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Tom Mboya Responds to Acumen Fund’s Lesson #9 – There is no currency like trust, and there are no shortcuts to earning it

Acumen Fund is committed to sharing the learnings we have collected over our past 10 years. In this spirit, we have published  a document called 10 Things We’ve Learned About Tackling Global Poverty.” Each week on the Acumen Fund Blog, we will be posting the next lesson in this series of “10 Things,” along with a guest response from a valued member of our community.

9. There is no currency like trust, and there are no short cuts to earning it

The notion of trust is relative. Relative in that it means different things to different people, and there is no telling what it will take to earn the trust of another. To poor and marginalized communities, trust can be something of a foreign concept: a notion rarely experienced in life, a luxury of those who are blessed with good fortune. Consider an environment where safety and security are not guaranteed, where kinship is based solely on a shared set of circumstances, where disillusionment and a feeling of being disenfranchised are the order of the day. Circumstances such as these decrease the value of human life, and are far from a conducive atmosphere for fostering trust.

Sadly, there is no precise formula to earning trust. Yes, it takes time, but time alone does not guarantee trust.  There is no manual, spelling out the “10 Steps to Earning Trust,” and if there is, don’t believe a word of it! Again, trust is relative: easily given by some, jealously guarded by others. So while I may not be able to articulate how to earn trust, I have a fairly good idea where to begin: simply listen!

Listen, as one narrates the challenges they face in life, their deepest fears, or their greatest aspirations. Really listen: not as one might to a stranger on a bus or train, knowing you are unlikely to meet again; but as you would to a dear friend, catching up after being separated for years. Listening dignifies the person telling their story, and it validates their sentiments.

I am fortunate to work within an organization where I work with underprivileged young people, with whom I would not have an occasion to meet ordinarily. Working with these young people has been one of the most profound learning experiences of my life. Coming from a middle class background, one would be forgiven for assuming that I would have little in common with young people who have grown up in informal settlements. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though in the beginning interactions can be awkward, tense, and even uncomfortable, I have found that the act of going back time after time and creating numerous interactions around various activities has taught us that, in fact, we’re not that different. Over time, we develop understanding: an appreciation for the circumstances of another’s life, a sense of why people are the way they are or do the things they do. That understanding eventually breeds trust. I can’t say for certain whether all the young people I have encountered have come to trust me. What I can say with conviction is that listening has paved the way to trust. With every passing day, and every encounter, a greater level of understanding is achieved —a milestone on the road to trust.

The interesting thing about trust is that it may not be something we consciously and actively seek out. It is not a goal or priority that we set for ourselves as we begin each day; however, if we are to be truly honest, it is something that we are engaged in a constant struggle to achieve, and never really knowing if—or when—we have fully earned it.  The importance of trust in any relationship, transaction, or interaction cannot be overstated: establishing trust, regardless of how time consuming or onerous a task it may prove to be, is the most worthwhile investment one can possibly make. Simply put, without trust, there is nothing.


Tom Mboya is a governance and anti-corruption specialist with Ni Sisi!, a nationwide movement uniting Kenyans to form a collective identity to drive transformation in leadership and maisha. Check out his blog here.

Click here for the full “10 Things We’ve Learned About Tackling Global Poverty.”


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