Posted by: mhirdyounger | January 25, 2013

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Trust

We recently had a panel at EWB’s 2013 National Conference exploring the importance of extension in development. One of the speakers, Torsten Flyng, an extension agent in rural Alberta, spoke of the importance of coffee shops in his work. Coffee shops?? Coffee shops in his community represent a gathering place, where people who trust each other come to catch up. It’s where peer to peer extension happens between farmers that have known each other their whole lives. So if Torsten wants to know what the current agricultural challenges are in his area or how people perceive a new technology, he needs to go to the coffee shops and build that trust with the farmers.

Tosten’s point in talking about coffee shops was about the importance of trust in agricultural extension services. That farmers need to trust the extension agents they work with to listen to their advice and adopt the technologies they are promoting. The role of trust is also a piece of the development puzzle that is often forgotten and underestimated.  It’s a tricky piece to get right, and the benefits aren’t always completely obvious. I would argue, though, that trust is central to having impact in any development initiative. It’s critical for a few reasons:

  1. Honest and critical feedback. Farmers and development partners on the ground, such as agricultural extension agents, are not likely to give you their honest opinion about an initiative if you don’t have trust with them. The development system is incentivized for them to give you positive feedback all the time, so that development organizations will come back with more projects (from which farmers and partner organizations tend to get handouts, fuel money, subsidies, credit, etc.). Trust is one way to circumvent those distorted incentives.
  2. Relevance of your work. Similar to honest and critical feedback, farmers and partners’ input into your initiative is crucial to ensuring that your work is relevant and has tangible impact on the ground. As you are developing an initiative, if you have high trust with your partners they will be honest with you in helping to develop a strategy that will be effective.
  3. Local champions. A key component to project success is having local champions that will go above and beyond to see your strategy through. This is extremely important for sustainability of any initiative, as after the project is gone, it will be the on-the-ground champions that keep up the work and impact for years to come. Change agents exist in every organization around the world, but it takes building a relationship with them for them to trust you and your initiative enough to take the step to champion it.

Development projects that come into communities or organizations for an hour once or twice throughout a project lifespan are unable to understand how that project really fits into the realities and systems  it is impacting. In an hour, you will not be able to truly understand how farmers perceive and uptake what the project is offering, how partners implement it and champion it in their communities. To get critical feedback on the field realities of a project, trust with the actors on the ground is essential.

There are a few ways that I have seen EWB make efforts to build trust in our work, which I have listed below. If you know of other ways from other organizations, please share!

  1. Embedded with local partners. EWBers work embedded with local partner organizations full time. They live in the same communities, sometimes with staff from these organizations. This allows EWBers to start to understand field-level relationships, constraints, incentives and opportunities. We build up trust so that we have open and honest relationships.
  2. Extended village stays. When I first joined EWB I was skeptical of the famous village stays that all our African Programs Staff go on. I thought it sounded like development tourism. But then I went on one. I built meaningful relationships that are still strong.  The insights that I gained during that time could not be replicated other ways and have had an impact on how I do my work. IDEO’s Human Centred Design Toolkit also encourages overnight experiential stays in villages as a way of gaining important insights when doing research with farmers.
  3. Trying to transcend hierarchies. In the development world, power dynamics play a big role in the relationships between targeted populations, development partners and development organizations. Although these power dynamics can be really hard break down, it’s important to be aware of their impact and to work to mitigate them. For example, going to see a project with an extension agent on the back of his or her moto can give you a whole different perspective on their work and reality than if you show up for half an hour in a shiny new pick up truck. It’s a difference in  power dynamics and has an impact on the trust that is possible in that relationship.
  4. Spending time in the field.  Like Torsten’s coffee shops in Alberta, there are places where you can go to interact with the populations that you are targeting. You can go to a farmer’s field and spent the day making yam mounds with them, or sit under a mango tree in the heat of the afternoon. Not just for a half hour, not just for one hour, go and spend a half or whole day wherever the farmers are.
Chatting and getting ready to go to the field on the first day of my first village stay. Bipoa, Ghana

Chatting and getting ready to go to the field on the first day of my first village stay. Bipoa, Ghana

Some may argue that building trust takes too much time, too many resources, is too hard, or will never be possible. But I would argue that any time or resources invested in having relationships built on trust with your targeted population and partners will make up in impact, learning, relevance and effectiveness of your initiatives. You will be taking steps to break down the ‘us and them’ hierarchies that exist in development and be designing and implementing projects that are based on field realities, what farmers actually need and what will have impact on their farms and livelihoods. 



  1. Page 10 talks about the importance in agric market projects.

  2. […] Ask any extension agent, any good extension agent, and they will tell you that they have learned a lot from farmers. Not only do extension agents teach, train and build the capacity of farmers, they also learn from them. And they pass that knowledge onto other farmers, researchers and hopefully policy makers. But this takes an extension agent that has respect and empathy for farmers, their opinions and their understandings of agriculture. It takes extension agents who go out to the field and spend time with farmers.  It takes understanding that so much of extension really depends on good relationships and trust.  […]

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