Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Does Africa have a Culture of Poverty?

A couple of weeks ago, Dr Watson, one of the founders of DNA science and a Nobel-prize laureate sparked an uproar in the Ugandan media, and I am sure in the rest of Africa and the Diaspora when he infamously declared that black people are inferior to white people in terms of intelligence.Well, it appears the controversies don’t end there. According to the author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor, Africans are poorer than Europeans because their culture is inferior to that of the whites.David Landes, a retired professor at Harvard University, argues that the west is vastly richer than the third world primarily because of superior cultural traits. Landes’ conclusion is drawn from an economic history of the world he undertakes to determine why some countries have prospered and continue to do so while others wallow in worsening poverty.Why for example is the actual per capita income of the Swiss today 80 times superior to that of the Mozambicans, when this ratio was 1 to 5 in the 16th century? This is the starting point of his reflection and he comes to the conclusion that cultural values, such as hard work, honesty, open-mindedness and a commitment to democracy make the difference. Naturally, some would say Landes’ book is controversial or even offensive but are his arguments entirely without merit?Economists dislike culture as an explanation for disparities in economic development because it doesn’t play well to models or measurable criteria but agree that culture matters when understanding differences in economic progress between countries. Landes in his book maintains that nations prosper depending on national attitudes, specifically, their ability or inability to exploit science, technology and economic opportunity.The idea that culture is important is one that argues that certain cultures have characteristics that are more conducive to promoting human progress and prosperity than others. The notion that culture is important in understanding economic development is hardly new and has been around for many years.Landes is certainly not the only contemporary economist to argue that culture is the key to economic success. Japanese economist Yoshihara Kunio for instance writes, “One reason Japan developed is that it had a culture suitable for it. The Japanese attached importance to material pursuits; hard work; saving for the future; investment in education; and community values.In Landes’ own words “there are cultures that I would call toxic that handicap the people who cling to them.” So, what are some of the cultural differences between African cultures and western cultures for instance? It is argued that western culture is individualistic whereas Africans are more collective and communal in nature.In Africa, the individual submits to the clan or community which is said to discourage innovation or the incentive to take risks or make personal investments since property such as land is communally owned such as in some societies in Uganda.It’s not uncommon to find that virtually every Ugandan you meet who is gainfully employed has a line of relatives for whom he or she is a benefactor. In the west the individual is paramount, protected by a bill of Rights, property rights and patents which drive enterprise. The cultural ideals in the west emphasize self-reliance.Moving away from culture and onto geography, Landes blames the weather for African poverty claiming that warm climates encourage leisure whereas cold climates encourage hard work. He argues that hot climates are given to extremes of weather such as drought or torrential rainfall which make farming and other endeavors difficult. That tropical climate is conducive for debilitating diseases such as malaria compared to winter which kills many of the organisms that cause disease.Landes’ book doesn’t offer much in the way of a growth strategy for the rest of the non-European world except that countries that want to industrialise have to embrace European culture.So, does Africa need a cultural adjustment programme strictly following Landes’ cultural description? Given the transformation of South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong or even the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, it doesn’t entirely seem to be the case since there seems to be more than one route to economic success. However some cultural traits such as hard work, the rule of law and free market enterprise are common to countries that have had economic transformation.Landes’ book does however offer a very keen insight into the rise of the west and the influence of culture in that growth. It seems however that today’s emerging economies are re-writing the script and crafting a whole new path to the promised land.

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