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

* Mistrust of those outside the family, which contributes to the
generally small size of Hispanic businesses.

At least one African has come to similar conclusions about the slow
rate of progress on his continent. Daniel Etounga-Manguelle is a
Cameroonian who holds a doctorate in economics and planning from the
Sorbonne and who heads a prominent consulting company that operates
throughout Africa. In 1990 he published a book in France entitled
Does Africa Need a Cultural Adjustment Program?, in which he
attributes Africa's poverty, authoritarianism and social injustice
principally to traditional cultural values and attitudes. The book
evokes the new-paradigm literature in Latin America.

Etounga-Manguelle's analysis of African culture highlights the highly
centralized, vertical traditions of authority; a focus on the past
and present, not the future; a rejection of "the tyranny of time"; a
distaste for work ("The African works to live but doesn't live to
work"); the suppression of individual initiative, achievement and
saving (the corollary is jealousy of success); a belief in sorcery
that nurtures irrationality and fatalism.

For those, particularly in the international development community,
who see "institution-building" as the way to solve the problems of
the Third World, Etounga-Manguelle offers an insight: "Culture is the
mother; institutions are the children."

Etounga-Manguelle concludes that Africa must "change or perish." A
cultural "adjustment" is not enough. What is needed is a cultural
revolution that transforms traditional authoritarian child-rearing
practices, which "produce sheep"; transforms education through
emphasis on the individual, independent judgment and creativity;
produces free individuals working together for the progress of the
community; produces an elite concerned with the well-being of the
society; and promotes a healthy economy based on the work ethic, the
profit motive and individual initiative.

How Culture Influences Progress

The idea of "progress" is suspect for those who are committed to
cultural relativism. Some anthropologists view it as an idea the West
is trying to impose on other cultures. At the extreme, cultural
relativists may argue that Westerners have no right to criticize
institutions and practices like female genital mutilation; suttee,
the Hindu practice for widows to join their dead husbands on funeral
pyres; or even slavery. Some Western anthropologists opposed the
United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But after a half century of the communications revolution, it is
clear that progress in the Western--and East Asian--sense has become
a virtually universal aspiration. I am not speaking of progress as
defined by the affluent consumer society, although an end to poverty
is clearly one of the universal goals, and that inevitably means
higher levels of consumption. Over the almost two decades that I have
been studying and writing about the relationship between cultural
values and human progress, I have identified ten values, attitudes or
mindsets that distinguish progressive cultures--cultures that
facilitate achievement of the goals of the UN Declaration --from
static cultures, which impede their achievement:

1. Time orientation: The progressive culture emphasizes the future,
the static culture the present or past. Future orientation implies a
progressive world-view: influence over one's destiny, rewards in this
life for virtue, and positive-sum economics in which wealth
expands--in contrast to the zero-sum psychology commonly found in
poor countries.

2. Work and achievement are central to the good life in the
progressive culture, but are of lesser importance in the static
culture. In the former, work structures daily life, and diligence,
creativity and achievement are rewarded not only financially but also
with satisfaction, self-respect and prestige.

3. Frugality is the mother of investment--and financial security--in
progressive cultures; a threat to the egalitarian status quo in
static, zero-sum cultures in which one person's gains are at the
expense of others.

4. Education is the key to advancement in progressive cultures but is
of marginal importance except for the elites in static cultures.

5. Merit is central to advancement in the progressive culture;
connections and family are what count in the static culture.

6. Community: The radius of identification and trust extends beyond
the family to the broader society in the progressive culture, whereas
the family circumscribes community in the static culture. Societies
with a narrow radius of identification and trust are more prone to
corruption, nepotism and tax evasion and are less likely to engage in

7. The societal ethical code tends to be more rigorous in the
progressive culture. Every advanced democracy except Belgium, Taiwan,
Italy and South Korea appears among the 25 least corrupt countries on
Transparency Internation-al's "Corruption Perceptions Index." Chile
and Botswana are the only Third World countries that appear among the
top 25.

8. Justice and fair play are universal, impersonal expectations in
the progressive culture. In the static culture, justice, like
personal advancement, is often a function of whom you know or how
much you can pay.

9. Authority tends toward dispersion and horizontality in progressive
cultures, which encourage dissent; toward concentration and
verticality in static cultures, which encourage orthodoxy.

10. Secularism: The influence of religious institutions on civic life
is small in the progressive culture; their influence in static
cultures is often substantial. Heterodoxy and dissent are encouraged
in the former, orthodoxy and conformity are encouraged in the latter.

Obviously, these ten factors are generalized and idealized, and the
reality of cultural variation is not black and white but a spectrum,
in which colors fuse into one another. Few countries would be graded
"10" on all the factors, just as few countries would be graded "1."
Nonetheless, virtually all of the advanced democracies--and
high-achieving ethnic/religious groups such as Mormons, East Asian
immigrants, Jews, Sikhs and Basques--would receive substantially
higher scores than virtually all of the Third World countries.

This conclusion invites the inference that what is really in play is
development, not culture. The same argument could be made about
Transparency International's corruption index. There is a complex
interplay of cause and effect between culture and progress. But the
power of culture is demonstrable--for example, in those countries
where the economic achievement of ethnic minorities far exceeds that
of the majorities, as in the case of the Chinese in Thailand,
Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and even the United States.

The ten factors I have suggested are not definitive. But they do at
least suggest which elements in the vastness of "culture" may
influence the way societies evolve. Moreover, the new-paradigm
writers in Latin America and Africa attribute the slow modernization
of their countries in large measure to just such traditional values
and attitudes. Their views evoke the seminal culturalists Alexis de
Tocqueville, Max Weber and Edward Banfield. Tocqueville's Democracy
in America is particularly relevant for those who would adduce
geographic or institutional explanations for democratic development:

Europeans exaggerate the influence of geography on the lasting powers
of democratic institutions. Too much importance is attached to laws
and too little to mores. . . . If in the course of this book I have
not succeeded in making the reader feel the importance I attach to
the practical experience of the Americans, to their habits, opinions,
and, in a word, their mores, in maintaining their laws, I have failed
in the main object of my work.

Changing the Traditional Culture

In part because of the influence of the new-paradigm writers, but in
some cases because of life experiences that have brought them to the
same conclusions, a growing number of Latin Americans and others have
initiated activities that promote progressive values and attitudes.

Octavio Mavila was for three decades the Honda distributor in Peru. A
burly self-made man well into his seventies, Mavila has visited Japan
numerous times over the years. He came to the conclusion that the
only significant difference between Japan and Peru was that Japanese
children learned progressive values while Peruvian children did not.
In 1990 he established the Institute of Human Development in Lima to
promote "the Ten Commandments of Development": order, cleanliness,
punctuality, responsibility, achievement, honesty, respect for the
rights of others, respect for the law, work ethic and frugality. (In
The Americano Dream, Lionel Sosa presents a similar program for
success based on "the twelve traits of successful Latinos.") More
than two million Peruvian students have participated in courses
sponsored by the institute.

The Ten Commandments of Development are being preached outside Peru,
too. Humberto Belli, Nicaragua's minister of education in two
administrations, viewed them as central to his program of educational
reform. Ramón de la Peña, rector of the Monterrey campus of Mexico's
prestigious Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Studies, has
also promoted use of the Ten Commandments.

The effectiveness of the evangelizing approach to cultural change
needs to be evaluated. As Luis Ugalde, a Jesuit who is the rector of
the Catholic University of Caracas, has observed, if children learn a
progressive ethic in school and find it irrelevant to their lives
outside of school, the impact may be scant. That is why Ugalde, who
is convinced that values and attitudes matter, is promoting
anti-corruption, pro-merit campaigns in government, business and the

Corruption is in significant part a cultural phenomenon, linked to
factors like limited radius of identification and trust that
translate into a limited sense of community and an elastic ethical
code. Corruption has become a high-profile issue in Latin America. In
1998 the Organization of American States adopted the Inter-American
Convention against Corruption. Few expect that the Convention itself
is going to dramatically reduce the incidence of corruption--five
Latin American countries (Paraguay, Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela and
Ecuador) appear among Transparency International's ten most corrupt
countries. But it is clear that corruption is today receiving far
more attention than it once did, by, among others, the World Bank.

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