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Culture and Economic Development

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Culture and Economic Development

December 4th, 2006

Since I was first involved in international development assistance, almost a half century ago, dominant development paradigms have come and gone, among them Rostow's stages of economic growth, national planning, focus on the poorest of the poor, appropriate technology, dependency, focus on the private sector, the Washington Consensus, and institutional development. During those fifty years we have witnessed a few success stories, largely in East and South Asia. But what most captures those years is a sense of disappointment, of frustration—of "development fatigue"—driven by the failure of the large majority of countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Islamic world to achieve transforming rates of economic growth.
At no point in this paradigm odyssey have cultural values and attitudes been confronted. It is true that, since the 1970s, cultural anthropologists have participated in the design of projects. But that participation has usually been limited to assuring that cultural realities were adequately reflected in design, rarely to encourage cultural change. Many anthropologists, indeed many social scientists, subscribe to cultural relativism, the theory that each society or culture must define its own values and that cultures are neither better nor worse, only different. One can imagine the horrified reaction to a comment made by David Landes, author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, at a World Bank conference in 2000: "…there are cultures that I would call 'toxic'…[that] handicap the people who cling to them."[1]
Cultural relativism fits very nicely with, and reinforces, the predilection of many economists to assume that people are the same the world over. As the former World Bank economist William Easterly, author of The White Man's Burden, wrote in reviewing my book Who Prospers?, "Maybe there is a lot to be said for the old-fashioned economist's view that...


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