As the Malian government and northern rebels prepare for negotiations called for by the “roadmap” recently signed in Algiers, it’s worth asking how much trust exists between the different sides. Afrobarometer survey data collected last December suggests that inter-ethnic trust is low among Malians: 56 percent of respondents said that their views toward other ethnic groups had become less favorable since the latest round of armed conflict began two years earlier. (These findings generally echo those of an October 2013 Oxfam report on post-conflict social relations in northern Mali.) Rebels are loath to grant even a symbolic presence to the Malian state in the territory they control, while in Bamako there is tremendous opposition to the reintegration of former rebels into the national security forces.
It’s also worth asking, though, whether an acute lack of trust afflicts Malian society more generally. The same Afrobarometer survey finds interpersonal trust to be low even among people of the same ethnicity. There’s a common saying in Bamako these days: Ne dalen te ne yɛrɛ ma, kuma te mɔgɔ wɛrɛ ma — “I don’t even trust myself, let alone anyone else.”
Like a lot of outsiders, I find Malians quite sociable and friendly, thanks in part to the quality of mɔgɔya about which I wrote in a post last year. Just beneath the surface of everyday social relations, however, it’s easy to find signs of pervasive mistrust. Malians don’t trust their political leaders, as shown in a 2013 poll. They don’t trust their country’s partners abroad. They don’t trust courts or the police, whom they suspect of subverting justice for personal profit. My most recent fieldwork in Bamako also found significant mistrust between the sexes: many women don’t trust their male partners to be sexually faithful, while many males fear that their women will leave them for men with more money. When you leave your shoes at the mosque entrance, you can never be sure someone won’t steal them. Anecdotally, I often find Malians to be wary of people outside their immediate circle of kin and friends. They frequently assume that others will take advantage of them given the opportunity.
Some prominent scholars see the lack of interpersonal trust as a cause of poverty. In his latest book Exodus: How Migration is Changing our World, Oxford University economist Paul Collier argues that societies with high levels of trust are also more prosperous and effectively governed. High-trust societies, he writes, “are better able to cooperate and also face lower costs of transactions because they are less dependent upon processes of formal enforcement” (p. 32). Such societies are characterized by the presence of what Collier calls “mutual regard” or “benign fellow-feeling” — the sense of a shared identity that makes social safety nets possible. “The bedrock of rational trust,” says Collier, “is knowledge that the society is characterized by mutual regard: because people have some sympathy for each other, it is sensible to presume that a cooperative action will be reciprocated” (p. 62). To have a positive impact on society, people’s trust and mutual regard must extend beyond family, clan, and ethnic group. A lack of trust contributes to what Collier terms “dysfunctional social models,” which foster opportunism and undermine the rule of law. Nigeria is one country with such a dysfunctional model, he claims: “Nigerians radically, deeply, do not trust each other. Opportunism is the result of decades, probably centuries, in which trust would have been quixotic, and it is now ingrained in ordinary behavior” (p. 65).
Collier goes on to argue that migrants from poor countries take their dysfunctional social models with them, thereby lowering levels of trust, cooperation and mutual regard in rich countries. My aim here is not to assess his anti-immigration stance (of which you can find a critique by Michael Clemens and Justin Sandefur published in Foreign Affairs). I will just point out that Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America lists Nigerians — those very same people who radically distrust one another — among eight immigrant groups boasting a “culture of success” in the United States. This is why it pays to be skeptical of culturalist analysis.
But I do wonder whether Collier might be right about the harm that the lack of trust inflicts on poor countries like Mali. If there is a pervasive mistrust in Malian society, what are its origins? A 2011 article in the American Economic Review (cited in Collier’s book) found a close correlation between trust levels and the legacy of the slave trade on the African continent. It seems likely that colonization and subsequent political and economic disruption also had a negative impact on social trust. A Malian friend recently suggested that the liberalization of Mali’s economy in the 1990s led to an erosion of cultural values, including mɔgɔya; now money, not people, is the top-ranking concern. “We don’t have trust anymore in our society, and when we do have it, we put it in the wrong thing,” she told me.
Throughout Africa, poverty goes hand in hand with suspicion and social discord. Life in South African informal settlements, as sociologist Claire Decoteau writes in her 2013 ethnography Ancestors and Antiretrovirals, is marked by “an underlying fear of widespread malevolence and a definite distrust of one’s neighbors” (p. 56). Sometimes this fear takes the form of witchcraft accusations, but it would be a mistake to attribute it to “traditional beliefs.” Many South Africans, not unlike my friend in Bamako, “experience the arrival of ‘development’ with a tremendous sense of loss — of tradition, of solidarity, of a shared sense of culture and identity” (p. 61). Loss, in other words, of what sounds a lot like Collier’s notion of mutual regard.
The lack of trust is correlated with poverty, but what’s the nature of this correlation? Are Malians poor because they’re distrustful, or are they distrustful because they’re poor? What if their mistrust has been heightened by rising inequality within their own society? (Epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, in their book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, argue that high levels of trust are positively correlated with economic equality, and cite evidence that the lack of trust is caused by inequality, not the reverse.)
I don’t know whether there is enough trust to generate a successful outcome for planned peace talks between Mali’s government and rebel factions this year. But I know that trust, and particularly its absence, poses serious problems for Malians of all walks of life today, in the south as in the south. Malians will need time to heal what has been broken — not only by conflict, but by centuries of exploitation. They will need social and state institutions that protect the rights of the vulnerable as well as the powerful. If they can build up and strengthen those institutions, I’m confident that they will develop the mutual regard that many feel they have lost.
Media watch: If you can catch today’s interview with ace Africa correspondent Rukmini Callimachi on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” by all means do so. She discusses her recent New York Times exposé of European ransom payments to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as her reporting on abuses committed by the Malian army in Timbuktu last year.