WHY NATIONS DEVELOP DIFFERENTLY
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
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
[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
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
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]