I just downloaded a copy of the Global Economic Prospects (2017) report by The World Bank. Not the lightest of reading but interesting for those of us with an interest in international trade.

As you can imagine, it’s an impressive document. Very expensive to produce and with The World Bank logo proudly emblazoned on the cover. But before you get into the report, right up front, is a disclaimer: “…The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this work do not necessarily reflect the views of The World Bank, its Board of Executive Directors, or the governments they represent…”

I’m all for covering one’s arse (what senior manager or business owner has not learnt to do that in their time?), and as a former ad-man I know a weasel word when I see it, especially a legal one, but it raises the issue of ‘who can you trust’?

I had intended to write a note or comment about the report’s contents but instead found myself asking “can we really trust our so-called trusted institutions”?

It’s a question of our political time, but one that’s been familiar to the business community for a long time. A question more relevant to smaller rather than larger businesses, because mistakes for them have a greater impact.

Lack of trust makes smaller businesses risk averse and less likely to step out. Take my area of interest for example (international trade); the UK government is now desperate for our SMEs to take up the challenge of entering new markets. ‘The demand is out there’ they proclaim, but I know for a fact that many SMEs resist the appeal of this potential for growth because they don’t trust the government’s enthusiasm is matched by the availability of practical help i.e. that the help they will need will actually be delivered. Or they think that the way help is delivered will be influenced by the self-interest of those organisations the government chooses to deliver it – often membership organisations or local government quangos – their appointed agents.

First ask what can you trust?

Can you really trust comparison websites? Well it would be more appropriate to ask how gullible are you?

What about the rise of artificial intelligence; would you trust a robot to diagnose your illness, or perform your surgery? My guess is that over time you would, for the simple reason we tend to have faith in machines and mechanical processes.

How about the banks though? 10 years after the big crash has much changed to restore your faith in them? They’re more regulated yes, but are they any less profit oriented or more supportive? I don’t think so; the computer still seems to say no a lot, and there still seems to be an awful lot of ‘products’ being sold.

And what about the government? I’m not sure anyone really trusts ‘them’ largely because the government is a collective of people we don’t trust i.e. politicians. The expenses row will live long in the memory of the electorate.

How does this fit in with The Global Bank? Well, now ask who you can trust? Who, being the operative word. There’s a simple difference between the examples above i.e. people and robots. I think it’s people not organisations we don’t trust and that the root of our distrust is related to the lack of responsibility people in positions of authority and power seem willing to take for the actions (or not) of themselves and the organisations they run.

A robot doesn’t have that problem but a human usually has a vested interest, ranging from self-preservation to personal profit.

The inter-connectivity and inter-dependence of our political and economic institutions; local, national and international, does not help us trust them either. So integrated are they on a human level that they inevitably protect each other and our distrust for one leads to a distrust of them all.

In my opinion, our trust in our institutions is undermined by our distrust of the people running them. And our distrust of the management is a result of them not being willing to take responsibility for their decisions and actions, because they don’t have to. That’s very different to an SME business owner whose neck is generally on the line all the time. They have nowhere to hide and no faceless organisation to hide behind. Here is a key disconnect between the institutions that govern us and control the world we live in, and us minions living and working in it.

It’s sometimes hard to believe that the civil servants, bureaucrats, politicians and familiar faces of the old school networks running these organisations have anything but their own self-interest at heart. There are exceptions I know, but for the majority (I suspect), often quite innocently (perhaps), it’s a case of why rock the boat if you’ve got a first-class cabin on it?

Is the situation going to change? No. Why would it if the people who can change it are the ones who benefit from it? Will our trust in the organisations managing our world improve? No, not without radical and fundamental changes that will never happen; a change in the ‘world order’? I don’ think so!

So, what can we do? We, being ordinary business people who just want to get on with it. Well, my answer is not ‘if you can’t beat them join them’. It’s to create an alternative. Find like-minded people you can trust and join forces. Use independent institutions and organisations that are not self-serving to help you (ones that don’t charge a membership fee is a good clue!). Work with people that you know have relevant experience; who’ve been there, done it and got the t-shirt.

I keep an eye out for such people. I even started such an independent organisation (UK International Trade Service). I and my organisation stand by, and behind, everything we say and do – our reputations are always on the line.

Wouldn’t it be great if the disclaimer on The World Bank report said something like “…The World Bank, its Board of Executive Directors, and the governments they represent, stand by everything said in this report and personally take full responsibility for its content…” Until it does, and every institution’s disclaimer does, they’ll never be trusted.

 

UK International Trade Service www.ukits.org

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