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26 Dec, 2010

“Global Trust Index” Needed to Bridge the Global Trust Deficit

Originally Published: 26 December 2010

Exactly five years ago next month, the World Economic Forum released the results of a global survey that sought feedback on the level of trust enjoyed by public figures, including politicians and business leaders.

Carried out in preparation for the January 2006 WEF caucus in Davos, the survey was the first time it had ventured into the area of monitoring trust. It was the result of interviews with almost 50,000 people in over 60 countries in Nov-Dec 2005.

Some of its key statements are worth recalling. In a press release dated 17 January 2006, the WEF said the “Voice of the People” survey made “grim reading” for the world’s leaders, particularly its politicians.

“Around the world, survey respondents overwhelmingly found that political leaders are dishonest, have too much power and are too easily influenced, “it said. “The survey also finds that business leaders are widely held in better esteem than their political counterparts whose credibility appears to be declining. While business leaders around the world consistently have a better image than political leaders, significant proportions still criticize both sets of leaders on different criteria, with dishonesty being heavily associated with political leaders.”

Peter Torreele, Managing Director of the WEF was quoted as saying, “As the participants meet in Davos, it is important that they take into account the hopes and fears of a wider population and incorporate them into their discussions — and decisions. In a world where trust in leaders is declining, the Forum can make a very real difference in reconnecting the world and preparing people from all sectors of society to tackle shared problems.”

That was in 2006. What would the results be like today? Would the level of global trust have risen or fallen?

The answer will never be known because the WEF never made the monitoring of trust an annual affair. Its surveys have tracked other issues such as corruption, climate change or poverty alleviation but never trust — perhaps because the results would have been too embarrassing for the glitterati who attend these global forums.

As the WikiLeaks cables have proved, the biggest loss of trust comes when leaders do not practise what they preach, lie to the public and try to fool all the people all the time. In the second decade of this 21st century, beginning next week, the key issue for emerging world powers and the young generation will be to rebuild trust in leadership, and monitor it regularly.

No country has squandered its “trust advantage” more than the U.S., whose steady decline in global respect, trust and influence is equivalent to the decline in the value of its currency and its national economy.

The trillions of dollars wasted on the “war on terror” has sapped the country financially, mentally, spiritually and psychologically. It is no longer considered a vanguard of freedom and democracy, champion of transparency and accountability, slayer of cronyism and corruption.

This decline in trust is also because Mr Obama , the change-you-can-believe-in president, has delivered precious little change. I was among the few journalists who did not exult in his election. Promising change comes easy for politicians; delivering on the promises is an entirely different matter.

As the world’s second largest democracy fades, the focus will shift to the world’s largest democracy, the emerging power of India which, eventually, will also be judged by the standards it sets and adheres to. There is hope, especially if it learns from the mistakes of the U.S.

A cantankerous democracy, India has both a large population of young people as well multiple security issues. Two weeks ago, an uproar broke out when Rahul Gandhi, one of its emerging young leaders, was quoted in a WikiLeaks cable as saying that Hindu extremists are as much a danger to India as other extremists. As he came under fire from the Hindu ideologue political parties for putting them into the same camp as Islamic extremists, Rahul Gandhi’s mother Sonia, head of the mainstream Congress Party, rose to his defence.

This is what she said at the start of annual Congress Party caucus on Dec 18, “The Congress Party makes no distinction between organisations of the majority and of the minority communities who indulge in communalism and related acts of terrorism. They are all dangerous, they must all be defeated. An India that loses its secular moorings no longer remains the India our founding fathers and great leaders fought for and even gave their lives for. As Congressmen and women, it is our sacred duty to honour, protect and promote the secular ideal and always fearlessly practice it.”

If that sounds just like another politician mouthing catch-phrases, here’s what makes her words different. Mrs Gandhi’s husband Rajiv, who was also Rahul Gandhi’s father, was blown up by Tamil Tiger terrorists. Her mother-in-law, and Rahul’s grandmother, Indira, was assassinated by a Sikh terrorist. Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were prime ministers of India at the time of their deaths.

Another Gandhi namesake, the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi (no relation to the Gandhi family mentioned above) was gunned down by a Hindu terrorist named Nathuram Godse.

Pakistan, the current “terrorist” bogeyman in India, had nothing to do with any of the above killings. So when Mrs Sonia Gandhi says that all extremists and terrorists are of the same hue, regarding of their religious inclinations, she is pinpointing an important and undeniable fact, one with deeply personal links. Her son, an aspiring Indian leader, agrees.

Will India take the lead in making that all-terrorists-are-the-same policy a global standard? Remains to be seen. Because a few years down the road, it will certainly be judged on that score.

Perhaps the greatest trust deficit is in the leadership of the Islamic world, another emerging power bloc. The reason is simple. The Islamic world is united on the issue of Palestine but apart from making thundering speeches and issuing meaningless resolutions, it does nothing on the ground to gain statehood for the Palestinians.

In the last month or so, recognition of a Palestinian state has come from Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, all non-Islamic countries. So, why don’t Islamic countries follow suit in strength?

Perhaps the ambassador of an Islamic country can write to Postbag in response to that question.

Indeed, the huge gap between what Arab/Islamic leaders say and do on Palestine defies all rational explanation. This is where the WikiLeaks cables come in. One of them may uncover the truth and identify the backdoor deals which have been cut to ensure that the Islamic countries remain silent. That will only worsen the leadership trust deficit in the Islamic world.

George Gallup, the founder of the Gallup Organisation, which does the Voice of the People Survey for the World Economic Forum is quoted as saying in February 1981, the year his polling company was launched: “The right to speak out vigorously on governmental and corporate policies is one of the most staunchly defended freedoms of the Western World. The advent of modern public opinion polls, dealing as they do with important political, social and economic issues of the day help to provide an opportunity to let government officials, public and private institutions, and the public itself know where the people stand on these issues.”

That is what the world badly needs – not another competitiveness index, or stock market index, or human development index but a survey pegged to a trust-in-leadership index. Only then will leaders really deliver on their promises.