Cultural and social factors that affect development

Some factors influencing development are:
Closely linked to this is the population issue. If
women see staying at home and bringing up
children as their chief role, they will have more
children than those who work. There is nothing
wrong with having lots of children, as long as you
can provide for them. Jeffrey Sachs again: ‘With
fewer children, a poor household can invest more
in the health and education of each child,
thereby equipping the next generation with the
health, nutrition, and education that can lift living
standards in future years.’
As Paul has talked about here before, world
population has exploded. What is interesting is
that the countries where this has happened are
often those where women do not play a role in
business or society. When women are educated
and given a choice, some will stay at home and
look after children, and others will pursue careers
or start small businesses.
This is an important factor, as some countries
have seen their population double or triple
without their economies keeping pace. That
leaves more mouths to feed, and just not enough
to go around.
I’ve already mentioned the role of women, but
culture can have hidden effects in business,
trade and development. China may be a major
power now, but it was the world’s most
developed country in the middle ages, and
stagnated, or even went backwards, for
centuries. Part of this was cultural, a pride and
sense of self-sufficiency that led to a closing of
China’s borders. ‘China seems to have long been
stationary’, Adam Smith wrote in 1776, in his
Wealth of Nations. ‘A country which neglects or
despises foreign commerce… cannot transact the
same quantity of business which it might do with
different laws and institutions.’ That’s changed,
but nationalism, suspicion, or radical philosophy
still has some countries closed down to outside
involvement – communism in North Korea, or
extremist Islam in Taliban Afghanistan, locking
countries out of development.
This the far end of the spectrum, but culture
works in subtler ways too. Some cultures believe
in a greater good, in unity, in the rule of law.
They are optimistic, hopeful, ambitious and ready
to pull together. Others can be paranoid,
fragmented, uncertain of their place in the
modern world, angry, resistant to change. Rich
countries can be overconfident and brash. Poor
countries can see themselves as victims and
become despondent. In his The Wealth and
Poverty of Nations , economic historian David
Landes says ‘If we learn anything from the
history of economic development it is that
culture makes all the difference.’
The limits of cultural interpretations
At the same time, cultural influences on
development are notoriously hard to call from the
outside. Hinduism was often cited as one of the
reasons why India would never develop. Because
everyone accepts their place in the world, it was
assumed that Hindus would lack the ambition
required to innovate and do business on an
international stage. The recent growth in India’s
economy proves that wrong quite spectacularly.
Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang quotes a 1911
travel book that describes Koreans as “sullen,
lazy and religionless savages”, something that
hardly holds true today. So did Korean culture
change, or was the writer simply being superior?
We understand each other better than ever in our
globalized world, but our language and traditions
are still full of little prejudices that imply we are
better than others, and that our neighbours are
lazy and dirty and uncouth. I love the fact that
not turning up for work is called ‘taking French
leave’ in England, and ‘filez a l’Anglaise’ (or
‘doing an English’) in France. A Malagasy friend
once joked that in Madagascar, every tribe
believes that every other tribe eats cats. In
short, culture no doubt plays a role in
development, but we have to watch our own
biases as we seek to understand why some
countries succeed and others fail.

The Earthbound Report

This is part 4 of an exploration into why some countries are poorer than others.

Sometimes there are social or cultural factors that hold back poor countries. Discrimination is one of these. If there are certain people groups that are discriminated against, the country’s overall productivity can suffer. This may be a tribe, a caste, a racial category or minority language group. I have already mentioned Cameroon, which has both French speaking and English speaking regions. All the infrastructure happens in the French speaking part. French speakers in Canada complain of the opposite. Welsh speakers in Britain, or Catalans in Spain, have historically faced similar problems. Racial discrimination may be an issue, excluding certain groups from economic activity, either deliberately or not. Racial minorities regularly have poorer exam results and economic prospects than the majority. More serious forms of exclusion would be apartheid South Africa, or the Asian communities…

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