Culture in Development

This was supposed to be the title of one of the chapters in Seeing Culture Everywhere, except in the final proof it somehow got reduced to just “Culture,” which in a way is a more striking title. The chapter describes two types of “culture talk” in the world of development professionals: one, exemplified by Lawrence Harrison’s Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, that sees certain national cultures as development-prone and others as development-resistant, and another, reflected in Vijayendra Rao and Michael Walton’s excellent Culture and Public Action, that takes a bottom-up ethnographic approach and emphasizes the need for understanding local cultural mechanisms while refraining from general statements. The former is a close relative of Samuel Huntington’s views, except that where Huntington is consistent (cultures cannot be changed so don’t tamper with them) Harrison is not (cultures cannot be changed, but sometimes they can, so keep trying). Of course, this tension between the idea of a national culture and the idea of individual self-realisation in spite of it goes all the back to  the Enlightenment.

Exporting Paternalism
A few weeks ago Kerim blogged about David Brooks’ New York Times opinion piece on Haiti, which is squarely in the Harrisonian mold: we need to go in and change their culture so they can develop. He (erroneously, we think) quotes Huntington in his support, but at least, contrary to Huntington’s infamous comparison between South Korea and Ghana (they were at the same level of development in 1960), Brooks’ argument compares Haiti to places like Barbados and the Dominican Republic, which means he operates with more specific cultural categories (which implicitly include political and social history) than Huntington’s “civilizations”.

But what we found remarkable in Brooks’ article was something else:

it’s time to promote locally led paternalism. In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance. It’s time to take that approach abroad, too.

Wait a minute. Sure, Brooks is a conservative commentator, but still – what? A piece in the New York Times advocating promoting locally led paternalism and exporting paternalism abroad?

How is this different from what China is doing in poor countries – for which it gets all kinds of flak, none more than from U.S. conservatives?

China’s emergence in the development/aid field – its Eximbank is now a larger lender than the World Bank – is beginning to impact approaches in the whole field. In China, there is little patience for the kind of participatory development approach that has recently been so popular in the West (but is widely criticised as failed) and endless faith in ‘60s-style, highly interventionist development projects that combine large-scale infrastructural development with instilling a “modern work culture,” bodily discipline and all. (China is often described as differing from the West in its lack of a missionary agenda, but this is hardly true for Chinese investors; they are very like so many Henry Fords.) And this approach has appeal. People, at least some people, in Africa and Southeast Asia feel like the hopes for development that existed in the ‘60s and ‘70s have been given back to them.

So where does that leave “culture” in development? Our hunch is that its place has already shifted since we wrote Seeing Culture Everywhere. On the one hand, there is China and David Brooks. On the other, there is a new trend in “development thinking” around the World Bank and elsewhere (like Narayan. Pritchett and Kapoor’s Moving out of Poverty and Jessica Cohen and William Easterly’s What Works in Development) that seem to abandon the term altogether and focus on micro-scale interventions – rightly, we believe.

7 thoughts on “Culture in Development

  1. Out of curiosity, how does the China model differ from the English model of the nineteenth century, a parternalism of a slightly different sort, but none the less paternalism? the English believed in changing culutre, but not the whole body of culutre, just the elite culture to allow their rule in places like Africa and India. If the elite modify their beliefs, their culutral practices, at least when encountering the dominant overseas representatives, is that all that’s needed in such a model? The fact is this model has long term effects, perhaps longer term than those participatroy development models of the sixties. And if you’re looking at a dominant culture, like China, wanting results in the short term (economic results that is), then the 19th century English approach/Harrison approach is the model that will be followed for the fore-seeable future.

  2. Hi, Fred. I was hoping someone else would address your question. But since no one better positioned to answer authoritatively has, allow me to speculate a bit. There is, I suggest, a fundamental difference between the racist assumptions of 19th century English imperialism and the cultural chauvinist assumptions of the 21st century Chinese. The former cultivates a local elite whose members are seen as exceptions to the rule that the populations from which they are selected are inherently incapable. The latter starts with a broader vision, in which everyone should want to be Chinese, which is, after all, the only way to be properly human. In this respect, the Chinese are more like American imperialists, who also assume that in the best of all worlds, everyone would be like us.

  3. Thanks, John, that does help. One thing I was also trying to address was the long term impact. The English model of 19th century imperialism has long remained intact in terms of structural elements. Consider the spread of parliments, the structure of universities, and even for a long time in the 20th century the association of Commonwealth Countries. If we are talking about changing cultures, we should address the long term effects of various styles of imperialism comparative with alternative development models. How long will Americanisms remain on the ground after America has departed? Might we speculate about China’s long term effects on Africa? Paternalism may still be the model most easily accessible to grasp, rather than a bottom up approach. And especially for government officials, given their bureaucratic culture.

  4. I would think that Chinese managers are seeking to transform not only (and perhaps not even so much) the elite as the ordinary people, applying to them the same logic as to Chinese workers: the logic of “quality” (素质),which includes everything from respect of law to punctuality, bodily hygiene and education. The managers want their workers to comply with these norms, which they see as universal, rather than to aspire to becoming Chinese.

    Sure, that is very similar to 19th-century British ideas (or indeed the ideas of Henry Ford, as the post says). The racial component is certainly not absent; popular versions of social evolutionary theories (Morgan/Spencer) are widely accepted in China. There is a leap from this to everyday racism, which has not yet been made (but it may, as ethnoracial nationalism is rising in China, and so is resentment of African immigrants — yes, there are quite a few of those). At the same time, if you read Chinese blogs or discussion forums about Africa, you encounter a range of views; some posters maintain that Africans are in some ways more sophisticated and savvier than Chinese.

  5. bq. The managers want their workers to comply with these norms, which they see as universal, rather than to aspire to becoming Chinese.

    Yes, I should have put it the other way round. The Chinese managers want workers to comply with what they, the Chinese managers, see as universal norms — epitomized by Chinese workers. In this respect they are similar to American managers who would also like workers to comply with what they, the American managers, see as universal norms — epitomized by themselves. In both cases, the universal norms are projections of the managers’ understanding of what it is to be truly human.

    bq. Consider the spread of parliments, the structure of universities, and even for a long time in the 20th century the association of Commonwealth Countries. If we are talking about changing cultures, we should address the long term effects of various styles of imperialism comparative with alternative development models.

    Here, at least for the moment, we see a similarity between the Chinese and American and the classic British form of imperialism. The British Empire was an empire in the strict sense. So long as the Empire survived, the British were the state, the monopolizers of legal use of force, the creators and rule-makers for the parliaments and universities. The situation for both Chinese and American neo-imperialists is not so simple. Client governments may be bought or otherwise subverted. It is they, however, who control the local state apparatus, including the military, the legislatures, and the schools.

    Increasingly, too, the clients also have access to the Internet and other media and are free to play rival neo-imperialist powers against each other in a world where there is no agreement on which parts of the world belong to the various rivals. The world of the 19th century Great Game was a world in which, for example, the Russians might attempt to undermine the British in India; but now, in the 21st century, business rivals from the USA, EU, China, Russia, Japan, Brazil, etc. face off in a Delhi, Karachi or Dar es Salaam in which none has the authority to have the others arrested and jailed or deported.

  6. _Here, at least for the moment, we see a similarity between the Chinese and American and the classic British form of imperialism. _

    Should be

    Here, at least for the moment, we see a _difference_ between the Chinese and American forms of neo-imperialism and the classic British form of imperialism.

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