Posts Tagged ‘cultural determinism’

Big man culture and the art of non-delegation

Big man culture is often used specifically to refer to the preponderance of men with strong dictatorial tendencies ruling many African countries*. However, like any proper cultural trait, its manifestation is not restricted to a single walk of life but is broadly preponderant, especially in many developing country government institutions.

Morten Jerven’s travails conducting his research into the failings of GDP calculation in African statistics departments (remarked upon in my previous post) struck a definite chord with me in that respect. Critics of his research have alleged that he did not seek the views of the statisticians themselves, including – critically from their perspective – the views of the department directors. Professor Jerven’s response will be familiar to too many people around here:

I had an invitation and introduction to all the offices I visited. … I wrote letters, emails and phoned all statistical offices in Sub-Saharan Africa repeatedly in order to verify information, request access and set up interviews. As anyone who has tried something similar can attest, the response rate is extremely low. For all the places I did go to I had a response, a contact and an invitation.

Upon arrival at all these places I went through the dissemination office to clarify my purpose and research. At all those offices I also requested an interview with Directors and senior management and in every case these requests were ignored.

Yes openness about one’s data and methods are hardly common amongst government staff around here, but we knew that already. What Professor Jerven alludes to, but does not elaborate, is how the institutional architecture in such organisations itself is set up to frustrate the inquirer.

In particular, the concentration of official power and responsibility in a single big man or woman at the top. This tends to be reflected in all official correspondence and notices, which are always issued in the name of the head honcho. Inquirers are instructed to address all correspondence to the same. Often the whole institution will have only a single official email address, with staff having to use personal addresses at the likes of Gmail or Yahoo just in order to work effectively. (Sending emails to the official address is often as about as useful as trying to signal to them in semaphore.)

Some of these problems can be mitigated where the Executive Director is a genuinely committed and energetic leader, but still it hardly makes for great dynamism. Where he or she is more concerned simply with protecting their own interests or personal fiefdom it can lead to almost complete paralysis. It can be so frustrating to have go right to the top to get the smallest thing addressed wherever it does not very clearly fall within an underling’s typically narrow job description.

All of this is tied up to a degree with the shallowness of the talent pool in the labour force (though where rent seeking is common, talent often fails to rise to the top any way), and sometimes one can feel a certain sympathy for senior officials. But too often I also just want to scream: “Lighten up a little!” (Pomposity in execution of their duties is regrettably common.) “Give a few of your many reins to some of your junior staff. If you never show any trust in them then you’ll never find out if you can trust them.”

Sadly, but unsurprisingly in what has coalesced into a social norm, is that such management structures and approaches are also often found in businesses and NGOs, although less rigidly in the best performers. Of course such social constructs are not immutable, and in time one would expect the big man culture to wane (just as it is slowly in the political sphere), but for the time being the art of non-delegation will continue to frustrate the Professor Jervens of this world, as well as those big men and women who wonder why they can get so little done.

* The term is a literal translation from various Bantu languages, hence the African association, although I think the practice itself is not particularly African.


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.

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