Building back better with stockpiles of trust and social capital


By Liv Tørres, Director of the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies

With nearly 5.5 million confirmed cases globally and over 340,000 deaths so far, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit us hard. Moreover, we are becoming acutely aware that the socio-economic and political crises hurtling towards us all in the aftermath of COVID-19 will be enormous. Each day, this threat is growing.

The pandemic came as a shock to most of us. It still sometimes feels like a bad dream. Yet with the realization that this is the reality we are living, comes the awareness of how unprepared we all were. We had been told about the risks of pandemics for years, but did we prepare? No. We didn’t really think it was going to happen. There were always more urgent matters. And whilst some may have thought about the actual stockpiles and preparedness plans we would need for a pandemic, most of us didn’t really spend much time thinking about the less tangible elements needed as part of the plan: collectivity, togetherness, trust, leadership, civil society, and social capital.

There is a lot of talk about the need to build back better. Such goals are admirable and ambitious, but are they realistic? Before lockdowns have been lifted in many countries, money is running out, as is people’s patience. Billions of jobs are affected; millions lost forever. Acute hunger is set to double globally. Inequality is increasing, likely both within and between countries. The virus may be in-discriminatory, but its effects are not. There are vast differences between, on the one hand, the “misery” of the elite struggling in their mansions, and on the other hand, the true drama being played out for the unemployed or low-paid workers living in small homes in townships, squatter camps and poor suburbs in developing countries, Europe, and the US. Inequalities were stark even before the virus hit, and they are growing worse during the pandemic. The gender gap is widening even before lockdowns across the world have been lifted. Xenophobia is increasing in several countries. Polarization and anger are similarly on the rise.

So, how can we build back better with less money, less cooperation, weaker institutions and more tension? With investments in leadership, trust and social capital. It will not be easy. Change will not come swiftly. But we have no choice. We have to invest in what really builds resilience and sustainability and where the best indicator of success is. Investments must be made in people’s trust in their leaders; in their trust in governments and institutions; in their belief of what their leaders and institutions say. Only then can we expect people to cooperate, to follow their leaders’ rules, appeals and recommendations. Only then can we truly expect people — in nations across the globe — to behave like a collective and to help each other. Only then can we truly expect anger against elites to quell, and growing social unrest in so many parts of the world to quiet. Only then will we be truly — and confidently — prepared for the next crisis or pandemic.

Lockdown measures have become an integral tool in the fight against COVID-19, especially for those countries short on stockpiles of health equipment and systems. The French School of Public Health estimates that one month of lockdown prevents around 60,000 deaths. But lockdowns also come at a high cost, adversely affecting economies, employment and incomes, food systems, mental health, and increasing the potential for civil unrest. South Korea contained the virus with a lower level of closures. Scandinavian countries, Germany and a few other countries had similar stockpiles of trust that helped carry them through the crisis and reduced costly lockdown and quarantine measures. There are clear indications, in fact, that the countries managing best in this crisis have relied on a combination of well-stocked and organized health systems and equipment, social protection, good leadership and communication, as well as massive amounts of social capital and trust.

Trust in leaders, in institutions and in each other, is altogether a crucial part of what we often refer to as social capital. Social capital is simply speaking a shared sense of identity, norms and values. We know that it delivers more well-functioning societies, more innovation, better economic performance, as well as better health outcomes. And we are increasingly seeing that social capital is also making crisis management much easier. Communities with a strong sense of trust are better able to respond to crises. Trust is paramount in order to disseminate critical information and fact-based recommendations. And trust is critical in order to follow those guidelines. Investing in trust has good returns.

(UN Photo / Logan Abassi)

Unfortunately, social capital and trust are not ‘things’ you can just pull down from the shelf or buy in a shop. They are hard-earned building blocks of society, and not a cheap or quick fix. Trust in institutions and leadership depend on how and what those institutions and leaders deliver. We know that it depends on whether people believe that the resources they get are distributed fairly. And on whether or not people believe the information they hear. We also know that trust and support increases when governments and institutions promote values and deliver on goals like peace, justice, inclusion and equality. And we know that trust increases support for leaders and institutions, influences election results, and that the lack of it can topple governments. Building it is no quick fix, but what is built today will yield some returns in the short-term, and even more in the long-term. The way leaders communicate and act now, will determine how they are rated in the long-term, and how they fare in elections to come.

It may be argued that leaders in many places have failed badly in preparing for this pandemic. Warnings signs were evident for years, but across the board, governments made meager investments in supplies, stockpiles, and preparedness plans. Going forward, we need to build collective trust that governments can do better; that they can prepare for crises and simultaneously invest in policies and actions that promote peace, justice, inclusion and equality. If we do this right, with candid, fact-based messages, we will be able to build trust, manage the current crisis and simultaneously prepare for the recovery. If not, we will be entering into truly uncertain and dangerous terrain with new cycles of social unrest and collective violence.

Building social capital is not just up to governments. Yet, governments do carry a particular responsibility. One of leadership, of choosing trust-building strategies and facts over political rhetoric, of looking after those who need it most, and designing optimal responses to crises based on these decisions. We expect institutions and organizations to deliver on their promises and behave responsibly. We expect governments to make it possible for us to feel safe, to give us honest information, to have our most pressing economic needs catered to. Investments in peace, inclusion and justice will be worth it. Change may not come swiftly, but it will help to build up resilience and coping mechanisms, along with a cost-effective and powerful path forward.

Many institutions are working impressively despite immense stress during this pandemic. Mayors and governors are taking action, exploring innovative solutions to protect their most vulnerable populations. Thousands of community leaders from churches, mosques, trade unions, students, professionals, neighborhoods, and grassroots organizations and foundations are rising to the occasion. Many Pathfinder countries are taking a lead in addressing the needs of frontline workers and the most vulnerable populations, promoting inclusion, justice, equality and peace. And in many countries, trust in governments has increased, reflecting how well some governments have managed the crisis. All of these efforts are building up the social capital we need in order to steer us through this crisis and the next.

With trust and social capital, along with robust preparedness plans and stockpiles of medical equipment and social protection, we may not need lockdowns when the next pandemic hits. Nothing is impossible when political will is aligned with popular support. But in order to build that social capital, support and trust, we need more leadership and more focus on peace, justice and equality, not less.