Culture Matters

Culture Matters

Mini Teaser: As unacceptable as the notion is to many in a relativistic age, culture is a--if not the--determining factor in the economic progress of countries.

by Author(s): Lawrence E. Harrison

The decades-old war on poverty and authoritarianism in the poor
countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America has produced more
disappointment and frustration than it has victories. The deprivation
and despair that prevailed in the mid-twentieth century persist in
most of these countries, even a decade after capitalism's ideological
triumph over socialism. Where democratically elected chiefs of state
have displaced traditional authoritarian regimes, a pattern most
notable in Latin America, the experiments are fragile, and
"democracy" often means little more than periodic elections.

What explains the persistence of poverty and authoritarianism? Why
have they proven so intractable? Why have no countries in Africa,
Asia and Latin America other than the East Asian dragons made their
way into the elite group of affluent countries? The conventional
diagnoses that have been offered during the past half
century--exploitation, imperialism, education and know-how
shortfalls, lack of opportunity, lack of capital, inadequate markets,
weak institutions--are demonstrably inadequate. The crucial element
that has been largely ignored is the cultural: that is to say, values
and attitudes that stand in the way of progress. Some cultures, above
all those of the West and East Asia, have proven themselves more
prone to progress than others. Their achievements are reiterated when
their peoples migrate to other countries, as in the cases of the
British in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; and
the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, who have flourished wherever they
have migrated.

The conclusion that culture matters goes down hard. It clashes with
cultural relativism, widely subscribed to in the academic world,
which argues that cultures can be assessed only on their own terms
and that value judgments by outsiders are taboo. The implication is
that all cultures are equally worthy, and those who argue to the
contrary are often labeled ethnocentric, intolerant or even racist. A
similar problem is encountered with those economists who believe that
culture is irrelevant--that people will respond to economic signals
in the same way regardless of their culture.

But a growing number of academics, journalists and politicians are
writing and talking about culture as a crucial factor in societal
development, and a new paradigm of human progress is emerging.
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan captured the shift recently
when he said, in the context of economic conditions in Russia, that
he had theretofore assumed that capitalism was "human nature." But in
the wake of the collapse of the Russian economy, he concluded that
"it was not human nature at all, but culture"--a succinct restatement
of Max Weber's thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of

A Dismal Record

In the 1950s, the world turned its attention from rebuilding the
countries devastated by World War II to ending the poverty, ignorance
and injustice in which most of the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin
America lived. Optimism abounded in the wake of the stunning success
of the Marshall Plan in Western Europe and Japan's ascent from the
ashes of defeat. Development was viewed as inevitable, particularly
as the colonial yoke disappeared. Walt Rostow's hugely influential
book, The Stages of Economic Growth, published in 1960, suggested
that human progress was driven by a dialectic that could be
accelerated. The Alliance for Progress, John F. Kennedy's answer to
the Cuban revolution, captured the prevailing optimism. It would
duplicate the Marshall Plan's success, and Latin America would be
well on its way to prosperity and democracy within ten years.

But as the century ended, that optimism had been displaced by
frustration and pessimism, the consensus on market economics and
democracy notwithstanding. Spain, Portugal, South Korea, Taiwan,
Singapore and the former British colony Hong Kong have followed
Rostow's trajectory into the First World, and a few others--for
example, Chile, China, Malaysia and Thailand--have experienced
sustained, rapid growth. Spain and Portugal finally opened themselves
to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the Western
values that had driven the modernization of their neighbors in
Europe. And like Japan before them, the East Asian dragons rode the
Protestant Ethic-like features of Confucianism and export promotion
policies to success.

But the vast majority of countries still lags far behind. Of the six
billion people who inhabit the world today, fewer than one billion
are to be found in the advanced democracies. More than four billion
live in what the World Bank classifies as "low-income" or "lower
middle-income" countries. The quality of life in those countries is

* Half or more of the adult population of 23 countries, mostly in
Africa, is illiterate. Non-African countries include Afghanistan,
Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Haiti.

* Half or more of the women in 35 countries are illiterate, including
not only those countries just listed but Algeria, Egypt, Guatemala,
India, Laos, Morocco, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.

* Life expectancy is below 60 years in 45 countries, most in Africa,
but also Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti, Laos and Papua New Guinea.
Life expectancy is below 50 years in 18 countries, all in Africa. And
in Sierra Leone it is just 37 years.

* The mortality rate for children under 5 is greater than 10 percent
in at least 35 countries, most, again, in Africa. Other countries
include Bangladesh, Bolivia, Haiti, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan and Yemen.

* The population growth rate in the poorest countries is 2.1 percent
annually, three times the rate in the high-income countries. The
growth rate in some Islamic countries is astonishingly high: 5
percent in Oman, 4.9 percent in the United Arab Emirates, 4.8 percent
in Jordan, 3.4 percent in Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan.

Furthermore, the most inequitable income distribution patterns among
countries supplying such data to the World Bank--not all do--are
found in the poorer countries, particularly in Latin America and
Africa. The most affluent 10 percent of Brazil's population accounts
for almost 48 percent of its income. Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe
are a fraction of a point behind.

Democratic institutions are commonly weak or nonexistent in Africa,
the Islamic countries of the Middle East, and in the rest of Asia.
Democracy has appeared to prosper in Latin America over the past
fifteen years. Argentina, Brazil and Chile seem headed toward
democratic stability after decades of military rule. But the
fragility of the democratic experiments is underscored by recent
events in several countries: in Colombia, where left-wing guerrillas,
often cooperating with drug traffickers, control large parts of the
country and threaten to topple the government; in Ecuador, where
ineptitude and corruption in the Andean capital of Quito have
contributed to a deep recession and to separatist sentiment in
coastal Guayaquil; and in Venezuela, where Hugo Chávez, an officer
who attempted two coups in the early 1990s, is now president and
conducting himself in ways that leave one wondering whether he, and
not Fidel Castro, may turn out to be the last Latin American
caudillo. And there remains a weighty question: Why after more than
150 years of independence has Latin America, an extension of the
West, failed to consolidate democratic institutions?

In sum, the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century is far
poorer, far more unjust, far more authoritarian than most people half
a century ago expected it would be, and the anticipated fruits of the
post-Cold War democratic-capitalist consensus have, with a few
exceptions, yet to be harvested.

Explaining the Failure: Colonialism and Dependency

As it became apparent that the problems of underdevelopment were more
intractable than the development experts had predicted, two
explanations with Marxist-Leninist roots came to dominate the
politics of the poor countries and the universities of the rich
countries: colonialism and dependency.

Lenin had identified imperialism as a late and inevitable stage of
capitalism that reflected what he viewed as the inability of
increasingly monopolistic capitalist countries to find domestic
markets for their products and capital. For those former colonies,
possessions or mandate countries that had recently gained
independence, imperialism was a reality that left a profound imprint
on the national psyche and presented a ready explanation for
underdevelopment--particularly in Africa, where national boundaries
had often been arbitrarily drawn without reference to homogeneity of
culture or tribal coherence.

For those countries in what would come to be called the Third World
that had been independent for a century or more, as in Latin America,
"imperialism" took the shape of "dependency"--the theory that the
poor countries of "the periphery" were bilked by the rich capitalist
countries of "the center." These countries allegedly depressed world
market prices of basic commodities and inflated the prices of
manufactured goods, enabling their multinational corporations to
extort excessive profits.

The injustice of dependency was popularized by the Uruguayan writer
Eduardo Galeano, whose phenomenally successful book, The Open Veins
of Latin America, was first published in 1971 (it has since been
republished sixty-seven times). The following lines capture its

"Latin America is the region of open veins. From the discovery up to
the present, our wealth has been taken from us first by European
capital and then by American capital and has accumulated in those
distant centers of power. . . . The international division of labor
consists of some countries that specialize in getting rich and some
in getting poor."

Essay Types: Essay