Keping tabs? Perceptions of relative deprivation and political trust in Africa

Working paper number: 461
Author: Thomas Isbell
Unit: CSSR


What are the implications of economic inequality for political trust (i.e. trust in government and state institutions)? Political trust forms an important function inrepresentative political systems. On the one hand, political trust facilitates the efficient functioning of government by allowing governments to make day-to-day decisions without consulting the electorate or using coercion (Newton et al., 2018). On the other hand, political trust simplifies complex political processes and reduces monitoring costs for ordinary people. The existing literature has shown that macroeconomic performance (including levels of inequality) and evaluations shape political trust, but the literature has paid little attention, until recently, to the role of individual perceptions and subjective experiences of inequality. However, little research has focused on cases in Africa regarding inequality and political trust.
In this paper, I use Afrobarometer survey data collected from over 40000 respondents in 34 African countries between 2016 and 2018. I use multi-level modelling to demonstrate that perceptions of relative deprivation are significantly associated with less trust in representative government institutions and, more weakly, with less trust in state institutions. The effect for perceptions of relative deprivation remains significant when controlling for macroeconomic conditions and performance evaluations. For trust in representative government institutions, the effect size of relative deprivation is comparable or larger in size to frequently cited covariates of trust, such as location, level of education, and government economic performance, suggesting that perceived relative deprivation is indeed an important covariate of such trust. Feeling relatively advantaged is also significantly associated with more trust in representative government institutions. This may reflect strong neopatrimonial ties between citizens and political agents.
In demonstrating that individual level economic considerations affect political trust in Africa, this paper challenges the conventional wisdom that only macroeconomic factors affect trust.

Publication file:isbel.pdf