Society for Cultural Anthropology
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
“Our world is suffering from a bad case of trust deficit disorder,” the United Nations Secretary General recently warned the global community. For decades, trust has been a central tenet of foreign aid, resting on the notions that pervasive mistrust is a barrier to development and that trust-building will foster the right kind of social relations for development. This paper, however, argues that mistrust is actually productive – even fundamental – to the workings of development relationships between the government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This paper draws on fifteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Ghana, a country that explicitly articulates “mutual trust” as a key factor for national development and has been called a “success story” of good governance. I examine the everyday bureaucratic and interpersonal practices through which NGOs work to maintain mistrust in order to sustain their mandate of holding government accountable for development. While participatory good governance approaches call for increasingly trust-based relationships, NGOs’ credibility rests on upholding scepticism and mistrust. Even the relatively sparse anthropological literature on trust tends to posit it as an unqualified good (with notable exceptions, e.g., Carey 2017). This paper instead looks at what trust and mistrust do: how they are experienced affectively, but also how they become objects of knowledge that are produced, contested, and bartered through development programs. By moving away from approaches that take trust at face value as a disinterested social good, this research aims to explore how mistrust may be productive within processes of accountability and participation.