Changing Cultural Determinism

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.


7 responses to this post.

  1. Hm. Since we’re talking culture here, I am more comfortable with the term cultural relativism as opposed to cultural determinism. Allows for the idea of particularism flexibility since cultures aren’t homogeneous nor are they static.

    To address your question, yeah- Tanzanians are often told that we are not competitive in the modern capitalist world. I think a large part of this so-called problem is explained by complex social change issues, and competing ideas of individual agency, with a little bit of non-modern culture thrown in for good measure. Broad strokes: under colonialism, the only incentive for Natives (their term, not mine) to work in the “formal economy” was to pay the colonial taxes and keep out of jail. With a little help from Ujamaa, the individual’s importance continued to be depressed- hell, sometimes there were penalties attached to initiative.

    But this is now, and there are more than plenty of Tanzanians who are signing on to the idea that hard work in the formal sector will yield reasonable returns, as our economy grows and we have more opportunity etc. As evidenced by high rural-urban migration, the informal economy etc. We’re actually busy building now the institutions that will result in all that recognizable westernized modernity that passes for development. I predict the situation will be quite different in another five to ten years, as we really embrace the Economic Development paradigm as valid and achievable even at the individual level.

    I have to address the tendency to assume that something is “wrong” with cultures that don’t behave according to the values of the observing culture. That’s, like, the laziest form of racism ever.


    • Interesting. I see and hear plenty of anecdotal evidence that the brain drain is reversing in some African countries (especially among the younger generation). This definitely has to be a good thing. Without wanting to ascribe any particular value to the idea (see below), I wonder to what extent such returners might provide alternative role models in their society, thus contributing to a change in work ethic? Does a poor Tanzanian who has never progressed beyond primary school identify with a richer one whose parents sent to university in the US, or do they feel almost as alienated as they do with expatriate Westerners?

      I also think that it is up to the individual to decide how much they want to work or not. For an employer coming here to set up business, it is their challenge to understand their workforce and motivate them accordingly. Moaning about their problem without attempting to understand it is unedifying. I even suppose many of them might agree with a suggestion that there is something “wrong” with the culture of their staff, and I would agree that is a particularly lazy form of racism.

      But … what do we mean by “wrong”? In a relativistic discussion is anything ever truly right or wrong? It’s an issue that human rights activists have long had to grapple with. Is economic development “good”? There are plenty of examples of communities and cultures that have resisted the march of modernity, and often they are respected for it. (The Victorian myth of the noble savage.) However, most poor people do seem to want economic development, and, in the absence of a natural resources boom combined with unusually good governance (examples tend to start and end with Botswana), it seems hard work is one of the key ingredients for a nation to achieve that. Lots of economists also praise FDI as important, but unfortunately not many investors take the time to understand the culture and motivations of their workforce – they just expect them to work hard.

      It is certainly a point of optimism that you see an inflection point coming soon, or even happening now. If you are right, and if this applies to many other countries too, maybe Paul Collier is wrong to worry over much about the fate of the “Bottom Billion”. Finally, is this something that the development industry can help with? Maybe not now in Tanzania, but perhaps in CAR, for instance? Or is the notion that we can help transform people’s values systems in this way a hubris-tic, neo-imperialist fallacy of the worst order?


  2. “Does a poor Tanzanian who has never progressed beyond primary school identify with a richer one whose parents sent to university in the US, or do they feel almost as alienated as they do with expatriate Westerners?” – In my personal experience, the second tends to apply. It’s a class issue where class is almost completely determined by education level, with the highest economic class enjoying a foreign education that hardly equips us to relate to poor Tanzanians as our peers since our aspirational education tells us that our peers are Wall Street Bankers or UN Directors. Maybe the real utility of the reverse brain drain is going to be in employing us returnees to build up the institutions we need for a modern nation state- the middle class, the indigenous private sector (larger scale), services, innovation, growth, growth, growth, and the occasional politician interested in redistribution. Of course there is always the danger that we will just use our educations to become better thieves at BoT, sneak into the ruling party via its pockets and become another headcase of a country.

    As for the inflexion point- we have no choice, really. When we gained independence there was probably a very small handful of secondary school and university graduates and the rest could make a decent living through farming or blacksmithing or whatever your trade was. Now there are hordes of us, all trying to live the American Dream (house with flush toilet, car, 2.5 healthy kids, private schooling and DSTV on the tube) and besides, who needs a blacksmith anymore? Since the state’s not going to do it for us, and the development sector is fixated with poverty, we’re just going to have to stimulate that economic growth ourselves… through hard work 🙂

    “Finally, is this something that the development industry can help with? Maybe not now in Tanzania, but perhaps in CAR, for instance? Or is the notion that we can help transform people’s values systems in this way a hubris-tic, neo-imperialist fallacy of the worst order?” Of course it is hubristic and neo-imperialist fallacy of the worst order like any self-righteous intervention is bound to be. Someone’s always tampering with the value system- if it’s not the Christians it will be the World Bank, or the Feminists, or the Foreign Investors or the Socialists or the Development Industry or the Roman Empire. Most people are happy enough to adopt almost any new thinking or way of doing things providing they can see the benefit in doing so. If not, send their kids to school and inject them with the desired value system and then simply wait for the older generations to die off.

    One thing that I do find limited in the development industry though is the way the other social sciences are marginalized by economics. And economics, for all its utility, is also the most reductive and least interested in dealing with real-life complexities. I can’t help but think that including political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists might improve the thinking and efficacy of development projects. Another thing to keep in mind also is the temporal aspect: it’s going to take time for us to change. No instant gratification here.

    But I did want to make one final point: I am endlessly amused when expats move to Tanzania and then find that things work a little differently here than they do back home. Want to be effective? Learn the language. Learn the culture. Learn what’s most likely to provide the results you need, and then do it. In a nutshell: acculturate.


    • Ok. I can see your point on changing value systems. So what we’re saying is that this is a good example of one of the building blocks / processes of economic development that cannot really be short-cut. If only the world’s various development agencies didn’t keep implying otherwise …


  3. Exactly. Also: allow for complexity, particularism, specialization. We have some of the tools but not all of the answers. Sometimes we’re not even observing or asking the right questions, we’re just we’re relying on formulas…


  4. […] Leave a Comment Due to my desire to obscure my location (and thus preserve my anonymity) a recent post contained some clumsy phrasing: “Africans from [one] country … those from another [African […]


  5. […] a recent discussion on this blog recently concluded, this is probably not something which is going to take a while to change. However, it does have […]


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