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 gender issue has also come to the fore, challenging the traditional machismo culture. Latin American women are increasingly aware of the gender democratization that has occurred, particularly in First World countries, in recent decades, and they are increasingly organizing and taking initiatives to rectify the sexism that has traditionally kept them in second-class status. In several countries, laws concerning parental and property rights and divorce have been liberalized in favor of women, and nine countries have established obligatory quotas for women candidates in elections. While these electoral laws are not uniformly effective, they are a reminder that the gender revolution, and all that it implies with respect to transformation of traditional values, is reaching Latin America.

Integrating Values and Attitudes into Development

WITH the notable exceptions of East Asia and Iberia, human progress during the half century since World War II has been disheartening. The principal reason for this has been the failure to take into account the power of culture to thwart or facilitate progress. It is, for example, the cultural contrast between Western Europe and Latin America that chiefly explains the success of the Marshall Plan and the failure of the Alliance for Progress.

This is not to say that addressing culture will solve all problems. Culture is one of several factors--others being geography and climate, ideology, policies, globalization, leadership, the vagaries of history--that influence progress. The limits of cultural explanations are obvious when one considers the striking contrasts in progress between North and South Korea, and between East and West Germany. But particularly as we view the longer run, culture's power becomes more apparent.

At a 1999 Harvard symposium entitled "Cultural Values and Human Progress", Nathan Glazer observed that people are made uncomfortable or are offended by cultural explanations of why some countries and some ethnic groups do better than others. But the alternative--to view oneself or one's group as a victim--is worse. As Bernard Lewis recently observed in a Foreign Affairs article about the Islamic countries, When people realize that things are going wrong, there are two questions they can ask. One is, 'What did we do wrong?' and the other is 'Who did this to us?' The latter leads to conspiracy theories and paranoia. The first question leads to another line of thinking: 'How do we put it right?'

A consensus emerged at the Harvard symposium that we need to understand a good deal more about the intricate relationship between culture and progress and what can be done to promote progressive values. A research agenda has been developed, the end product of which would be guidelines for governments and development institutions. The agenda would 1) define, analyze and weight the values that most influence development; 2) enhance understanding of the complex relationships among values, policies, institutions and development; and 3) enhance understanding of the role of agents of cultural transmission, e.g., parents, peers, schools, television. The research agenda would also extend the World Values Survey, which now covers sixty-five countries, further into the poor countries and tailor it to the results of the research on values. Finally, an evaluation would be undertaken of activities already under way that promote progressive values and attitudes, particularly through education, more effective parenting, pro motion of entrepreneurship, promotion of civic responsibility, reduction of corruption and expansion of philanthropy.

Culture is not the only force that shapes the destinies of nations, particularly in the short run. Moreover, culture changes. An observation by Daniel Patrick Moynihan is apt: "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

But I believe that David Landes is right in concluding in his recent book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, "If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference." I believe that the same is true of political and social development. Yet the role of cultural values and attitudes as obstacles to or facilitators of progress has been largely ignored by governments and aid agencies. Integrating value and attitude change into policies and programs will assure that, in the next fifty years, the world does not relive the poverty and injustice in which most poor countries have been mired during the past half century's "decades of development."

Lawrence E. Harrison directed USAID missions in five Latin American countries between 1965 and 1981. He is a senior fellow at Harvard University's Academy for International and Area Studies, and co-editor of Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (Basic Book, 2000)

Essay Types: Essay