The missing link: trust building?


Inclusive political settlements between ruling elites as well as constructive relations between citizens and the state are seen as pivotal to peacebuilding and statebuilding, assuming a direct correlation between inclusivity and legitimacy. This idea is well reflected in the New Deal’s Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goal 1 “Legitimate Politics” as well as the Sustainable Development Goals 10 “Reduce Inequality Within and Among Countries“ and 16 “Promote Peaceful and Inclusive Societies”. However, the discussion by and large remains rather narrowly focused on technical questions of institution building thereby underestimating constructive horizontal societal relations. The parallel session therefore discussed the preconditions and features of societal trust, shedding light on its relevance for inclusive and legitimate political settlements and institutions. It was enriched by inputs from Mohamed Farah Hersi (Academy for Peace and Development, Somaliland), Evalyn Monyani (Catholic Diocese of Malindi, Kenya), and Dr. Rüdiger Blumör (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, Sri Lanka) who shared their work experience with the participants of the session.

FriEnt’s Favourites

  • Societal trust is relevant – but yet underestimated – for inclusive and legitimate political settlements and institutions.
  • Terms depicting the process of trust and relationship building are fuzzy.
  • Better conceptualisation and theorising of terms and theories of change is needed.
  • Processes of trust building are multidimensional, long-term and happen at different levels.
  • Trust and relationship building is essentially a localised process and cannot be imposed from the outside.
  • External actors may create conducive environments but challenges remains how to sustain home-grown processes in light of external engagement.


The participants agreed upon the existence of a “missing link” between trust and peacebuilding. Current debates at policy level should therefore regard the “building of societies” as equally important as the “building of states and institutions”. Also at practical level, the strengthening of relational ties between and among individuals and groups should receive more attention by peacebuilders. However, gathering more empirical evidence and lessons learnt to highlight the interferences between trust and peace will remain a challenge.

Lack of conceptualisation

The different thoughts and expectations the various participants of the session had in mind when they were talking about ”trust”, “social cohesion”, “peaceful coexistence”, or “reconciliation” among others highlighted this challenge. They agreed that this was partly due to cultural and public language notions. In addition, a weak theorisation and conceptualisation of the various terms and concepts further adds to the confusion. In practice, this fuzziness often leads to weak and fluid descriptions of strategic goals, intervention strategies and their interlinkages at different levels of society. Improved theories of change and evaluation metrics connecting changes at personal to community and national level are therefore highly needed. Against this background, the session’s title “trust building” was used in a rather generic way to depict the process of strengthening constructive horizontal social relations.

Against the backdrop of three presentations from Kenya, Somaliland and Sri Lanka the evolving discussion mainly focused on two aspects: intervention strategies and levels as well as roles and responsibilities of internal and external actors. The participants highlighted that societal relations can and should be strengthened from various angles. Moreover, different levels of interventions should be linked-up with each other to increase leverage (individual, community, state and institutional level).

Multisectoral approaches at different levels

In her presentation, Evalyn Monyani put special emphasis on the significance of trust building at the individual/interpersonal and community level through trauma work in Kenya’s coastal region. As long as individual psychosocial disruptions remain unaddressed trauma may breed ever new cycles of violence. However, for the work to have positive long-term effects it has to be linked-up with other activities such as income generation and cultural events, thereby bringing different groups together. Furthermore, the local administration has to be on board so that citizens also build up confidence in the state institutions. Her input triggered a discussion on reputation. It was agreed that individual and institutional trustworthiness remains a prerequisite for getting engaged in facilitating any sort of trust building process among the local population.   

Rüdiger Blumör raised the importance of social and cultural representation and identity politics in the education sector. Since distrust is a symptom of (perceived) inequality and misrepresentation schools should be understood as an institutional space for trust building, where pupils, teachers, parents and community leaders work together. The case of Sri Lanka shows that the education sector has significant impact – be it positive or negative – on individual identity creation and the bridging and bonding capabilities of society at large.

The question of different roles and functions of inter- and intra-group dialogues and the right timing and sequencing, respectively, of engagement remained unanswered. Participants agreed that discussions and trust building measures often seem to be “more easily” facilitated between different groups (bridging) than among groups (bonding). Additional light needs to be shed on this aspect in order to support dialogue and to overcome frictions and antagonistic power relations among “quasi” or attributed “homogenous” groups.

Roles and relevance of internal and external actors

The participants agreed that trust building and social covenants are essentially endogenous and politically sensitive long-term processes based on local ideas and concepts. Since distrust may serve as a strategy for survival in conflict times its social function can only be deciphered contextually.

Mohamed Farah Hersi highlighted the significance of autochthone approaches to trust building. In this regard, Somaliland may exemplify the positive impact of limited or lacking external engagement. Whereas the term “reconciliation” with its Christian connotation is often referred to as an outcome of a peacebuilding process, Hersi stated that reconciliation has been the starting point for the country’s peace and statebuilding process. This process is perceived as locally owned by the general public due to the legitimacy of traditional institutions such as the “Guurti” (Upper House of Elders). Today, Somaliland is made up of a complex, yet functional system of hybrid political and judicial institutions. However, the discussions revealed that the further integration and development of “modern” and “traditional” institutions, as sought by the government of Somaliland, remains a challenge. This becomes even more virulent in the wake of growing international support to Somaliland and the looming challenge to sustain traditional and locally grown processes in light of international cooperation involvement and the international community’s expectations for example with regard to human rights.

The case of Sri Lanka, however, supported the argument that external actors may play a role in creating conducive environments for trust building. The drafting and endorsement of the country’s “Education for Social Cohesion” policy was taken as an example. But even though the policy does exist for several years the implementation falls behind expectations of international and human rights actors. The discussion revealed a lack of political will at the national level as one cause. It was therefore agreed that continuous and open dialogue of external and local actors is required to not only achieve a common understanding of terms and concepts but also to test and challenge the political will to support a horizontal and vertical process of relationship building within society.

Bodo Schulze

Dr. Stephanie Schell-Faucon

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