What Is the Link Between Culture and Development?
There is an emerging consensus in policy circles that programs tailored by multilateral agencies have failed in several developing countries. This has led some to conclude that Western models of development are incompatible with the reality of politics in the developing world. Agencies – like the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund frequently encounter criticisms due to policy recommendations. So, are these programs failing because of an inability to incorporate the intricacies of culture?
Talking about culture is unpopular among economists since they claim it’s difficult to measure. But nevertheless, culture is a crucial variable in explaining developmental gaps across countries. When culture presents a barrier to the adoption of growth-enhancing policies, all players suffer in the long-run.
Refusing to confront the challenges of culture out of fear will not elevate the living standards of the poorest in struggling countries. Discussing culture might invite charges of racism and this is detrimental to one’s career, but doing so is necessary, if we are serious about ameliorating living standards in poor countries. Technocrats should approach reforms in developing countries with tenacity by asserting the relevance of culture in hindering and enabling development.
A vexing issue is the matter of corruption. Corruption is argued to be an impediment to economic growth. However, recommending Western institutions to combat corruption in developing countries can pose problems in the absence of a strong civic culture. Civic -minded individuals are less likely to cheat and embrace partisan policies. Demands for accountability are also stronger in rich civic cultures and hence people are unlikely to aid corrupt politicians.
In a tribalistic society, where kinship ties remain vital, there is no guarantee that benchmarking Western institutions will foil the scourge of corruption. Before recommending Western measures to curb corruption, it would be prudent for multilaterals to sponsor campaigns highlighting the benefits of impartiality. Establishing institutions to tame corruption in a low trust environment might just succeed in breeding cynicism.
And in a society marred by tribalism citizens could be justified in thinking that such institutions will be used to target political opponents. Additionally, there is also the possibility that familial commitments can deter bureaucrats from recommending the prosecution of corrupt agents. Based on what we know about the literature on tribalism and corruption - it would be naïve to ignore cultural realities.
Arguably, informing political elites and citizens that the host culture is precluding development can be construed as blaming the victim however, caring about the victim necessitates that technocrats grapple with the macabre realities of culture. Cultural pride is useless when people celebrate beliefs that are unable to sustain economic progress. Anthropologists are free to argue that societies should be judged on culturally determined standards. Some even suggest that if people living in a pre-industrial society are appreciative of their way of life then we have no business telling them to change course.
This response would only make sense in a world where we do not engage in cross-cultural comparisons. It’s quite paradoxical to be saying that people must not be judged by Western guidelines, then complain when the refusal to jettison some practices reduces their living standards. Such is the position of activists who romanticize the unscientific premises of indigenous knowledge and then wonder why indigenous communities are poorer.
Likewise, consider activists who want to close the knowledge gap between Africa and the rest of the world, but are unwilling to admit that the pervasiveness of mysticism in Africa is a threat to the diffusion of scientific knowledge. Too many decision-makers withhold the truth to allay charges of racism and this is indeed unfortunate. Thankfully, the late African scholar Thomas Odhiambo had the integrity to admit that creating a competitive Africa required, not only Western technology, but also updated systems of thinking.
Advertising science in an environment where people continue to ascribe events to magic and are yet to appreciate the concept of natural causation is a mammoth endeavor. Although any scientific revolution to occur in Africa will be heralded by elites – the fact remains that intellectual revolutions are launched by elites and accelerated by the masses. For the innovation to be a continuous affair ordinary must be cognizant of the theories developed by elites. Without this occurring society will always revert to stagnation, because as anthropologist Joseph Henrich submits innovation is a consequence of the potency of the collective brain.
Moreover, contrary to the musings of politically correct academics, suggestive evidence indicates that many in indigenous societies are aware of poverty and hope to change their circumstances. Robert Klitgaard in his first-rate study The Culture and Development Manifesto posits that this is the case citing Tania Murray Li: “For centuries Lauje highlanders had lived in conditions of insecurity as their food production was vulnerable to catastrophic droughts and they struggled to earn enough cash to meet even the most basic needs – salt, kerosene, and clothing. In 1990 they lived in tiny, flimsy bamboo huts; they had little or no access to education; their diets were deficient, and one in three of the children born did not reach adulthood. Far from being romantic about life in the hills, highlanders considered themselves to be poor and wanted to change their situation.”
The evidence for a relationship between culture and development is compelling. So, it is no longer wise for technocrats to design policies without accounting for the nuances of culture or conducting in depth consultations with various stakeholders. Given the importance of culture, technocrats must approach reforms like an anthropologist and implement policies with the rationality of an economist.