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.
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.