Working together to build social trust

Working together to build social trust


Two people talking at the Impact Fellowships Summit.

Dear friends of IREX:

Social distrust accelerates as it accumulates. When institutions fail to deliver, citizens judge them with mounting harshness. When leaders act unethically, citizens grow suspicious of future leaders even when they try to do the right thing. When disinformation proliferates, citizens view all information skeptically. When citizens wall themselves off from others who are unlike them, their guardedness amplifies over time.

This cascading social distrust has consequences. Research shows that governing becomes harder, markets become less efficient, and prosperity is weaker and less inclusive. Trust even influences our health. A recent report of 23 countries shows that countries with higher social trust have done better in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Countries with low social trust did worse.

This year the world will begin to emerge from a devastating pandemic with far-reaching repercussions. For the first time since 1998 there will be a rise in global poverty, forcing as many as 150 million people into living on less than $1.90 per day. Nearly half of the world’s 3.3 billion global workers are at risk of losing their jobs. School closures have affected more than 90% of students worldwide, 51% of whom believe that their education will be permanently delayed. The pandemic has contributed to widespread social unrest, which will only increase in countries where COVID has resulted in growing inequality.

Despite these challenges, there is an opportunity for societies globally to eventually emerge from this devastation stronger, with a new sense of possibility. They could also falter, unleashing compounding threats to us all.

How can we seize this moment to rebuild and avoid worst case scenarios? For societies globally, a successful recovery will hinge on: 

And, cutting across all of these, there is the issue of trust.

At IREX we believe that if enough of us pull in the same direction, progress can be made on each of these fronts: The future can be better.

Capable and ethical leaders

In a world characterized by interlocking crises, leaders who serve their communities capably and ethically are in high demand and limited supply. But, currently, societies globally are plagued by a lack of meaningful social inclusion and a distrust of those in power, across sectors. To reverse this trend, the world needs to invest quickly in developing dynamic leaders who can be networked to work together to achieve greater impact.

Drawing on our IREX approach to cultivating leaders for just, prosperous, inclusive societies, we strive to address this global leadership deficit by equipping leaders with the tools necessary to catalyze positive change. In the last year alone:

  • The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, a program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, rolled out a suite of virtual programming to Fellows focused on leading in a crisis and leading in a changing paradigm. This programming reached participants from all 49 sub-Saharan African countries. 92% of these participants reported that they honed new skills that supported their leadership development.
  • In our first year implementing the U.S. Department of State’s Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) Program, we designed a virtual experience for 255 entrepreneurs from 34 countries—90% of whom reported greater confidence in developing a long-term contingency plan for their business afterward.
  • In October, IREX convened the Impact Fellowships Summit for the second time, in partnership with the Schusterman Family Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Names & Faces, and Submittable. The virtual summit convened more than 70 organizations across the U.S. and globally to learn, share, and network to improve the impact of their own fellowship programs—which in turn benefit thousands of leaders.

Inclusive institutions that effectively serve the public good

The most important determinant of trust in institutions is how well they do their jobs. Without effective and efficient institutions that deliver tangible results to citizens, distrust continues to percolate. Institutions globally—whether governmental, educational, private sector, or otherwise—will need to focus on becoming more effective, accountable, and responsive to the populations they serve.

IREX continues to partner with governing, educational, and civic institutions to better serve their constituents and deliver results:

  • With support from the Ford Foundation, we launched a COVID-19 Dashboard in Kenya to promote government accountability during the pandemic. The open data dashboard tracks resources allocated to addressing COVID—including source of funding, funds mobilized, type of funding, activities funded, modality of assistance, and location of implementation—to identify trends and gaps in Kenya's response effort.
  • Effective decision making requires an ability to synthesize and interpret data, a skill critical in moments of crisis, such as a global pandemic. IREX’s data-informed decision-making trainings continue to equip young leaders and government officials with the skills they need to make informed choices based on data and evidence, and to communicate these decisions effectively. After just two days of training, 69% of participants reported an increase in their skills for data-informed decision making, and 36% of participants improved their data interpretation skills.  
  • Through the USAID-funded Comunitatea Mea program, IREX builds local government’s capacity to meet citizens’ needs in Moldova and assists over 200,000 citizens in 20 communities to meaningfully engage in local governance. As just one example, the program has so far supported 17 partner communities in organizing public hearings on drafting budgets. Out of those communities, nine had never organized public hearings before.

Expanded opportunities through education, engagement, and employment

The convergence of multiple crises has exposed the depths of global inequality, taking a wrecking ball to social trust. To address global inequities in opportunity, there must be a concerted global investment in educational, economic, and employment gains in communities worldwide to ensure that opportunities reach members of society.

Last year, IREX worked with educators and governments globally to increase opportunities for education, engagement, and employment at scale:

  • In post-ISIS areas of Iraq, IREX cultivated a network of 200 “Education for Coexistence” educators from different religious and ethnic backgrounds as teacher leaders trained in the use of teaching strategies that provide social and emotional support to conflict-affected students. This network of educators applied these teaching strategies to create inclusive classrooms, and address trauma, for over 7,000 students.
  • IREX also worked with universities across Iraq and a network of 47 career development centers to launch the first-ever virtual Career Preparation Academy and first virtual micro-internship program in Iraq. These initiatives provided professional development opportunities for youth across Iraq, 91% of whom noted that the experience equipped them with valuable skills for their future careers, and 97% of whom recommended the opportunity to other students.
  • As part of the Training Educators for Excellence project funded by the Millennium Challenge Account in Georgia, IREX supported the Republic of Georgia’s Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport to introduce the country’s first nationwide, locally developed, online teacher training, helping to prepare more than 14,000 teachers and school administrators to use teaching and school management practices that improve student learning in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and English.
  • IREX continued to work with a global network of over 4,000 educators who are on the frontlines of teaching students during the pandemic. We know that investing in educators has a significant ripple effect—one year’s investment in educators through the U.S. Department of State’s Fulbright Teacher Exchanges, for instance, reaches over 75,000 students and will reach over 1.5 million students over the course of the educators’ careers.

Resilience to disinformation

In the past year, the world has confronted the dangerous effects of rampant disinformation. False information about the origins of the COVID pandemic, the legitimacy of several elections, and so much more spread relentlessly on social media. Disinformation threatens social trust and cohesion; it also has the potential to lead to civic unrest and even violence. More than ever, people across societies need the skills to identify disinformation to resist manipulation.

IREX continues to vigorously advance our commitment to helping people build the skills to combat disinformation:

  • In 2020, IREX’s flagship media literacy program, Learn to Discern (L2D), expanded both geographically and in scope. We added programs in Georgia, Guatemala, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Sri Lanka. We also added partnerships with universities, created new youth-friendly ways of building resilience to disinformation skills, and countered COVID-19 misinformation.
  • Our impact increased as well. In Jordan, for example, participants from across 11 of the country’s 12 governorates who were trained by their peers experienced a 55% improvement in skills to assess media and information; and in Ukraine, where the L2D in Education program in Ukraine is equipping over 50,000 students with critical information consumption skills, high schoolers showed a 29% improvement in their ability to assess and analyze media and distinguish between fact-based reporting and disinformation.
  • IREX collaborated with the RAND Corporation on a rigorous test, a randomized controlled trial entitled “Russian Propaganda Hits its Mark,” which showed that news consumers are less likely to spread Kremlin disinformation after IREX’s media literacy intervention. Crucially, it also showed that brief media literacy interventions had the strongest effects on partisan news consumers. With less than two minutes of exposure to media literacy messaging on social media, partisan right and partisan left social media users were 8%–17% less likely to “like” a Kremlin disinformation meme.

Active efforts to bridge divides

Societies globally are experiencing growing polarization that obstructs progress and contributes to widespread distrust, and sometimes even violence. It is therefore vital to foster understanding between social groups and to promote respect and tolerance.

Through exchange and dialogue, IREX bridges divides and helps people and communities find new solutions to shared challenges:

  • After a year of participation in the Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge, a virtual exchange initiative funded by the Stevens Initiative that supports workforce development in the U.S., Iraq, and Jordan, 88% of MENA students and 80% of U.S. students strengthened cross-cultural communication skills, and 73% of MENA students and 60% of U.S. students positively changed pre-existing stereotypes.
  • In 2020 the U.S. Department of State’s Global UGRAD-Pakistan program, implemented by IREX, celebrated a decade of supporting more than 2,000 emerging leaders from across Pakistan with the publication of a ten-year impact evaluation. The results indicate that Global UGRAD-Pakistan participants are strengthening their leadership skills and confidence; actively engaging in community service both during and after their U.S. experience; developing essential professional skills; and building relationships that result in positive perception change about America and Americans.
  • IREX proudly became the Ford Foundation’s learning and evaluation partner for its new Global Fellowship Program. IREX’s work will generate a body of evidence on how fellows impact social justice and the underlying drivers of inequality at both the individual and network levels, as well as on the role of the philanthropic sector in facilitating or catalyzing that change.

Engaged and empowered youth who will shape our collective future

Currently 1.2 billion strong, the global youth population is at its highest level in human history. It has not peaked yet. These young people carry unprecedented power to promote economic growth, good governance, social justice, and support for democratic values. Many are ready to lead now. But they must be empowered economically, politically, and socially. They need education, skills, and networks of support.

To further invest in youth globally, IREX has capitalized on its youth approach to expand its youth programming through five new major youth-focused programs:

  • IREX’s largest program ever at $38m, the USAID-funded Ukraine UNITY program is focused on collaborating with and supporting young Ukrainians as they define their own national identity and future. By 2025, UNITY will engage over one million diverse Ukrainian youth to lead normative, behavioral, and institutional change in support of common values of human rights, democratic principles, and equity.
  • After vigorous competition, IREX was selected to lead the USAID-funded Youth Excel program, which will empower young people and youth organizations to use implementation research to strengthen local, national, and global development solutions and facilitate collaboration between key development stakeholders, including public, private, and civil society actors.  
  • The State Department-funded Community Engagement Exchange program, which will prepare the next generation of civil society leaders in over 100 countries to assume greater leadership roles in their institutions and communities.  
  • Finally, the CYLA (Cohesion Through Youth-Led Action) program—funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations—through which IREX will build the capacity and social capital of young people to foster the integration of internally displaced youth in Ukraine, increase community cohesion, and contribute to local and national integration plans.

Put plainly, social trust matters. It is the grease in the social machine that enables people to work together and comply with laws, tolerate different views, and support their neighbors. Without this trust, the division, unrest, and violence of the past year will continue to compound and amplify, further splintering society and setting back economic and social progress. This is the challenge that leaders and institutions face in the coming months. We must rise to this challenge and help reverse the vicious cycle of distrust by catalyzing positive change and impactful solutions.

At IREX, we believe that a better world is possible, and that social trust can be restored. We want to partner with organizations, institutions, and leaders around the world who are committed to implementing solutions that will make a tangible difference in people's lives. We want to work together to create a world that is more just, prosperous, and inclusive for all. Please join us.


With thanks for all you do and best wishes to all for the new year,

Signature that says Kristin M. Lord.

Kristin M. Lord
President and CEO