. Weak social capital formation is a drag on development."


Henley Morgan chimed in from a theological perspective, in another column:

"It is clear from these responses that Jamaicans largely do not trust each other. That's a shame, because as long as that remains the situation there are many things requiring teamwork (for which trust is essential) that we will never be consistently good at ... 'Out of Many, One People' powerfully attests to the fact that without trust there will be division, and a house (or a nation) that is divided or at war with itself cannot stand ... .

"Reversing this malady is not going to be easy, but reverse it we must. Bob Marley admonished us to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. But there can be no freedom without trust." (Observer, February 22, 2007)

And in May 2008, a young minister of education named Andrew Holness, voicing a 'trust' prophecy that would haunt his own party in the following election, enthusiastically wove the findings into one of his early parliamentary speeches:

"Mr Speaker, in a low-trust environment such as the one in which we live, keeping our word is extremely important. A leadership and governance survey carried out by Lawrence Powell, Paul Bourne and Lloyd Waller and published in the book, Probing Jamaica's Political Culture, showed that only 7.4 per cent of respondents could say definitively that they trust people in government ... .

"Oftentimes we overlook the importance of credibility and trust in governance. Lack of trust makes society and social transactions inefficient. It increases the cost of government by forcing governments to spend more on enforcement, instead of benefiting from voluntary compliance. A government that is trusted and credible can get its citizens to change behaviour and cooperate without the need to enforce. Lack of trust increases transaction costs and hinders the formation of social capital.

"It is important, therefore, that the prime minister does everything in his power to increase the level of confidence, credibility and trust in the office and that he sets an example for the rest of the government to follow. In my view he is off to a good start, and I pray that God will give him the strength of will and the wisdom of mind to continue."

The issue faded from the national public discourse for a year or two (though we continued to include it in yearly surveys). Then it returned with a vengeance when the combined 2006, 2007, 2008 annual 'trust' results were announced in the April 7, 2010 Gleaner feature 'Are We Experiencing an Epidemic of Distrust?' Among the findings, traced across three separate national surveys, were that between 83 and 84 per cent of Jamaicans do not trust other people.


It was now clear that this was not just a one-year trend, or caused by measurement error. The percentages were remarkably consistent over the successive years (83.5 per cent in 2006, 83.3 per cent in 2007 and 83.3 per cent in 2008 - in national samples of 1,338, 1,438 and 1,499, respectively). Those agreeing that "most people can be trusted to keep their promises" were only a small minority of Jamaicans, averaging 14 per cent over the three successive years.

Trust in major political and economic institutions was also found to be dangerously low. Only six per cent of Jamaicans said they had "a lot of confidence" in the political parties, only eight per cent expressed confidence in the Parliament, nine per cent in the judiciary, 10 per cent in the government, and seven per cent in the police.

Economic entities did not fare well either, with only 10 per cent saying they had a lot of confidence in the private sector, and nine per cent in companies. This all compared poorly with the more trusted institutions of society - families (58 per cent), schools (52 per cent), universities (50 per cent), and churches (47 per cent). The contrast between the most, and least, 'legitimate' institutions in the eyes of Jamaicans was unmistakable.

The seriousness of the implied 'low social capital' could no longer be ignored, and editorial responses were immediate. Ian Boyne, arguing that the L&G surveys had "hit the nail on the head", wrote:

"Economic arguments, appeals to logic and reason have limited power in a context of appallingly low levels of trust ... . We are at the bottom of the world's trust levels, sharing company with countries such as Burkina Faso, Serbia, Morocco, Colombia and Iran. Powell makes the logical conclusion that this enormous trust deficit is 'likely to present serious impediments to civil society and development efforts in coming years. This, in turn, suggests a need for national strategies that focus more intensively on building social capital within communities as a precondition to any sustained economic development, violent-crime reduction, etc.'

"Powell has hit the nail on the head, and I hope - I really do hope - that the prime minister has taken note and will give every indication of that in his Budget speech shortly. He cannot short-shrift these fundamental issues, focusing narrowly on the economic or social welfare issues ... . Credibility and confidence are big issues. Dudus has not been extradited, but trust has. The prime minister's challenge in his Budget speech is to bring that trust back home. The court of public opinion has already decided that trust should be tried here." (Gleaner, April 11, 2010)


The rest is, of course, history, as the implications of the lost trust became more and more obvious, and inescapable, to an ailing Jamaica Labour Party administration. However, our national surveys showed that this sense of lost trust was generalised - towards government in general, regardless of party.

So it is not surprising that the current prime minister, both on her campaign trail and now in office, has repeatedly found it necessary to symbolically reassure a restive populace with constant invocations of trust phrasings, or that Peter Phillips should find it necessary to openly acknowledge that: "No doubt there's a great trust deficit between the population and the political Establishment, for understandable reasons. We have been in the circumstance of no progress and shattered dreams for so long that many people have become cynical, and that is understandable also."

Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and the former polling director for the Centre for Leadership and Governance at UWI, Mona. Email feedback to and

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