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A cultural approach to providing development aid

January 20, 2010

Recent events in Haiti have dominated the news recently. There is certainly much to be mourned there– but this NY Times column from David Brooks points out some important facts about efforts to provide relief to Haiti. Humanitarian aid is certainly needed in the short run, but there are much deeper-seated problems in the country.

Brooks considers several concerns about international aid, adopting a William Easterly type stance on this issue. There are two concerns worth highlighting here. The first is about culture.

“… it is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty. Why is Haiti so poor? …Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape.

… Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.”

I think there is something to the culture argument, but the concept may obscure as much as it illuminates. Which aspect(s) of culture is doing the explanatory work? We need a better idea of what is going on, and it is clear that we do not know enough. At least, not yet. Brooks argues that this does not matter. We can intervene in a different way:

“…it’s time to promote locally led paternalism. In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.

It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.” Full story.

What Brooks is essentially recommending is some form of an internal cultural transplant– replace a dysfunctional culture with one that teaches the “right” sorts of values. Assuming that this set of values exists, the kind of intervention that is successful at that level is very hard to scale up. In fact, it is usually its small-scale nature and the dedication of individuals that makes these types of interventions work– replicating it on a larger scale when there is so little capacity would be extremely challenging. This type of intervention is also very expensive– enormous resources need to be devoted to this “cultural approach” to aid. If there are not even the resources to do this in our own countries in the West, the idea of doing it on any substantial scale in a developing country is unlikely.

In principle, I could see the benefits. It would be a locally-driven approach. It would provide the right mix of incentives. The positive culture might spread outside of the enclave. Perhaps to the extent that it would change the mainstream culture. Has this type of development approach been successfully implemented anywhere?

** Update: I just attended a talk by Eric Uslaner (Univ. of Maryland). He works on the relationship between trust, inequality and corruption. He argues that inequality undermines trust, which creates the conditions for corruption to thrive.  ” When we trust people who may be different from ourselves, we will be more predisposed to treat them honestly–and profiting from corruption will seem unseemly.”

I think he would say that this is a cultural issue and what needs to happen is a rebuilding of the foundations of trust in Haitian society.

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