Losing Faith

Do ordinary people trust the world's political and business leaders? Not much, according to a survey released by the World Economic Forum as a prelude to its annual meeting in Switzerland this month.

A global public opinion poll of 15,000 people in 15 countries found that the only leaders trusted by a majority-56 percent-were those heading nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like environmental or social advocacy groups. Leaders at the United Nations and spiritual/religious counselors came next, with 42 percent and 41 percent respectively saying that they trusted them to operate in society's best interests.

These findings are setting the tone for many of the discussions at this year's meeting in Davos, where the conference theme is "building trust." The first of the World Economic Forum's two-part study-a Gallup International poll released last November-found an erosion of public trust in key institutions like parliaments, multinational corporations and national legal systems.

The second part of the survey assessed the role of leaders in the public-trust equation. The key finding: that the public has even less faith in them than in the institutions they lead.

The poll, conducted by Environics International and released this month, also underscored a significant difference between the United States and the rest of the world on faith in the Bush administration. While as many as 75 percent of Americans surveyed said they trusted their government leaders, only 27 percent of respondents from other countries felt the same way about Washington.

This ranking put U.S. leaders at the bottom of the trust stakes, below heads of Western Europe governments, "managers of the global economy" (36 percent each), the managers of national economies (35 percent) and executives of multinational companies (33 percent).

Americans were also most likely to say that their trust in their top politicians had increased following the attacks of September 11. Overall, however, this was a minority view in the Unites States, shared only by some 25 percent of U.S. citizens. About 30 percent said their faith in Washington had decreased since the attacks. By contrast, an average of 40 percent of those surveyed globally reported declining trust in their own government leaders; a mere 10 percent said they trusted them more.

Business leaders fared only marginally better: more than 40 percent of those asked reported decreased trust in executives of domestic companies and 34 percent said the same about executives of multinationals. Americans, presumably disenchanted by the wave of corporate scandals of the past 12 months, were among those most likely to report the greatest decline in trust in both foreign and local captains of industry.

Argentines, besieged by their own economic crises, expressed a similar lack of trust in both foreign and local executives. (Citizens of Russia and Qatar, by contrast, showed the least loss of faith in corporate leaders.)

While wide-ranging global surveys often yield contradictory or murky results, WEF officials believe the message from their poll is anything but. "The magnitude of the public-trust deficit is a worrying and urgent challenge," says WEF communications director Michel Ogrizek. "The fact that leaders are less trusted than their institutions suggests that [they] need to share part of the responsibility in rebuilding trust." For those at the annual meeting, winning over the folks back home may turn out to be a greater challenge than impressing their fellow movers and shakers in Davos.