Culture is at the beginning and the end of development
(Léopold Sédar Senghor)
Published on 25 January 2013
The proposition that a local population’s viewpoints, values, and dispositions might have some bearing on local economic performance would hardly seem to be controversial. Decades ago, the great development economist Peter Bauer wrote that “economic achievement depends upon a people’s attributes, attitudes, mores and political arrangements.” But in Guyana, discussion of “culture”—much less its relationship to such things as work, thrift, savings, entrepreneurship, innovation, educational attainment, and other qualities that influence prospects for material advance—has always been off limits.
To be sure, the record of historical efforts to predict and explain economic performance on the basis of cultural attributes is admittedly chequered. Up through the 1950s and even into the early 1960s, for example, researchers and self-styled experts were offering confident and detailed explanations of why “Confucian values” constituted a serious obstacle to economic development in East Asia.
A decade or so later—after the huge boom all around the East Asian rim was well underway—the profession was still united in the consensus that the Confucian ethos mattered greatly in economic performance, but they had quietly shifted their estimate of that impact from negative to positive. With China’s success, the issue of Confucian values has continued to muddle the earlier smug assumptions.
But we cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater: while the exact contents of the cultural apparatus may be arguable, it would be foolish to assert that our reactions to the imperatives of economic development, conditioned by our cultural repertoire, are irrelevant. It is possible that some values and habits necessary for development may be common to several civilizational cultures, and it would be necessary to identify and reinforce these if a country wants to join in the virtuous cycle of growth and development.
Slavery and indentureship have left legacies that still linger powerfully in our culture and indeed in our psyches. Take for instance our attitudes towards savings. The rate of national savings is a crucial variable in the early stages of efforts to pull a nation on the path of sustainable development. The higher the rate of savings, the greater the amount of funds available for the banking system to intermediate into investments in the economy. Among Confucian values, thrift looms rather large, and we saw this playing out in the astronomical savings rates in the Far East and China during their development surge.
In Guyana, we can appreciate the effects of culture on this variable by considering the differential imperatives promulgated by the regimes of slavery and indentureship. During slavery, there was little incentive for slaves to save since, in the absence of legal family relationships, the inheritance of property was not secured. During indentureship, on the other hand, the labourers could own and pass down property which encouraged them to save and invest in the future.
But our own history also shows that there are other factors at work in inculcating and transmitting values. Even after the ravages of slavery, some ‘apprenticed’ freed slaves were able to save huge sums of monies, between 1834-1838, which they used to purchase land that formed the basis of the ‘village movement’. It was the policies of the government of the day that stymied that fledgling spirit of thrift and entrepreneurship.
This gets us to the crucial issue of governance—which is shaped by, and in turn independently shapes, local attitudes, expectations, and motivations. There are, then, two aspects of culture to consider from this perspective: the effects of governmental policies to encourage values likely to further developmental goals and secondly the specific initiatives of the government to foster the same. With Mashramani around the corner, we ask once again, what values exactly do the activities sponsored by the government foster?
Our experience between 1976-1992 illustrates the second imperative. Violent political instability and predatory, arbitrary, or plainly destructive state practices have shaken, or sometimes altogether destroyed, the institutions and legal rules upon which purposeful individual and collective efforts for economic betterment depend.
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