Friday, August 17, 2007

Culture Matters

This is priceless. It's all gold, but I think my favorite part is the cruel, cruel insult: "an African Margaret Thatcher." Wow, and I thought the comparisons of Bush to Hitler were harsh! But seriously, folks, does anyone doubt that if Africans were even remotely capable of producing a leader like Margaret Thatcher, their biggest problem today would likely be the HD-DVD/Blu-Ray conversion debate? And Angelina would be off adopting Canadians or something.

Anyway, Bono's outburst reminded me of this great Ambivablog post. One of the Easterly quotations that lept out at me:

"The ideology of Development is not only about having experts design your free market for you; it is about having the experts design a comprehensive, technical plan to solve all the problems of the poor. These experts see poverty as a purely technological problem, to be solved by engineering and the natural sciences, ignoring messy social sciences such as economics, politics, and sociology."

Sociology. It's not just about markets, not just about institutions - it's about people.

Which brings me to this fascinating new book:

"As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.

'Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,' Dr. Clark writes."

Thrift? Hard work? What!? Where was the UN? Where was Bono? Where was Sachs???

Oh, yeah:

"Many commentators point to a failure of political and social institutions as the reason that poor countries remain poor. But the proposed medicine of institutional reform 'has failed repeatedly to cure the patient,' Dr. Clark writes. He likens the 'cult centers' of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to prescientific physicians who prescribed bloodletting for ailments they did not understand."

Modern historians, meanwhile, are appalled to learn that individuals might actually matter:

"Historians used to accept changes in people’s behavior as an explanation for economic events, like Max Weber’s thesis linking the rise of capitalism with Protestantism. But most have now swung to the economists’ view that all people are alike and will respond in the same way to the same incentives. Hence they seek to explain events like the Industrial Revolution in terms of changes in institutions, not people."

Institutions, not people. Charity, not culture. Transfers instead of transformations. No wonder Africa is doomed.

(by the way, these modern historians don't understand how people succeed because they refuse to even acknowledge success - they look at the West and see not an Industrial Revolution, but centuries of racism, patriarchy, hegemony, imperialism, and war-mongering. As for Africa, it has to them no identity except as a victim of all of the above.)

(oh, and one more thing: there's a very good chance I'll end up teaching in Africa at some point. Before you roll your eyes, that's different! Actually living with a community, and teaching its children, is different than throwing money at it. You know, that whole fish story. And no, I don't think it will actually matter, but nothing really does, and sometimes you just have to keep pushing those boulders up those mountains)

In conclusion, when it comes to the troubles with Africa today, just keep in mind this simple slogan: It's not the economy, stupid!

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