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Christopher Finnigan

February 27th, 2019

Long Read | Poor governance, trusting citizens: What explains South Asia’s high levels of institutional trust?


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Christopher Finnigan

February 27th, 2019

Long Read | Poor governance, trusting citizens: What explains South Asia’s high levels of institutional trust?


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

It is thought that a low quality of governance and poor levels of institutional performance result in lower levels of institutional trust among citizens. This is not the case however in most non-OECD countries. Looking at Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, Hasan Muhammad Baniamin (University of Bergen), Ishtiaq Jamil (University of Bergen) and Steinar Askvik (University of Bergen) explain how an authoritarian cultural orientation can explain such high levels of trust and what the implications for such conclusions might be for our ideas of governance in South Asia. 

Higher institutional (dis)trust in South Asia: A piece of puzzle

Most literature on institutional performance and the quality of governance argue that lower institutional performance and poor governance generate lower level of institutional trust among citizens. Based on this logic, it is expected that countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) should have higher institutional trust than most of the non-OECD countries. However this is not the case. Taking a comparative approach between these two set of data (as seen in Figure 1 and 2 below) we can see that there are several non-OECD countries which have higher levels of trust in the civil service than that of the OECD countries.

Institutional performance and trust

This performance-trust relationship can be better understood from Figure 3 (below), which includes the Human Development Index (HDI) (measure of performance) by the UNDP and trust in the civil service together. The HDI index includes performance of the different countries in health, education and per capita income. The countries which are in Q2 of Figure 3 have higher institutional trust despite lower institutional performance. The same figure also indicates that in Q2, there are four South Asian countries (Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka) which have higher institutional trust despite poor performance.

As the data of other South Asian countries is not available, we cannot conclude for the other South Asian countries. If this trend was only visible from one survey, then such trust could have been attributed to different survey related problems such as quality of the data, sampling, the reliability of the enumerators etc. However, different surveys carried out at different times by different organisations such as the World Value Survey, Asia-barometer, Afro-barometer, Governance and Trust Survey indicate that there is higher institutional trust despite lower performance and poor governance. The puzzle is, therefore, what explains higher institutional trust among citizens from different South Asian countries despite lower performance and poor governance.

Can an authoritarian cultural orientation or a ‘power distance’ be a possible answer?

To explore this mismatch, we conducted a study in three South Asian countries (Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka) based on a country representative survey (Governance and Trust Survey 2). We found that an authoritarian cultural orientation in each of these three countries contributes to higher trust in the civil service.

What is an authoritarian cultural orientation?

Authoritarian cultural orientation in our study meant unquestioning obedience and dependence on people who have authoritative positions. This authority can be government or those who are working for the government, political leaders, elders, teachers or anyone who has higher social status and ranking. In a hierarchical society, the state and its institutions have symbolic authoritative status. As a result, the relationship between individual and state becomes ‘hierarchical’ rather than ‘reciprocal’.

The logic of institutional performance and quality of governance are based on reciprocal relationships and depend on citizens’ rational calculation, i.e., better performance and higher quality of governance are more likely to generate higher trust and the opposite scenario may be true if the situation is the opposite. However, owing to obedience and greater dependence to authority of the people with higher authoritarian cultural orientation, this calculation may be distorted.

By observing Asian culture, Fukuyama (1998: 1) states that “…people are born not with rights but with duties to a series of hierarchically-arranged authorities, beginning with the family and extending all the way up to the state”. This kind of obedience-based trust may be observed in the relationships between parents-children where trust is a matter of faith and bondage rather than based on any rational criterion such as parents’ financial ability to take care of their children.

Effect of the authoritarian cultural orientation in institutional trust of the South Asian countries and beyond

While our study finds the direct effect of an authoritarian cultural orientation in the trust in civil service of the sample three countries, this study also finds possible mediated effects of this culture through performance variables – that is it can also influence perceived performances of the civil service and then eventually to the level of trust . The study finds that people with this cultural orientation tend to have more positive views and higher ratings on different performance indicators on civil service; for example, the degree of efficiency and promptness.

The findings of the study on the effect of an authoritarian cultural orientation on institutional trust are consistent with other studies on East Asia. Based on the findings of 13 East Asian countries, Ma and Yang (2014) find that such kind of authoritarian culture contributes to higher trust in these countries. In another similar study, Shi (2001) analysed obedience based ‘Chinese mentality’ and found that this can contribute to higher institutional trust. Thus, this kind of authoritarian cultural orientation or power distance culture may function as a pull factor to create higher institutional trust. On the other hand, different studies indicate that the rise of the critical citizens contributes as a push factor to reduce institutional trust in many Western countries. These pull and push factors may provide explanations for the gap in institutional trust between the South Asian and the Western countries (OECD countries). Though, some studies claim that such obedience based trust may wither away in the long run due to the rise of more assertive citizens as shown by a study in China where people generally have higher level of obedience to authority. However, this kind of value change may not be taking place in the immediate future.

Possible implications of authoritarian culture on governance and beyond


From a governance perspective, obedient people oppose less and are beneficial for regime continuity and policy implementation. Some East Asian countries may have benefited from these kind of cultural attributes, particularly with regard to pushing forward massive economic development projects. On the other hand, too much obedience makes people vulnerable to the misuse of the power of authority, and makes it difficult for them to hold authority accountable.

That is why, it is also argued that some forms of distrust are healthy, particularly in countries with weak governance as it can create pressure on authorities. Welzel and Dalton (2017) support this proposition and show that assertive norm is beneficial to foster an accountable government while allegiant norm is supportive for an effective one. They also claim that probably, the Scandinavian countries have a ‘healthy mixture’ of both the attributes as citizens in these countries are both assertive to keep in check the authority but at the same time are allegiant to institutions.

Organisational Management

A paper by Khatri (2009) may be indicative of the possible effects of this cultural orientation on organisational management style. In a high-power distance scenario, decision making, and their implementation may be faster, but the quality can be poorer as it may lack input from the lower level employees. In such an organisation, jobs are narrowly and tightly defined and top management is busy with routine and minor decisions. Communication may mainly take place vertically. Such an organization is prone to unethical behavior as top-level officials do not need to justify their actions. A study by Lian and Ferris (2012) finds that in a high-power distance scenario, subordinates are more tolerant of supervisory mistreatment.

Team Work

A study by Anicich et al. (2014) may indicate team or group level effect of this hierarchical cultural orientation. In their study they found that among the Himalayan mountain climbers (total 30,625 climbers from 56 countries), climbers from countries with a hierarchical culture reach the summit than do climbers form other countries but at the same time, a large number of people from the hierarchical culture die along the way. This, findings indicate both functional and the dysfunctional aspects of hierarchal culture. The functional aspect is to have success in reaching the summit due to increased coordination. On the other hand, the dysfunctional aspect is that the performance is impaired because the concerns and voices of lower-ranking climbers are blocked.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured photo credit: Pexels, Monochrome photography of people shaking hands 814544 (Savvas Stavrinos)

Note: Re Figure 1 Both reference lines are drawn based on median values, and trust in civil service is measured from the data of World Value Survey 6, European Value Study 4 and Governance and Trust Survey 2.

This blog post has been adapted mainly from Mismatch between lower performance and higher trust in the civil service: Can culture provide an explanation? Published in International Political Science Review in January 2019

Hasan Muhammad Baniamin is PhD research fellow at the Department of Administration and Organization Theory, University of Bergen, Norway. @hm_baniamin

Ishtiaq Jamil is Professor at the Department of Administration and Organization Theory, University of Bergen, Norway.

Steinar Askvik is Professor at the Department of Administration and Organization Theory, University of Bergen, Norway.

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Christopher Finnigan

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