Published On: April 13, 2021

The Chief Executive of the British Red Cross, Mike Adamson, writes for the NPC about the importance of building trust in order to strengthen relationships.


‘The people when rightly and fully trusted will return the trust.’ Abraham Lincoln

In this age of fake news, ‘alternative facts’ and distrust of authorities, trust is paramount.

Trust is a vital ingredient for preparedness work. Without it, you can forget strategies, fora and plans. It’s human relationships and bonds of faith – between people and organisations – that will ultimately determine how we all work together to prepare for and respond to emergencies.

So how do we get it? And once we have it, how we do we keep it?

People talk about building trust. And it does have be built. It takes work. It needs solid foundations. It’s cemented by actions and creating meaningful relationships with communities. The work is continuous – we should never take trust for granted.

Trust is something we know about at the Red Cross. The organisation was formed over 150 years ago to assist wounded soldiers of all sides in the aftermath of the battle of Solferino. From this grew the Geneva Conventions, the wider humanitarian remit of the Red Cross Movement, and our fundamental principles. Sometimes, I think back to those founding days, what it must been like for the wounded soldiers and local villagers who treated them, regardless of factions. Did they trust each other? Did this medical care, given solely because people needed it, establish a bond of trust and understanding that lasted beyond that interaction?

Today, trust is key to our work with communities, emergency services and the NHS. We look after the humanitarian needs of people during police anti-trafficking and anti-slavery operations. Survivors, who may be scared of authorities, know we are neutral, and there only for them and their care. We are re able to work with ‘high intensity users’ of A&E services, where people struggling with other aspects of their lives end up presenting at hospital multiple times. By establishing trust, we can work with people to understand what they are facing and find solutions.

Even so, we continually work to build understanding and trust. It’s not enough to rely on our past or even current work. One of the key learnings from our Grenfell Tower response in 2017 was the need to have a much better understanding and connection with communities and grassroots groups.

An outcome is our community resilience programme, supported by Aviva. This programme, which grew from an initial project funded by NESTA, currently runs in six London boroughs. It works by engaging with residents and local groups to look at what people need in emergencies. Together we consider current resources, how to work together, and co-production of community-led assessments and toolkits. We also help link this work with emergency planning units in local authorities, so together we can develop and expand the role of communities in preparing, responding and recovering from emergencies. Since September, we’ve held 33 community-led workshops, reaching out to 183 groups and over 375 people across the six boroughs.

True co-creation requires listening – to what people need, how they want to be involved, how often they want to be updated. It also requires respect through active learning and adaptations of plans. We’ve reached out beyond the ‘usual suspects’ to recruit people who represent the wider community. These Community Resilience Advocate volunteers often have lived experience of an emergency, or want to develop skills within the sector. The programme provides mentoring to build knowledge and understanding wherever needed. It takes time to build strong relationships but the results are worth it.

We’ve seen the benefits to this groundwork. Groups involved in the pilot in Barking and Dagenham had already mapped local assets ahead of Covid-19. Being able to share that knowledge, have groups take active roles within community hubs, and join local authority meetings have helped integrate the response with the community.

It’s worth remembering that groups who work specifically with marginalised communities already face pressures. Any partnership must be beneficial to them and avoid placing additional strain. With the Voluntary Sector Community and Emergencies Partnership we commissioned research at the start of 2021 looking at the needs of such groups in Leeds and Bradford, and have identified a number of steps that should be taken to build trust and confidence in working together by investing in relationships and connections.

Doing the work in advance – preparing the preparedness, if you like – pays off when emergencies hit, and beyond. If communities are involved from the beginning, they will be part of the response through every stage: preparation, response, recovery and learning. That’s what will make responses truly ‘people-centred’. This continued involvement is one of the key recommendations that came from our 2019 report, People Power in Emergencies. The upcoming development of a national resilience strategy and the review of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 are real opportunities to connect across sectors to create the conditions for better outcomes for people in emergencies.

It sounds like a challenge. But it starts with trust. From there we can work together to build and share insight, access and capacity. All aspects of a successful emergency response spring from those key relationships.

Covid-19 has spotlighted issues of trust beyond the usual realms of emergency response. Take vaccine hesitancy. How do we build those relationships and work together when the problem is mostly situated in the virtual world? Our recent research showed that family conversations, not big institutions, are the best way to increase confidence in the vaccine. We’ve developed tools to enable friends and families to have those conversations. By putting the skills in their hands, we are contributing to this relationship of trust: we will provide with the best information and advice, and we know that you are best placed to have this conversation.

Ultimately, the only way we will beat this virus – and face any future emergency – is by working hand-in-hand together.

See BRC website here.

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