This is part 4 of an exploration into why some countries are poorer than others.
Sometimes there are social or cultural factors that hold back poor countries. Discrimination is one of these. If there are certain people groups that are discriminated against, the country’s overall productivity can suffer. This may be a tribe, a caste, a racial category or minority language group. I have already mentioned Cameroon, which has both French speaking and English speaking regions. All the infrastructure happens in the French speaking part. French speakers in Canada complain of the opposite. Welsh speakers in Britain, or Catalans in Spain, have historically faced similar problems.
Racial discrimination may be an issue, excluding certain groups from economic activity, either deliberately or not. Racial minorities regularly have poorer exam results and economic prospects than the majority. More serious forms of exclusion would be apartheid South Africa, or the Asian communities driven out of Uganda under Idi Amin, which was disastrous for Uganda’s economy. This racial discrimination is international too. The old ‘whites in charge’ power structures of colonialism might be formally gone and old colonies now independent – but they cast a long shadow. Global power is still very much tilted towards the northern hemisphere.
Another division may be the role of women. Jeffrey Sachs talks about this in The End of Poverty: ‘Cultural or religious norms may block the role of women… leaving half the population without economic or political rights and without education, thereby undermining half of the population in its contribution to overall development.’ If you don’t believe that women should work, you have effectively halved the earning potential of your country.
Closely linked to the role of women is the population issue. If women see staying at home and bringing up children as their primary role, they will often have more children than those who work. This is not necessarily a problem, but fewer children can bring benefits for development. Jeffrey Sachs again: ‘With fewer children, a poor household can invest more in the health and education of each child, thereby equipping the next generation with the health, nutrition, and education that can lift living standards in future years.’
In the last century, the world’s population grew dramatically. What is interesting is that the countries where this has happened are often those where women do not play a role in business or society. When women are educated and given a choice, some will stay at home and look after children, and others will pursue careers or start small businesses.
This is an important factor, as some countries have seen their population double or triple without their economies keeping pace. That leaves more mouths to feed, and just not enough to go around. The answers lie in access to family planning, and in the empowering of women and girls so that everyone can make a good decision for themselves and their families.
I’ve already mentioned the role of women, but culture can have hidden effects in business, trade and development. China may be a major power now, but it was the world’s most developed country in the middle ages. It stagnated, or even went backwards, for centuries. Part of this was cultural, a pride and sense of self-sufficiency that led to a closing of China’s borders. ‘China seems to have long been stationary’, Adam Smith wrote in 1776, in his Wealth of Nations. ‘A country which neglects or despises foreign commerce… cannot transact the same quantity of business which it might do with different laws and institutions.’ That’s changed, but nationalism, suspicion, or radical philosophy still has some countries closed down to outside involvement – communism in North Korea, or extremist Islam in Taliban Afghanistan, locking countries out of development.
This the far end of the spectrum, but culture works in subtler ways too. Some cultures believe in a greater good, in unity, in the rule of law. They are optimistic, hopeful, ambitious and ready to pull together. Others can be paranoid, fragmented, uncertain of their place in the modern world, angry, resistant to change. Rich countries can be overconfident and brash. Poor countries can see themselves as victims and become despondent. In his The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, economic historian David Landes says ‘If we learn anything from the history of economic development it is that culture makes all the difference.’
The limits of cultural interpretations
At the same time, cultural influences on development are notoriously hard to call from the outside. Hinduism was often cited as one of the reasons why India would never develop. Because everyone accepts their place in the world, it was assumed that Hindus would lack the ambition required to innovate and do business on an international stage. The recent growth in India’s economy proves that wrong quite spectacularly. Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang quotes a 1911 travel book that describes Koreans as “sullen, lazy and religionless savages”, something that hardly holds true today. So did Korean culture change, or was the writer simply being superior?
Making assumptions about other cultures has at times been a tool of colonialism and oppression. In the days of empire, the British believed they were superior to other cultures and that it was in everybody’s interests for them to be in charge. In fact, it was their duty to take charge and ‘civilise’ cultures that were seen as ‘savage’ or primitive. All kinds of racism and abuse was legitimised this way.
We understand each other better than ever in our globalized world, but our language and traditions are still full of little prejudices that imply we are better than others, and that our neighbours are lazy and dirty and uncouth. I love the fact that not turning up for work is called ‘taking French leave’ in England, and ‘filez a l’Anglaise’ (or ‘doing an English’) in France. A Malagasy friend once joked that in Madagascar, every tribe believes that every other tribe eats cats. In short, culture no doubt plays a role in development, but we have to watch our own biases as we seek to understand why some countries succeed and others fail.