Can Malians trust each other?

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.

Sir Paul Collier

Sir Paul Collier

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.

Did the slave trade foster enduring mistrust?

Did the slave trade foster enduring mistrust?

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 north. 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.

Postscript, 4 February 2015: I came across this passage in Why Nations Fail (p. 60): “It might be true today that Africans trust each other less than people in other parts of the world. But this is an outcome of a long history of institutions which have undermined human and property rights in Africa.” In short, the authors believe that mistrust is a product of extractive institutions–not their cause.

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27 Responses to Can Malians trust each other?

  1. Allan MacLeod says:

    Bruce, Thank you again for your insightful and practical articles! Re this one, I am afraid that the optimistic conclusion to the article, that trust may find its way back into Malian society, will unfortunately probably not happen! Ethnic groups don’t trust one another, politicians fuel that mistrust, personal selfishness and desire to succeed at others expense, is so inherent in members of society, that I think mistrust and ill feeling, and even hatred of others–like the rebels of the north against the government and military of the south, will ensure mistrust and even fighting continue! I would like to be optimistic–I am bt nature–but I also understand human nature!

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      A bit of advice, Allan: never make claims about human nature to an anthropologist! Most of what’s commonly understood to be “human nature,” including our species’ predisposition to aggression, or the notion that “different groups fight because they are different,” turns out not to be supported by the evidence. As a result, I tend not to trust people who say they understand human nature.

  2. mckniffj says:

    I’m going to reread this at least a couple more times as it raises so many interesting and complex ideas. Thanks very much for getting the info out to us.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      My blog actually draws a lot of complimentary comments like this one, but they almost always turn out to be spam. A vaguely worded comment that isn’t specific to the post looks suspicious to me. I guess I’m not very trusting!

      • mckniffj says:

        I am a real. A RPCV, retired diplomat, and have commented one other time, when I wasn’t positive. I didn’t make a pithy, specific comment because, as I said, I wanted to reread it a couple of times. I’ll not make you suspicious w complements again. So much for being nice!

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        Please feel free to be nice! It’s just that 98% of the time, when I get comments like yours (“Best thing I’ve read on this blog”), they turn out to be fake, composed by robots that can’t even read, and I have to delete them. So I’m relieved to know that yours were written by an actual person who’s actually read the posts in question!

  3. Amadou Niang says:


    You definitely opened a pandora’s box here. “Trust” is a highly complex and multidimensional construct. The term is often used in a variety of distinct, and not always compatible, ways. Therefore, determination of which society trusts and which one does not may be a tricky enterprise. You believe that it is “easy to find signs of pervasive mistrust” in Mali. I think the American society, despite its success in many areas, is not immune to the pervasiveness of mistrust. Just infuse the discourse of race in any aspect of American life, and mistrust will point its ugly head in every corner. You are right to point out that “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.” Recent polls show that the majority of Americans do not trust their political leaders either. Needless to say that race and class seriously mitigate the trust people have in American courts and the police.

    Of course, I am digressing because you are talking about Mali, not the U.S. Let’s then return to your subject matter. I am not saying there is no mistrust in Mali. I am simply saying the premise that links development to trust and underdevelopment to mistrust may need to be reassessed. To your credit, the Nigerian example in your text is a good start in debunking these myths. I also praise your skepticism about culturalist analysis even though it seems to me your own argument does not escape the culturalist trap.

    Finally, if the humanist philosophies and practices of mɔgɔya, adamadenya, and diatiguiya are important characteristics of the Malian society, your perceived pervasiveness of mistrust reveals a contradiction. In fact, there is an inherent element of trust in mɔgɔya, adamadenya, and diatiguiya. For example, Malians would readily open their homes and hearts to a stranger who shows up at their doorstep. Americans would likely be skeptical of such an uninvited presence because they do not trust strangers. A parent letting his or her child sit on a stranger’s lap in a bus, or anywhere else for that matter, is very unlikely here. Yet one of your followers said this was exactly what happened to her in Mali. I am pretty sure you know her experience is not uncommon at all. Maybe trust and mistrust are two sides of the same coin, and they are both pervasive in every society. Food for thought!

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Thanks for this feedback, Amadou. I’m not entirely sure what my own argument about trust is…. On the one hand, I don’t endorse attempts by Collier, Fukuyama or others to use it as an all-encompassing property of social cohesion, and I’m wary of how the concept seems to lend itself to culturalist analysis; Collier’s discourse on “dysfunctional social models” sounds a lot like Huntington’s discourse on dysfunctional cultures. On the other hand, I do suspect that generalized mistrust, particularly in the absence of strong institutions to ensure fair treatment, poses a significant social problem. As for mɔgɔya, adamadenya, and jatigiya, I know a lot of Malians who think that those qualities just aren’t what they used to be. Maybe the erosion of those values plays into the loss of mutual regard–if such a loss indeed exists.

      • Amadou Niang says:

        I did not mean to say your “argument about trust” because you did not really make one. What you did make is an argument, or perhaps I should say a claim, about the “pervasiveness” of mistrust in Malian society. Interestingly, this claim is dropped in the middle of some crazy social and culturalist analyses around trust. I am glad to know you do not endorse those guys’ ideas. The fact that you used them in a relatively lengthy way without making a real effort to distance yourself could be misleading. That was my concern. Despite some Malians’ belief that our society has lost its fundamental qualities (i.e. mɔgɔya, adamadenya, and jatigiya), you cannot deny those attributes are still observable in Malian society. Therefore, we have a contradiction that invites critical anthropological and sociological analysis.

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        While I think the way Collier and others use trust is misleading and based on erroneous assumptions, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it crazy. As for my remarks about the pervasiveness of mistrust in Mali, I tried (not hard enough, apparently) to qualify them with references to the anecdotal nature of the evidence. At the end of the day I’m just not sure whether mistrust is more pervasive in Mali than, say, in the U.S. or Canada. But I think it’s worth considering the possibility.

        I should also add that I found myself rather distressed by Collier’s latest book. I consider his 2007 book The Bottom Billion a real gem, and in it he goes out of his way to refute culturalist explanations of poverty. “The most depressing reaction” to poverty, he wrote, “is for people to see the [impoverished] society as intrinsically flawed” (p. 85); he contended that poverty has nothing to do with a society’s intrinsic qualities. I’m still trying to reconcile what he wrote back then with his more recent ideas on trust. Is trust intrinsic to society? Should we classify it as “cultural” or not? If we view it as the product of historical, political and economic forces (cf. his citation of the paper on the slave trade), perhaps we should consider it as separate from culture, and as extrinsic to boot. Then again, culture is also a product of historical, political and economic forces… so can any aspect of society be intrinsic at all? As you can see, I’m very far from drawing conclusions. My goal was just to raise some questions.

      • Tieba says:

        Koro Niang, thank you for your clear arguments. I was about to comment but no need after you…

      • Amadou Niang says:


        I wanted to respond to the last comment you made in reaction to my post, but the reply icon did not show at the bottom of your text as it normally would. Therefore, I decided to use this other thread of our conversation to post my response.

        You wrote, “At the end of the day I’m just not sure whether mistrust is more pervasive in Mali than, say, in the U.S. or Canada. But I think it’s worth considering the possibility.”

        We are all entitled to our beliefs and opinions, which, for the most part, are function of our frames of positionality. It is always informative to question those frames when we talk about the “Other.”

  4. Hi Bruce! Nice stuff — really enjoyed how you incorporated the take of other recent books into your analysis. Gonna chime in as a curious linguist here:

    Are you sure that people used the post-position ‘ma’ in the first clause of your Bamanan quote? I would expect it to be “Ne dalen tɛ n yɛrɛ NA, kuma tɛ mɔgɔ wɛrɛ MA” — might be hard to tell but the post-positions actually have different tones (mǎ vs lá/rá/ná) and in general they are not interchangeable. Just curious! Ala k’i sara.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Coleman, I’m truly humbled by your level of knowledge! The short answer to your question is no, I’m not at all sure. The Bailleul dictionary says that the correct postposition for the verb “k’i da” (meaning to trust in something) is “la,” so my “ma” above is apparently mistaken. To be honest, I mix up those postpositions all the time.

      • I ni ce! Yeah, in Jula-speaking BF where it’s frequently a second language there is a lot more variable use of post-positions too. Ni an sera ka ɲɔgɔn faamu, baasi tɛ yan!

    • Amadou Niang says:

      You are about the “Ma,” but the phrase is actually “Ne dalen tɛ n yɛrɛ LA, kuma tɛ mɔgɔ wɛrɛ MA”. “Na” would not make sense in this situation. However, if the speaker is addressing someone directly in the imperative form “Na” would be fine. It would be a contraction of “ne la” in the expression “da ne la” or dan’a which translates “trust me.”

      • Thanks Amadou. In reality it’s one post-position that is phonologically conditioned so “la” and “na” both make sense but one may sound off based off the word that precedes it. In your example “da n na” the post-position is preceded by a nasal “n” and therefore gets realized with a nasal consonant also. In Bruce’s quote I wasn’t sure if it would be produced as “la” or “na” since the head noun is “n” and not “yɛrɛ”. Both “la” and “na” sounded possible to me but I should have gone with your ear or my linguistic training and not my L2 intuitions!

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  6. Dianna Bell says:

    I find Collier so unsatisfying and this particular analysis on trust backwards. Africans lack trust – never mind the hundreds of years of colonization and then re-colonization by corporations. It’s trust! This whole trust shtick leaves me feeling that Collier is working out some personal issues and has pulled Africans into his mess it in a dangerously judgmental way!

    • Amadou Niang says:


      you’d better leave Collier out of this and direct your fire on Bruce. He is the one who brought Collier in to validate his on assumptions. I had some exchanges with him on the subject. I hope those made him think a little bit deeper, but I doubt it. You are peeling off a layer which I decided not to scratch at all. I just asked Bruce to look at his own yard, infuse a dose of race in his assessment of trust/mistrust, apply the measure to America, and then we could talk. He was not interested in doing that. He preferred to believe there was more mistrust in Mali than in the U.S.

      • Dianna Bell says:

        Hi Amadou,

        I don’t think Bruce is so much giving Collier an unequivocal endorsement, as he is exploring what his new theory looks like applied to Mali. Even so, your challenge is fair and one can just look at the headlines: stop-and-frisk and Ferguson peppered with stories on how your refrigerator might kill you. A miracle we have a GDP! The more I think about Collier, the more his latest feels like veiled racism. Really – read a bit of Collier and then turn to Kipling – at least Kipling rhymes!


      • brucewhitehouse says:

        Not sure why you draw these conclusions, Amadou. Your comments really did make me think about these questions in a new way, and I thank you again for posting them.

      • Amadou Niang says:

        My conclusions were based on the fact that you did not seem to budge an inch from your initial assumptions as shown through one of your closing statements: “At the end of the day I’m just not sure whether mistrust is more pervasive in Mali than, say, in the U.S. or Canada. But I think it’s worth considering the possibility..” That said, I am glad to know that our conversation has led you to think about the questions. The point of these exchanges is to pull together diverse perspectives that would help all of us think more about the issues under scrutiny. It is my pleasure to be part of the journey..

  7. Bruce, one of the books you cite says that lack of trust is caused by inequality. Could American society’s lack of trust of its traditional institutions of power (the federal government and wealthy corporations) be due in part from rising economic inequality in the states?

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      The Spirit Level authors cast inequality as a driver of multiple other social ills–mistrust, poor health, etc. I find their argument plausible. So the answer to your question is Yes, rising inequality in the US could be driving lack of public trust toward institutions. But how could one prove such a relationship?

  8. Jens says:

    Even before colonialism, at times more than half of West Africa’s population lived under slavery in various forms. Like under the Songai empire. What kind of ‘trust’ do you assume existed in those days? Was the trust you write about intra-tribal or inter-tribal? Has there at any point in history been a culture of trust between touareg and bambara/songhai etc? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to talk about loyalty rather than trust? Or is this ‘trust’ thing something that started after decoloniazation and disappeared with globalization?
    Just trying to understand what all this is about. Thank you.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      These are very pertinent questions. I suppose part of what you’re asking is what our unit of analysis should be. Here I’m considering Bamako specifically, and Malian society more generally in their present-day forms. Members of these groupings often say that trust obtained within them (which means, inter-ethnically) in the past more than today. If they’re correct, how far back would that period of trust extend? When one looks at the history of the region, one can emphasize the cross-cutting alliances or the factionalization, raiding etc. We should be wary of efforts to idealize the precolonial past (which is a full-time project for a lot of Malians I know, who see “Maliba” as a template for the way things should be). Yet I do wonder whether my Malian friends are right that trust is on a downward trend that goes back, if not over centuries, then at least over generations.

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