The Culture Club

The Culture Club

Mini Teaser: Not all cultures are equally conducive to progress.

by Author(s): Lawrence E. Harrison

In the early 1960s, when I started my career in development assistance, the experts were convinced that tyranny, poverty and social injustice could be successfully combated by a combination of decolonization, good policies, and the financial, technical and moral support of the advanced democracies. Democracy and capitalism, many thought, were rooted in human nature, and all that was necessary was to remove the "artificial" obstacles to progress created by colonial powers, irresponsible and greedy oligarchies, and incompetent politicians, economists and administrators.

John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, where I worked, was symbolic of the optimism of the time. Inspired by the success of the Marshall Plan, the architects of the alliance foresaw within ten years a democratic, rapidly developing Latin America immune to the Cuban revolutionary infection. Yankee good intentions, know-how and money would help enlightened Latin American leaders to transform the region. Similar approaches following decolonization in Africa, the Middle East and Asia would produce similar results.

But with a few conspicuous exceptions, mostly in East Asia, almost a half-century later the optimistic scenario has not materialized. As Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia demonstrate, democracy is far from consolidated in Latin America, and sustained, transforming economic growth has eluded all but Chile. Africa's post-colonial hopes have been replaced by despair in the wake of irresponsible, often tyrannical leadership and frequent civil wars. In the entire continent, only Botswana has approximated the optimistic scenario. The Islamic world, a millennium ago a leader of human progress, lags far behind the West and East Asia, a condition underscored by female illiteracy rates in excess of 50 percent in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

As disappointment and then frustration set in with the passing decades, the experts tried new approaches, with limited success. Among the development magic wands: infrastructure, community development, focus on the poorest of the poor, appropriate technology, macroeconomic policy, the private sector, promotion of democracy and the rule of law, and anti-corruption campaigns.

During my twenty years (1962-82) with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), I directed USAID missions in four Latin American countries and Haiti. My new frontiersman can-do optimism was gradually displaced by a growing sense of the complexity and intractability of many of Latin America's problems. The more I tried to help find solutions, the more I encountered a pattern of obstacles that were confounding, because, as it became increasingly clear to me, behind them lay deeply rooted values, beliefs and attitudes--culture--inimical to democracy, social justice and prosperity.

With respect to economic development, I was learning something that was articulated by Alan Greenspan many years later, in the wake of the collapse of the Russian economy in the late 1990s: "I used to think that capitalism was human nature. But it isn't at all. It's culture." This, of course, evokes Max Weber's thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

With respect to democratization, I was learning how on the mark Alexis de Tocqueville was in Democracy in America:

"I am convinced that the most advantageous situation and the best possible laws cannot maintain a constitution in despite of mores; while the latter may turn the most unfavorable positions and the worst laws to some advantage. The importance of mores is a common truth to which study and experience incessantly direct our attention. I find it occupies the central position in my thoughts; all my ideas come back to it in the end."

Tocqueville's wisdom appears to have escaped the Bush Administration, which has staked so much on the doctrine, "The values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society."

President Bush's frequent references to the democratization of Japan during the post-World War II occupation as a model for Iraq is fundamentally flawed. Our military occupations of three countries in the Caribbean basin in the early decades of the 20th century may have far greater relevance.

At the end of World War II, Japan was a defeated, devastated society. But four years earlier, it had much of East Asia and the western Pacific under its domination, reflecting its highly developed industrial, technological and infrastructure base, as well as a unified, disciplined, educated and skilled populace. Japan had eliminated male and female illiteracy in the first decades of the 20th century. By contrast, according to World Bank statistics, more than 70 percent of Iraqi women and more than 40 percent of Iraqi men were illiterate in 2001.

It is true that Confucianism, a dominant influence on Japanese values and attitudes, nurtures authoritarian governance. But Confucianism can also nurture economic miracles that can in turn nurture democracy: Witness the democratic transformations of South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as Japan. By contrast, no Arab country has yet come close to stable democracy, and, among all Islamic countries, only Turkey and perhaps Indonesia approach democratic norms.

The Arab subculture of Islam has been particularly resistant to democratic modernization. It is characterized by submissive collectivism rather than individualism; discouragement of dissent and initiative; discouragement of innovation and social change; emphasis on family, clan and ethnic cohesion rather than broader relationships; isolationism; and above all, clerical interpretations of the Quran that have (1) transmitted fatalistic dogma, (2) permitted adoption of scientific and technological advances from outside but closed the door to the liberalizing cultural forces that made these advances possible, and (3) perpetuated the subordination and illiteracy of women.

Its oil wealth notwithstanding, Iraq is clearly an underdeveloped country with a tiny industrial and technological base, a rudimentary infrastructure and a largely uneducated, unskilled populace that is anything but unified. It is much closer to the condition of Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the early decades of the 20th century than to Japan in 1945.

As in the case of Iraq, the U.S. military occupations of those three countries were chiefly motivated by security considerations--in the Latin American cases, concern about a hostile European presence in the approaches to the Panama Canal, which began operating in 1914. But we were also motivated by what Franklin Roosevelt's Latin America expert Sumner Welles subsequently described as "the role of the evangel . . . to reform . . . the conditions of life and government of the . . . sovereign republics of the American hemisphere." We were going to make these countries safe for democracy, believing that the values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society. But the dubiousness of that credo is underscored by the aftermath of those three Caribbean interventions.

The democratic institutions installed by the United States started to unravel soon after the Marines left the Dominican Republic in 1924, after eight years of occupation. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo assumed dictatorial powers in 1930 that would last for more than three decades, leading to another U.S. military intervention in 1965.

In 1936, three years after the Marines departed from Nicaragua (they had arrived in 1912), Anastasio Somoza García took control of the country, initiating a dictatorial dynasty that would last for 43 years. Its collapse in 1979 led to another U.S. military intervention through aid to the Contras in the 1980s.

The Marines left Haiti in 1934, after 19 years. Haitian politics soon returned to the authoritarianism, exploitation and corruption that had characterized most Haitian governments going back to independence in 1804. That continuity was symbolized by the Duvalier dynasty that abused the country from 1957 to 1986. The American military returned in 1994 to reinstall President Jean Bertrand Aristide and again in 2004 to escort him out and try to make order out of chaos.

These three cases demonstrate how good intentions reinforced by military force and money can be frustrated by cultures that are not congenial to democratic institutions. The credo "These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society" ignores not only these three cases but the more generalized problems of democratization in the Islamic world, Africa and Latin America. It also ignores the wisdom of Tocqueville.

Cultural relativism--the doctrine that cultures can be assessed only within their own value framework--was the brainchild of anthropologist Franz Boas. It has permeated the social sciences, and largely because of it a widespread presumption today exists that all cultures and all religions must be regarded as of equal worth and are not to be the object of comparative value judgments. However, when it comes to the relationship between culture and human progress, I find compelling evidence that some cultures and some religions do better than others in promoting the goals of democratic politics, social justice and prosperity.

Until recent years, the preceding sentence would have been widely regarded as heresy in governments, universities and development institutions around the world. But receptivity has increased in the wake of books like Robert Putnam's Making Democracy Work (1993), Francis Fukuyama's Trust (1995), Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1998), David Landes's The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1999), and Culture Matters (2000), co-edited by Huntington and me.

Culture influences the behavior of individuals, and collectively those individual behaviors influence the way societies evolve. Culture conditions attitudes toward the use of time, the value of education, tolerance of risk; it elevates certain activities and denigrates others; it provides codes of behavior and delineates what is proper and what is to be shunned. This is not to argue that "culture is destiny"--that it alone determines whether a country can modernize. As Jared Diamond has argued, geography, including climate, topography and resource endowment, clearly plays a key role, as do the vagaries of history--for example, wars, colonial experiences, geopolitical forces, economic models chosen or imposed. The level of prosperity powerfully influences performance. Leadership matters: That Singapore is among the most affluent and least corrupt countries in the world surely reflects the vision and influence of Lee Kuan Yew. But culture also matters, and we must ask what exactly it is about cultures that helps to explain why, for example, Protestant societies have generally done better than Catholic societies with respect to democratization, prosperity, trust and corruption, and why Confucian societies have repeatedly produced economic "miracles" while Islamic societies have not.

These were questions addressed by the Culture Matters Research Project (CMRP) at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, which has involved some sixty experts around the world during the past three years. Its findings and conclusions appear in my forthcoming book, The Central Liberal Truth. (The title derives from Daniel Patrick Moynihan's wise aphorism, "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.") Two collections of the essays prepared for the project were published earlier this year: Developing Cultures: Essays on Cultural Change, coedited by Jerome Kagan and me, and Developing Cultures: Case Studies, coedited by Peter Berger and me.

A key product of the research project is a typology that contrasts how progress-prone and progress-resistant cultures view 25 factors that influence political, social and economic development. The principal architect of the typology is the Argentine journalist and author Mariano Grondona. To be sure, it portrays in black and white what in the real world is varying shades of grey. No country or culture falls exclusively into one column but rather tends toward one or the other. To the extent that they are more aptly described by the progress-prone column, they are more likely to be democratic, just and prosperous. To the extent that they are more aptly described by the progress-resistant column, they are more likely to be authoritarian, unjust and poor.

A "progress-prone" worldview nurtures rationality and achievement and the belief that a person can influence his destiny; it sees wealth as the product of human creativity and promotes a society where advancement is based on merit; it emphasizes the importance of the individual. "Progress-prone" values inculcate habits such as saving, planning for the future and trust. In contrast, the "progress-resistant" worldview nurtures irrationality and is prone either to fatalism or utopianism; wealth is a gift of fate, chance, or natural-resource endowment; and advancement comes through connections. The group identity is elevated over that of the individual. The progress-resistant culture discourages punctuality and saving and is characterized by a high degree of mistrust beyond the family or clan.

Culture need not be destiny, and politics can change a culture, as we have seen happen from Botswana to the Novgorod region of Russia and from Taiwan to Chile. Out of these and other success stories emerge patterns of leadership, policies and programs that are the grist of the guidelines for progressive cultural change that are the goal of the research project. The guidelines are also informed by twenty essays on the instruments and institutions of cultural transmission and change, among them child-rearing, several aspects of education, religions, the media and leadership.

Cultural change, like democracy and market economics, cannot be imposed from the outside, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, for example, in Japan after its unconditional surrender in 1945. Progress is likely to endure only when it is driven chiefly from within. To be sure, the success stories underscore the importance of openness to the ideological, political, technological and institutional lessons learned by more advanced societies. But until a critical mass of awareness emerges in a society, external pressures for change are likely to be resisted.

Societies can be substantially transformed within a generation. But, as the CMRP case studies demonstrate, it requires much more than dispatching troops and writing constitutions.

The integration of cultural factors into policies and programs will not bring about instant development. But by incorporating culture into the mix of factors that shape development, the pace of progress can be accelerated. Cultural change and "development", as it has come to be defined over the past half-century, are closely connected. Initiatives to promote cultural change are likely to promote political, economic or social development; and initiatives designed to promote development in the traditional sense may also promote progressive cultural change.

The case studies demonstrate convincingly that a single instrument cannot by itself divert the powerful momentum of culture. What is necessary is a coordinated program that may involve, among other things, child-rearing, education and education reform, religion and religious reform, the media, civic groups and, above all, strong political leadership committed to the democratic-capitalist model.

What needs to be done? For starters, political leaders should be mindful of the implications of their policies, programs and media appearances for the strengthening of progressive values. Leaders should educate the public on the key role progressive values play in the achievement of the goals of a society, and they should sustain a continuing dialogue with the media over the role of the latter in promoting progressive values. Moreover, it is much easier to strengthen progressive values if the initiative involves at least an appearance of continuity--"the creation of new mythologies based on selective memories taken from the past", in the words of Daniel Latouche, CMRP's expert on Quebec.

The highest priority needs to be given to education and education reform. Illiteracy is the single greatest obstacle to progressive cultural change. It enshrouds the human capacity to learn and change, and it nurtures the perpetuation of traditional culture. Human progress lags the most in societies, above all in Islamic countries and Africa, where illiteracy levels are highest. In the large majority of these countries, female literacy is sharply lower than male literacy. Yet in terms of cultural change, it can be argued that female literacy is more important than male literacy because of the crucial role women play in child-rearing. It is relevant that females are more literate than males in Botswana.

But education is more than simply ending illiteracy. Fernando Reimers of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Eleonora Villegas-Reimers of Wheelock College suggest six objectives for educational reform that will strengthen the values that make democracy work. These include not only a broad commitment to universal education, but an educational system that promotes open communities and stronger relations between schools and communities; places qualified teachers who can serve as democratic models and who value freedom and diversity; emphasizes civic education and character education; and offers students practical learning experiences, including in how to make choices.

The Singapore and Irish miracles and India's recent economic surge owe a lot to the English-language capabilities of those countries. American capital has dominated the heavy flow of foreign investment into Ireland in recent decades, and this was partly owing to Ireland's being a nation of native speakers of English. India's dynamic outsourcing sector has been made possible by the large number of Indians who speak English. The Chilean government recently announced a program to make Chile bilingual in Spanish and English.

Beyond educational reform, governments need to pursue open economic policies and encourage foreign investment. Several of the cultural transformations, such as those in Spain and Ireland, were either driven or facilitated by open economic policies. Foreign investment not only produces economic benefits (most of the time) but also often transfers new technologies, new ideas, new values. In addition, countries need to regularize property ownership. The advantages that attend Hernando de Soto's emphasis in The Mystery of Capital (2000) on real property security through legalized registration programs that facilitate market transactions are not only economic. Security and marketability of property are also likely to nurture optimism, sap the strength of fatalism and strengthen the entrepreneurial vocation. Home ownership played a key role in the transformations of Spain and Singapore. In both cases, housing policies were consciously designed to give people a stake in the society, to create a middle class and to strengthen the family.

The private sector can play a useful role in progressive cultural change, chiefly through participatory management, which liberates people's creative capacity and enhances self-esteem, and philanthropic activity, particularly if it is focused on education.

An efficient, professional civil service is a high-priority goal. Aside from the performance benefits that attend competence and honesty in the public sector, a good bureaucracy also plays an important role in extending a society's radius of identification and trust--in government and in the broader society. High-quality bureaucracies have contributed much to the success of Sweden, Botswana, Chile and Singapore, among others.

Religious reform may be crucial. Reform of Islam is of the highest importance: openness to the values, ideas and institutions of the non-Islamic world; tolerance of other religions; a broad commitment to excellence, education and gender equality. Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity must make an unambiguous commitment to market economics and democracy, and take a leadership role in attacking the inequity, crime, corruption and mistrust rampant in Latin America and eastern Europe. Animist religions, principally found in Africa but also elsewhere (for example, Haitian voodoo), present an extreme case of progress-resistant culture. Those practicing animist religions should be encouraged to convert to more progress-prone religions.

Changes in traditional child-rearing practices may also be crucial. Traditional child-rearing patterns are sustained from generation to generation, in large measure because the only preparation most young parents have is the memory of the way their parents raised them. Yet traditional child-rearing may inculcate values, beliefs and attitudes that are obstacles to the progress of the individual and the society, not only through what the parent teaches the child but also through how the parent relates to the child. As Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan notes, changing those patterns, through parenting education and other instruments, is an indispensable element of a program of cultural change.

Development assistance institutions, both multilateral and bilateral, have thus far largely failed to address cultural change, chiefly because anthropologists and other social scientists committed to cultural relativism have opposed it. That some cultures are more prone to progress than others is a message that goes down very hard in development circles, despite all the evidence. This obstacle is magnified by the politics of the international institutions, where both donors and recipients have a voice, and where it is much more interpersonally comfortable, and less threatening to self-esteem, to view the countries lagging behind as either the victims of the more successful countries or as merely having failed so far to find the proper mix of policies, incentives and institutions. Evidence of this intellectual and emotional obstacle is the response to the two UNDP Arab Human Development Reports, both of which focus on the need for cultural change and have provoked outspoken criticism from many Arabs.

I can only hope that the persistent, widespread dissatisfaction and frustration with the sluggish pace of progress in most poor countries will cause development professionals to ponder the messages of Culture Matters and The Central Liberal Truth, for example, by integrating cultural change analysis into research programs, strategies and project design and evaluation.

Like the development institutions, universities around the world have avoided addressing culture because of the dominance of cultural relativism, and a related overcommitment to multiculturalism and political correctness. The universities, like the development institutions, must take culture and cultural change seriously. That means developing courses and research programs on the role of culture and cultural change in human progress. Child-rearing is an aspect in which universities should take the lead.

The power of the media, above all television, to influence not only the views and opinions of people but also their values is enormous. In his controversial essay on entertainment media, CMRP contributor Reese Schonfeld, the first president of CNN, would, in an emerging nation committed to the goals of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ban commercial TV channels for at least twenty years and would rely on a public broadcasting network whose programs would be designed to communicate the values that nurture progress toward the goals of the UN declaration.

What we have learned from the Culture Matters Research Project is that culture does matter, particularly in the long run. But Daniel Patrick Moynihan was right: Politics can change culture, enabling more rapid progress; societies can be substantially transformed within a generation. We have also been reminded that numerous other factors are in play, geography and natural environment prominent among them, and that culture can be trumped, for example, by adverse ideologies, as in the case of North Korea. The anguish of the American adventure in Iraq, genocide and famine in Africa, and the huge flow of poor people seeking a better life elsewhere are among the vivid reminders of the enormity of the task of creating a more democratic, just and prosperous world. Taking culture and cultural change seriously can make that enormous task more manageable.

Lawrence E. Harrison teaches at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He is author of Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind, Who Prospers? (2000) and The Pan-American Dream (1997) and coeditor, with Samuel Huntington, of Culture Matters (2000). His book, The Central Liberal Truth, will be appearing in May.

Essay Types: Essay