Opening Plenary: Drawing a picture of change and opportunity



Patrice Schneider, Chief Strategy Officer, Media Development Investment Fund

Keynote speaker:
Baroness Onora O’Neill of Bengarve, Philosopher and Chair of the UK Government Equality and Human Rights Commission

Marine Bressand, Head of the “Fonds du 11 janvier”, French Foundation Centre
Goran Jeras, Cooperative Manager, Cooperative for Ethical Banking
Róża Thun, Member of the European Parliament

EuroPhilantopics was opened with a moving performance by Het Gevolg, a Flemish theatre company based in Turnhout, Belgium that produces cutting edge performances from participatory workshops engaging those people often marginalised within their communities. Sparked by the theme of “trust”, the piece expressed the performers’ own relationships with trust – physical and emotional barriers were evoked through slow movements and personalised statements that recalled physical and mental barriers being overcome by trusting relationships.

Trustworthiness is what matters

Following the performance, moderator Patrice Schneider welcomed participants and applauded the conference’s thematic choice commenting that the notion of trust was critical – the zeitgeist of our time. Following Schneider’s introduction, the first plenary speaker Baroness Onora O’Neill opened with an astute comment of just six words: “Trust matters but trustworthiness matters more”. For Baroness O’Neill, a focus on trust alone is a mistake – well directed trust is what we must search for and discrimination is necessary. Her criteria for trustworthiness was threefold – competency, honesty and reliability, the qualities to gain trust. Speaking of polls measuring a supposed loss of trust, Baroness O’Neill was wary, suggesting trust measured this way has always been low and is useful only when measuring reputation. Rather, we must make trustworthiness intelligible and assessable, and leave seldom revealing polls behind.

Every day we rely on trusting relationships with doctors, teachers, retailers – and though we might be critical we rely on politicians and journalists. Yet maximising trust is not a matter of not making errors, but rather failing to correct them. This is not to simplify, because what we are required to trust is complex, often with multiple layers of regulation in place, leading us to the question how do we proceed to trust when we can’t assess for ourselves? Finding trustworthy intermediaries is not an easy task – but easier if we are aware of the interests of these intermediaries. Furthermore, while transparency may be fashionable – it alone will not produce more trust … in fact it can have the opposite effect. Putting information into the public domain is one thing, but effectively communicating it is another. For Baroness Onora O’Neill, if you have trustworthiness, trust will follow.

Building trust is a sustained, living process

To Marine Bressand, trust belongs to the realm of feelings, not the state; building trust is a sustained, living process. Ms Bressand runs the “Fonds du 11 janvier’’, which was set up when philanthropy actors came together after the Charlie Hebdo attacks to promote collective action and citizen mobilisation. One way the ‘’Fonds du 11 janvier’’ has made an impact is through a programme aimed at preventing vulnerable students between the ages of 13 and 14 from dropping out of school. The organisation is funding workshops where the children can work with artists and psychologists at their school but away from the classroom setting. This successful scheme is now being replicated in several areas.

Banking based on trust

Next we heard from Goran Jeras who set up eBanka, a cooperative bank in Croatia, using a new model of banking with the hope to restore trust in finance. Mr Jeras’s trust in the widespread modern model of banking was destroyed after working in finance in the Netherlands. The experience made him fundamentally question today’s financial systems. After all, the whole concept of a bank in the beginning was based on trust as saving unions promoted collective power. Money was lent to people who did not have it, trusting that it would be paid back. Today, the opposite is true – from the outset one’s relationship with a bank is about distrust as a person cannot get a loan without putting up collateral. In any case today banks are largely uninterested in loans, their focus is on financial products, a kind of lotto where money is a claim on a value, not on the value itself. The financial crisis uncovered the extent and consequences of this large-scale gambling by the big banks.

Disillusioned with his job, Mr Jeras returned to Croatia, a country where 96% of banks are foreign and commercially owned. Pooling funds, he set up eBank, which is owned by the community, transparent and financially, economically and ecologically viable. The bank is inclusive and built on trust. Mr Jeras believes this small-scale local banking can be relevant for others, and so all the software he is developing for this bank is open source.

A dialogue that furthers understanding

‘’Politics should be full of trust,” said Róża Thun, a Polish politician and member of the European Parliament and one of just two politicians in Poland to endorse a pro-refugee policy. For her, the 130,000 people who gave her their vote represent the greatest example of trust. Though a trusted politician, Ms Thun emphasised it is not possible for her to trust all who come to meet her at the European Parliament – discrimination is needed when meeting with a lobbyist trying to convince her of the necessary consumption of tobacco.

Turning to her recent experience with refugee quotas, Ms Thun emphasised that, though part of political groups, politicians must sometimes act alone in support of their beliefs, as she did with her stance on the refugee crisis. She admits that her position on this may negatively affect the support of her 130,000 voters. For her, trust is about finding a balance between control and transparency, and this requires constant dialogue. She highlighted foundations’ role in supporting this, by providing a responsible centre ground bolstered by valuable experience.

Ms Thun closed with a poignant anecdote: During a recent taxi trip in Brussels she spoke to the driver, a man left distraught after his two Belgian-born sons, one of which was a minor, had fled and joined Isis in Syria. This personal experience provoked her to ask – where did we fail? And how do we ensure we enter into serious dialogue with other cultures?