“Culture can contaminate you…If you’re not careful, it will contaminate you, and you will just talk, talk, talk without doing anything.” –Galai Diop
Most of Asia and Eastern Europe are plugging into the growing world economy, and are receiving all the benefits and problems that come along with it. But the ‘bottom billion’ of mostly African countries is stagnant or worse. Why?
Much is being made these days in academic economics of ‘poverty traps’, with Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University leading the way. Families don’t have enough capital to invest in anything outside of subsistence activities, so they can’t escape poverty. Countries are landlocked without valuable natural resources and so it is too expensive for them to link up with the world economy.  Ok, fine. Agreed.
But as I look at Sachs’ diagrams of families trapped in poverty, replete with arrows and elements such as ‘lack of savings’ leading to ‘lack of investment’, I find it hard to believe that he is talking about human beings. People are complicated! We can be irrational, we can be greedy, we can cheat others, we can be lazy. The best way we’ve come up with to describe this conglomeration of tendencies within a group of people is in the word culture. I want to talk about the most daunting development trap of all- the culture trap.
Before I go into the details of the trap, you have to realize how powerful culture is and how diverse cultures across the world can be. Any social norm is up for grabs. Everything is subject to change. I glance at the Newsweek on my floor and see two male hands interlocked with a title concerning gay rights underneath. If I were to show this to a Senegalese friend, they would not get it; in Senegal, guys hold each others’ hands all the time and it has nothing to do with sexual attraction.
Culture is powerful. So many of our actions are heavily influenced (if not dictated) by our culture. In Senegal, I won’t ask a stranger for directions or other information without greeting him first. I don’t want to offend him. In America, I won’t ask a stranger for directions or other information unless I have to. I will excuse myself rather than making conversation about the heat. I don’t want to waste his time. I am the same person, but I act differently depending on where I am and who I’m interacting with. Culture dictates my behavior.
In this example, I have grazed the most important aspects of Senegalese culture: human interaction and community. The Senegalese are an extraverted people and depend on each other for everything from positive social interaction (what I like to call social grooming), to information, to resources. They depend on each other for food, they depend on each other for money, they depend on each other for survival. Whereas America’s survival strategy is rugged individuality, Senegal’s survival strategy is cohesive community. And they do incredibly well at surviving with what they have. Scientific studies have shown (read: in my arbitrary estimation) 20% of the population wouldn’t make it longer than 3 months if a town of Americans was transplanted here. Yet, the Senegalese in my town are doing alright. Despite being one of the poorer countries in the world, just about everyone (outside of the capital at least) has some rice to eat and a place to sleep. So the survival by community strategy works incredibly well at what it is designed to do.
Let’s look at how the community achieves its goal of survival for all despite limited resources. My favorite example is in The Ponds of Kalambayi when the author describes the agony of watching his work partner, after months of arduous labor, divvy up the hard-earned catch from his fish pond with everyone in his village until only a couple measly fish remain for him. We suddenly see how rational it was of all the other people the narrator had approached about fish ponds to blow him off without a second thought. In a community-based survival setting, there’s no incentive to work any more than you have to. You don’t reap any of the benefits! And so this strategy goes from boon to barrier when the conversation changes from survival to development.
There are other aspects of the culture trap (don’t forget- this culture trap is self-evidently culture specific) that I see. When I see someone who works hard, I look at them with pride; when the Senegalese look at this person, they look at them with pity. Compare the American’s sometimes sadistic desire for challenge and the (not always, but often) Senegalese aversion to hard work, and guess which culture is better geared to advance materially. I don’t claim to understand the sociological reasons for these differences or that they will not change. But almost everyday, I’m reminded that: “When an American needs money, he works for it. When an African needs money, he talks for it.”