Cultural values may hinder or accelerate human progress.


Having good climate, good natural resources, and good policy

advice may not be enough to make a nation succeed. Scholars are

now looking seriously at the role of having a good culture for

improving prospects for national prosperity.


At the end of World War II, much of Western Europe and Japan

lay in ruins. Yet, today these regions are once more among

the richest and most powerful on earth. Marshall Plan money

and America's benevolent example and protection get

much of the credit for these postwar economic miracles.

But massive aid and well-intentioned guidance have

not produced comparable results in Latin America, Africa,

and elsewhere including pockets of poverty within the highly

developed nations themselves. Why not? What went wrong?


Clearly geography plays a role.  Climate, raw materials,

farmland, fresh water, access to the sea, and other factors

all help a nation grow and prosper. History, too, has an

influence. In nations with established traditions of political

independence, democracy, social mobility, and a relatively

free market, people are generally more efficient and less

corrupt and thus better able to use foreign aid for its

intended purpose.


Geography and history alone do not explain why some countries

flourish and others lag behind. In 1960, for example, the

economies of South Korea and Ghana were roughly equal; today,

only Korea has developed into a global economic power. Even

within nations different areas develop unevenly. Northern

Italy, for example, has prospered more than the south, and

certain minorities within the U.S. population remain

relatively poor.


[Picture of a Monk- A monk prays in Burma. Cultures in which the

belief system praises poverty may hinder economic development]


Sociologists and scholars now look for other factors to

explain obvious differences in development among nations and

within them. One intriguing area of interest is "culture"-defined

as the prevailing values, attitudes, beliefs, and underlying

assumptions about life held by  concept of wealth that emphasizes

majority or minority groups in a society.


A new book. Culture Matters, explores possible links

links between cultural values and human progress. As co-editor

Lawrence E. Harrison points out, "The world at the end of the

twentieth century is far poorer,  far more unjust, and far

more authoritarian than most people at mid-century expected

it would be. Co-editor Samuel P. Huntington, author of

The Cash of Civilizations, notes that scholars are beginning

to explore "how political and social action can make

cultures more favorable to progress."


A Closer Look at Culture


Two basic ideological concerns crop up repeatedly in papers

included in the volume: (1) Are some cultures truly "better"

than others?  That is, do certain sets of beliefs and

practices offer distinct advantages in dealing with

life's challenges? And (2) If existing cultures can be

changed to promote progress, who should be changing, and



Mariano Gronda, a writer and scholar from Argentina, identifies

20 specific factors that appear to make cultures more conducive

to economic and social development. These include trust in the

individual and a concept of wealth that emphasizes not what

exists now, but what future potential may be realized from

product of work and investment.



Grondona notes that religion influence progress,

as well: Systems of belief that tend to praise or value

poverty as a benefit to salvation and spiritual 

progress  (Buddhism, Catholicism) may make economic

development difficult "because the poor will feel

justified in their poverty and the rich will be

uncomfortable because they see themselves as sinners."

In contrast, cultures that treat poverty as a test

To be endured or a condition to be overcome (Confucianism,

Protestantism) encourage poor and rich alike to

Improve their condition and celebrate their success.


Co-editor Harrison concludes with a top-10 list of cultural

Attitudes or mind-sets that appear to help promote progress:



1. TIME ORIENTATION: Progressive cultures emphasize the near

future, while static cultures focus on the past or the far future.


2. WORK is valued for its own sake in progressive cultures,

but viewed as a burden in static cultures.


3. FRUGALITY is respected as prudent in progressive cultures, but

viewed with suspicion as selfishness in static cultures.


4. EDUCATION is ideally offered to all in progressive cultures;

it is the exclusive privilege of the elite in static cultures.


5. MERIT is considered the only proper basis for advancement in

progressive cultures, while family and connections matter more

in static cultures.


6. COMMUNITY is more broadly defined in progressive cultures,

which tends to trust and identify with many groups; in static

cultures; individuals feel closely bound only to their own

family or nearest neighbors.


7. ETHICAL CODES are more rigorous in progressive cultures,

which tend to be less corrupt than static cultures-though

there are notable exceptions.


8. JUSTICE AND FAIR PLAY are held as universal ideals in

progressive societies, but more cynically perceived in

static cultures as dependent on wealth and influence.


9. AUTHORITY tends to be more widely dispersed in progressive

cultures; it is more concentrated and exercised from above

in static cultures.


10. RELIGION'S INFLUENCE on civic life tends to be small

in progressive cultures; in static cultures, religious

institutions often exercise substantial influence in

public affairs.


These traits may not be universally beneficial, since

changing world conditions can turn advantages into

liabilities and vice-versa. Certainly cultural traits

change over time. And efforts to include ethics and values

training  in the public  schools demonstrate the widespread

belief that such changes can be brought about through

direct action.


But critics of cultural interference have a point, too.

It is unlikely that Western standards of utility and

moral behavior can be imposed from outside to change a

nation or a group's beliefs. Even military action

seems to have had little impact on the aims and values

of citizens or their leaders in "rogue" nations.


Lasting changes arise from within a culture; to achieve

progress the value of these changes must be clear

even to those who focus exclusively focus exclusively

on local needs and interests, which may not necessarily

be identical with global priorities and norms.


- Lane Jennings


Source; Culture Matters: How Values Shape

Human Progress edited by Lawrence E. Harrison

and Samuel P. Huntington. Basic Books.

2000. 34S paaes. Available from the Futurist

Bookstore for $35 ($31.95 for Sociely members).

cat. no. B-2355.


[From The Futurist, Feb 2001, Pages 8,9]