Researchers in Otago's Department of Economics are investigating how developing countries might get the maximum benefit from donations of aid.

"We can build roads and hospitals, but getting money to villagers so they can help improve themselves is hard. Giving to governments doesn't always work," says Professor David Fielding.

Finding people who can be relied on to use aid well is difficult, especially in areas where trust is not common in social interaction. This can cause problems, as trust is important for economies to work.

"You can't write a contract for everything," says Fielding, "so we need to be able to trust each other. Low levels of economic development in places like Africa are sometimes attributed to low levels of trust."

PhD student Alvin Etang, supervised by Fielding and Associate Professor Stephen Knowles, has recently completed a study of trust in rural Cameroon.

Etang conducted field experiments to measure levels of trust among villagers who might benefit from direct aid.

Many were involved in Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs) - informal groups enabling contributing members to access larger amounts of money where there are no banks. Members of ROSCAs exhibited significantly higher levels of trust than non-members.

"The level of trust in our study is higher than elsewhere in Africa and higher than in some industrialised countries," says Fielding. "Cameroon may be different because it has a very high incidence of informal cooperative financial schemes.

"There is real economic value in social mechanisms that persuade people to trust each other and this is important for designing economic policy in countries like Cameroon."

The team plans to focus its research closer to home in Samoa, which also has ROSCAlike schemes. Following that, the intention is to study Samoans who have moved to New Zealand.

"It will be interesting to see if principles of trust survive a change of country and, if so, for how long," says Fielding.