18 January 2010

Culture again!

In a column in the New York Times, David Brooks takes up the issue of poverty in Haiti. Unfortunately, he takes off on the issue of 'culture'.

It is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty. Why is Haiti so poor? ....Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.
We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

Voodoo? Well, my antipathy to the 'culture' argument comes from reading staunch defences made by Indian economists in the early 1900s to the British argument of why India was poor - the Brits chose to look at the religious and spiritual other-worldiness of the Indians, rather than at their own industrial and trade policies as the root cause of under-development in the country.
Sure enough, there are enough of reader comments below that piece refuting what Brooks is saying.

On a more academic note, there is Ha-Joon Chang's Chapter 9 in his book Bad Samaritans. The chapter titled ' Lazy Japanese and Thieving Germans - are some cultures incapable of economic development?' has a good historical account of cultures that were 'resistant' to change.

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