Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Two essays on culture and development

Mapping Authority and Survival or Well Being.

Yesterday I posted some thoughts on UNESCO's culture program, questioning whether it was adequately focused on promoting cultural changes in order to achieve the Organization's mission of promoting peace. This post summarizes two recent essays dealing with culture and development.

1. "Natural experiments: Working in the history lab," JARED DIAMOND and JAMES A. ROBINSON, The New Scientist, 29 March 2010.
The authors have a new book out, Natural Experiments of History, which explores the idea that the methodology of natural experiments used in other fields (such as natural history and economics) can be useful as a tool for historians. The article is taken from the book, focusing significantly on the comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Since these two countries share the same island and have quite similar endowments of natural resources, the authors ascribe their very different economic histories largely to their very different cultures (although factors such as the French demand for reparations and the general isolation of Haiti in the first half of the 19th century are also cited).

2. "Haiti and the Voodoo Curse: The cultural roots of the country's endless misery," LAWRENCE HARRISON, The Wall Street Journal, 5 February 2010.
Harrison is the author of a classic book, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. In the current article he attributes much of the failure of Haiti to progress economically to the roots of Haitian culture in the African culture of the slaves who revolted successfully against France two centuries ago. He too cites other factors.

Neither article focuses on the occupations of these countries by the United States (Haiti, 1915 to 1934 and 1994 to 1995; Dominican Republic, 1916 to 1924 and 1965 to 1966), nor the impact of the governance regimes set up by the United States in ending those occupations. It might be thought that the occupations by the United States were sufficiently similar that they would not account for a major difference in the economic trajectories of the countries. However, U.S. occupying force prejudice against the Black Haitians might have been quite different than that against the Hispanic Dominicans, and thus the impact of the occupations might have been different.

I would guess that Diamond and Robinson go on in their book to examine "natural experiments" in which peoples with similar cultures adapt to different physical environments with different economic and social outcomes.

Using a very broad definition of culture -- the "integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior" of a nation's inhabitants -- it is hard to argue with the proposition that culture is a major determinant of success in economic development. In this broad definition, culture includes the institutions in the nation and the policies that the people accept in those institutions -- factors identified by an alternative theory of development.

However, if one is interested in economic growth as a way to diminish poverty and improve the quality of life for the poor in poor countries, saying that culture, as broadly defined, holds back development is of little use. The question must be raised as to what cultural changes would be both acceptable to the people and effective in promoting growth.

UNESCO, Culture and Development

UNESCO's efforts in the field of culture and development seem less extensive and less effective than those in the field of preservation of cultural heritage. One wonders whether in the 21st Century UNESCO should redouble its efforts to bring together the leaders of the world's inellectual community and serve more effectively as a laboratory of ideas on Culture and Development. Indeed, if UNESCO can catalyze the creation of a consensus on culture-based appoaches to promote social and economic development and on cultural objectives of social and economic development, should it not then embark on a program of capacity development to assist its member states to utilize the knowledge of that consensus?

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