Labelling Africans, or indeed any cultural grouping, as universally lazy and/or ignorant is at best a crass generalization and often outright racism. Often it is a sign that the speaker him- or her-self is too lazy to understand those they are accusing, and why they behave the way they do. But there are also plenty of cases which cannot be so easily dismissed, either because the speaker is from the maligned culture (or a related grouping), and/or you know that the complaint comes from real experience by one not given to reflex pejoratives. Examples are legion, some remarked to me, others I have observed:
- The house builder from the local area who cautions that his own labourers are lazy.
- The fast food restaurant serving rather slow food because the staff would rather chatter to one another than serve customers, and the bar staff who seem incapable of picking up the pace of their work on a busy club night.
- Government officials from one part of the country labelling those from another as basically lazy.
- Africans from a better educated country becoming frustrated at the lack of work ethic and lack of identification with their respective employers in those from another.
- The hotel owner frustrated at the boatman who doesn’t turn up for work on the fourth day because after three days straight he reckons he has enough money for now.
- That Indian and Chinese immigrants to the UK have a reputation for working extremely hard to which those from West Africa do not lay claim.
Even if there is still an element of cultural misunderstanding in these complaints, I believe there is far too much smoke for there to be no fire. People who assert in the name of political correctness that there is no problem are being naive. Many (maybe most?) extremely poor people exhibit an apparent cultural aversion to the sort of hard work that many commentators believe is necessary for economic development.
All of this is not to say, however, that any one person cannot rise above their cultural origins; cultural determinism is not an argument against free will. Many people can and do conquer it, and it is insulting to tar everyone with the same brush. Moreover, in the right circumstances these ‘lazy good-for-nothings’ can work incredibly hard, as anyone who has watched a digging crew in action hereabouts knows. Indeed the longer I stay here, the more my understanding grows, and the more I believe I can devise schemes to better motivate people who might otherwise be accused of laziness.
Many African countries went through a socialist phase after independence; attitudes developed during that time cannot have helped. Similarly the high levels of patronage practised by many African governments would tend to suggest to their citizens that who you know, not how hard you work, is the critical factor in becoming rich.
A much more important argument is put forward by Jeffrey Sachs (and doubtless many others); that in the past many other cultures have been similarly labelled when today we would regard such an accusation as preposterous. In The End of Poverty Sachs describes how in the 1870s, when their economy was first re-opening to the world, that this was how most people saw the Japanese. Many waves of immigrants to America were often initially assumed to be lazy. Indeed I wonder whether in 1066 the Norman conquerors of England might not have moaned about the indolence of their Anglo-Saxon serfs.
Sachs’s point is that cultural attitudes to work clearly change, and it appears that they change as economic development happens. I would venture to suggest that education plays a big part in the change. My question is this: given the clear economic benefits of having a positive attitude to hard work, do we have any idea as to what development interventions best help to inculcate such a work ethic? Do we have to wait for economic development to begin (depending upon your point of view this is or is not achievable through large investments of aid), or can we short-cut the process a little? I do not expect any silver bullets, which do not exist in a field as complex as economic development, but anything that can help prioritise development interventions is worth considering.