Trust and Legitimacy: the Intel Chip of Societies?



Around the world we are witnessing social contracts being redrafted or in many cases rewritten. Turn on the news and you are pretty much guaranteed to see a headline about elections, constitutions, governments rising, governments falling, or popular protests.

The confrontation of differing interests, ideas and agendas – aka conflict – is inherent to social and political life. Conflict can play a positive role in social dynamics as a driving force of innovation and change. However, it becomes a destructive force when it results in violence and coercion.

So how can people and societies manage conflict without violence? What is the key to making relationships between people, and people and their governments, work?

There are many factors: some are tangible; others are not.

Two of the most important factors we need to pay more attention to are trust and legitimacy. Trust is the magic ingredient that makes relationships work between people and groups in society and their political institutions and economies. Legitimacy, in particular of political institutions, means that people in the ability of political institutions to perform their functions for the common good.

Given the complexity of our world, how can we build more trust and legitimacy? The key is to focus equal attention not only on what is done but on how it is being done.The process matters. For example, a constitution that is defined in a back-door closed room will have a lot less legitimacy than a constitution process that involves people.

We need to focus not only on the goal of building inclusive societies, but also on the path and process that leads us there. Equally important is ensuring that institutions and governance systems correspond to the needs and aspirations of people. Priorities and governance models need to be determined locally and, to be sustainable, these models need to be inclusive and founded on trust and legitimacy.

Trust and legitimacy are a bit like the Intel-processing systems of a computer. The Intel chip makes the whole computer work. You can’t see it, but if there is a problem with it, your whole computer is in trouble.

Sarah Noble is committed to social change with a passion for conflict prevention and peace-building. She is currently Chief of Staff and Director of External Relations at Interpeace and a Global Shaper in the Geneva hub. Sarah is one of 27 Global Shapers attending the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, North Africa and Eurasia taking place this week in Istanbul, Turkey.