Standard Bank Chair in African Trust Infrastructures

Keith Breckenridge, November 2022

WISER is pleased to announce a new, long-term research project into African Trust Infrastructures.  With generous support from Standard Bank we will be hosting a new doctoral research programme examining the development of digital population registration systems, and their effects on institutions. 


What is trust?

Trust is widely used across disciplines as an analytical explanation, yet it is often poorly specified and analysed. As the global Covid-19 crisis shows, trust has become a common policy short-hand that is used to account for many disparate problems and outcomes: some societies are firmly classified as being “high-trust,” others as “low-trust,” and many – the US most famously – are drifting from being high to becoming low-trust countries. The argument that we are currently experiencing a collapse of institutional trust – in the wake of the automated outrage of social media, of continuous anti-corruption inquiries, and the relentless drama of the Internet news cycle – is intriguingly ubiquitous, affecting even the wealthiest countries.

The most influential arguments in this tradition, which stress the positive benefits of trust (over Beck’s idea of caustically reflexive risk), derive from the branch of American political science that is associated principally with Fukuyama, Putnam and Banfield. For Fukuyama, in short, trust is the ether that allows social capital to escape the confines of the family. These explanations have an essentialist (and circular) logic – attributing unchanging cultural micro-institutions of trust to racially defined groups that, in turn, determine prosperity and success. (There is a distinct hermeneutic sociology of the functions of trust, see Möllering, Luhmann) More recently, economists, like Nunn, have presented similar arguments about ethnicity in African economic history and politics – linking differentiated histories of slavery with the levels of trust expressed by survey samples based on ethnicity. These economists are probably on the right track in exploring the effects of the slave trade in undermining the development of trust in African societies, but this work wildly oversimplifies a complex and long-running problem (not the least of which is the inadequacy of ethnicity as an analytical category.)

A much more promising line investigating social trust comes from the scholarship of early modern finance, especially in Britain and the Netherlands. Here, scholars like Banner, Carruthers, Muldrew and Roseveare -- provoked by the North and Weingast discovery of the magic sauce of 17th-century British institutional change -- examine the political effects of financial obligations through the issuing of private and public debts, parliamentary tax reforms, and the courts. What emerges is a politicised transformation of trust, with new parliamentary controls over the issuing of debts, spending, and taxation. This mesh of debts, interest payments, taxation, deferred settlement, and war gave elites, as Carruthers notes, “vested interest in the financial stability of the nouveau regime.” While they disagree about the novelty and basic workings of the late 17th-century debt markets, all would endorse North’s claim that confidence in “secure contracting across time and space” was the key to unlocking economic prosperity in western Europe. Work on the Netherlands shows a very similar institutional transformation. It is also, of course, important to notice that the meticulously documented property and collateral forms of slavery and the slave trade were instrumental, as Inikori has shown, to the development of the institutions of public debt in both places.  Over three centuries the classes formed around these financial markets and assets in London, especially, as Cain and Hopkins have shown, drove the project of global empire.

Historians have also examined trust away from the immediate problems of financial obligation. The most influential and, in our contemporary case, important, is Porter’s Trust in Numbers: a history of the 20th century rise to authority of statistical thinking, in business, government, and science. Porter shows that democratic mistrust of the personal, expert authority of the professions and of the bureaucrats drove the turn to public, quantitative, and inductive measures of decision-making in France, Britain, and the United States. Mostly following Porter, historians, sociologists and officials (Rottenburg, Jerven, Serra, Lehohli) stress the intractable difficulties of building trusted statistical infrastructures on the African continent in the absence of democratic governance, formalised finance, and proprietary titles.

Tribal trusts in property, as Capps has shown, took a particularly Orwellian form under colonial rule by transferring full control over land to the state while registering title in the name of the chief. The tribal trust created a “universitas personarum - a corporate entity or ‘individual’ with the jural capacity to acquire property rights, enter contracts, and incur obligations via the office of its chief.” This nexus of ethnicity, chiefly authority and popular access to land has had powerful effects on the way that land holding works to structure societies and conflict in the present (see Boone, Lund). In most countries, Land-holding now functions as the only trusted resource available to many families. 

The absence of trust has powerfully paradoxical institutional consequences. It encourages the enforcement and spread of the audit culture of rigid rule-keeping that blocks the flexibility necessary to solve problems. This kafkaesque trap, in turn, further undermines trust, either through despair or through the conscious subversion of bureaucratic rules. A similar contradiction is clear in finance. Since the global financial crisis, scholars have emphasised the devastating effects of the public liabilities triggered by automation and scaling of banks’ risk tools – leading to an explosion of regulatory requirements, unanticipated collateral dependencies, and more elaborate subversions. 

Trust is open to wide inter-disciplinary investigation and thoughtful enquiry, including in the literary humanities. Unlike many of the other key categories of our social science, it is globally tractable, encouraging careful comparative study of Europe, Latin America, Asia. Africans have arguably endured the crisis of trust longer and more continuously than others, but the problem is certainly not specific to this continent.

What are trust infrastructures?

Today, this term is used primarily for the digital identification and transaction-recording networks and databases that are being implemented in many countries, but with particular energy in the former colonial world. These are organised around a combination of biometric identification, encrypted authentication, and centralised payment switches distributed on the Internet. Examples include India’s Aadhaar identification and authentication database and Unified Payments Interface; Ghana’s Ghipps and E-Zwich cards; Rwanda’s single digital identity implementation; Kenya’s Huduma Number; and South Africa’s Home Affairs National Identification System. These systems are shaped by the capacities and weaknesses of each state’s and society’s institutional and political history. Nigeria has long been attempting to build a similar system – bedevilled by administrative troubles and conflict between its banks and MTN (the South African mobile network operator). Ethiopia, with its long history of bitter conflict over communal recognitions and rights, has announced that its new Fayda programme will adopt a pure version of Aadhaar’s identification-without-citizenship model, coinciding with the issuing of a commercial network licence to Safaricom. Few of these infrastructures work smoothly, but they have already changed the basic features of many states and economies on the continent, and they have ambitions to do much more. Aadhaar, which acts as a model and agent in the design of the African systems, now acts as a repository for secure educational credentials. In these plans, the idea that the new identification systems can build societal trust – reversing the flow of reliable investment from extraversion to introversion, from offshore to onshore – is key to their operations. Many of these plans for engineering trust echo the enthusiasm for distributed democratic technologies that has contributed to the interest in distributed ledgers, like Bitcoin, with the important difference that centralised, state-issued and owned credentials are central to all of the African projects.

Are there analog trust infrastructures?

The well-understood limits and failures of digital systems should immediately cause us to ask whether other distributed systems might better be considered as effective trust infrastructures. The most visible answer, common outside of the African continent, has been the administrative network for Civil Registration and Vital Statistics, that served to prove identity, the most potent kinship relationships, and many entitlements (especially inherited property). Over the last decade these two information systems – the CRVS being paper-based and widely distributed, and Digital ID, electronic and centralised – have often been cast as bitter competitors. (See interview with Pali Lehohla, much work by Jaap van der Straaten). Leaving aside whether these two identification infrastructures work as competitors or accomplices, both function as the informational foundation of other trust infrastructures – of deeds registers, debt obligations, government and private bonds, taxes, and all redistributive entitlements. Few of these secondary infrastructures currently function well in African states, largely because the foundational CRVS information layer is so incomplete.

In place of the nation-state, historians and economists have examined trust systems that function through the more constrained networks of family, ethnicity, and religion. Islamic traders, especially, have acted as key agents of long-distance trust networks for centuries. Economic historians have documented forms of obligation and indebtedness that were common across the continent before colonial overrule – especially forms of pawning and other kinds of unpaid labour fiercely proscribed in the early 20th century. Formal trust, it is fair to say, was thoroughly racialised on the continent by the 1920s, with the long-term institutional benefits of the meticulous contracts, collateral, and financing of the slave trade carefully centralised in the metropolitan capitals, especially in London. Smuts and Lugard worked from opposite ends of the continent – with the intellectual encouragement of Malinowskian anthropology – to prohibit the enforcing of debt contracts for African customers, and (as Rodney long ago observed) their access to formal finance. Given the current and future size of African populations, especially in the cities, the key question we face today is whether the backlog of trust, and the effects of new social media technologies of suspicion, can be addressed by automated systems. In most cases, it must be conceded, the chances of meaningful immediate success are slim. Yet it is also important to acknowledge that the policy-makers’ current building of infrastructures of digital identification, credit worthiness, and automated payments marks an impressive moment of institutional decolonisation, targeting the core sources of institutional weakness generated by centuries of extraversion.

What is the Trust Crisis?

Failures of trust are increasingly global, linked to failures in the automation of risk and decision-making and the global spread of networked markets from the early 1990s. The continuous media cycle, the decline of editing, and the automation of attention-seeking, especially since 2007, has produced a parallel international crisis of confidence in institutions, especially in democracies. This is mostly a new phenomenon for the wealthiest societies, where the interlocking infrastructures of parliamentary representation, taxation, bond markets, and property rights produced economies of trust that drove growth and general prosperity. African economies contributed to the development of these trust infrastructures in Western Europe, in particular, through the meticulous property forms of the slave trade. During the colonial period the continent’s exports were critical (especially in moments of crisis) in sustaining metropolitan institutions of trust. On the African continent, the specific forms of colonial administration have left economies with few of the key infrastructures of trust: most societies lack effective systems of civil registration, formal contract law, local bond markets, land titling, trusts and probate, distributed transport systems, or equitable and reciprocal forms of taxation. Internal violence and coercion, which have often shredded infrastructures of trust, have been powerful consequences of the slave trade, colonial governance and the authoritarianism that was encouraged by the Cold War. It is no accident that the offshoring of accumulation remains a central feature of all African economies.

Offshored legal trusts reflect and exacerbate these problems. Many economies that are the direct beneficiaries of African extraversion — the tax havens of the Caribbean, the island of Manhattan and the City of London — use locally-legal trust instruments to funnel resources from the continent. By separating beneficial entitlement to assets from legal title, private trusts work to prevent states from accessing and taxing the capital accumulation of the rich.

What is to be done?

Under the pressure of the continent’s demography, these inherited failures have begun to change rapidly as states, firms, and individuals move to adopt the new technologies of identification, mobile finance, virtual assets and other digital remedies to informational weakness. These successes – often startling and promising – also carry new risks that may yet endanger the development of infrastructures of trust. Digital identification credentials can, for example, draw inflexible and unjust boundaries through human populations that trigger disorder. They can also permanently encode older forms of tribal, ethnic, religious or racial affiliation that foster ongoing conflict. They can and do generate massive new domestic financial rents that may trigger struggles over established political settlements. The same points can be made of the increasing successes of fiscal state-building across the continent. African states are learning to tax effectively – but how they should spend their new earnings is far from settled. In each case, public awareness of what strengthens and what may weaken infrastructures of trust is imperative to securing long-term benefits from new, technologically driven developments in population registration, finance and taxation. 

Trust needs to be articulated as both a private and public resource – related to, but distinct from social capital, which most often functions as a private asset. 

Scholars know a great deal now about the automation of risk — and, especially, about the dangers of scale and correlation in financial markets. Research on infrastructures of trust is, everywhere, still at an early stage, notwithstanding its widely recognised importance. This research must examine the work of distributed professional agents (like notaries, bankers, and lawyers), but also of local regulators, especially where they have been successful. In each context it must explore the effects on performance in finance, fairness, and reciprocation in tax, the related political work of public and private debts, of institutional and organisational accountability and editorial responsibility in the media. Each of these themes has been developed internationally, mostly without examining the problem of trust as a social resource, and always without interest in the African continent. The problems of institutional and infrastructural weakness on this continent give the study of trust particular salience, but these are not distinctively African problems; the politics of African trust infrastructures have global effects. We have a great deal already invested in this problem, and we have much to offer the international debate on the determinants of trust.

Fellowships :  Call for Applications

Doctoral Student Fellowships

Post-Doctoral Fellowships


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