Culture & development: The case of Africa

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

1.0       Introduction
Does culture matter for development?[1] A significant body of research identifies “intergenerationally transmitted” biological and cultural characteristics that affect economic development.[2] Why are some countries rich and others poor? Significant and persistent long-run effects of geographical, historical and cultural factors on productivity are attributed. And despite the broad consensus that favourable geography, strong free markets and property rights institutions contribute to development, there is evidence that these factors are by themselves inadequate. In other words, countries with strong institutions and geographical advantages could still flounder. Why? Culture is attributed.

According to Boas (1911), culture is “an integrated system of symbols, ideas and values that should be studied as a working system, an organic whole”.[3] Another definition, by Bates & Plog (1990), posits culture is “the system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.”[4] Development, on the other hand, is the “process of creating and utilizing physical, human, financial, and social assets to generate improved and broadly shared economic well-being and quality of life for a community or region” (Seidman, 2005).[5]

Mokyr (2016) establishes a strong link between culture and development.[6] Mokyr argues that the unprecedented and sustained technological progress in the West stems from a significant change in “cultural beliefs about the natural world and the diffusion of knowledge” in 17th to 18th century Europe. A contrast is made between the cultural evolution in Europe, where it was dynamic, and in China, where it was relatively static. An openness to new knowledge in the West encouraged the continued challenge of old beliefs with evidence. In the East, however, awe for long-held beliefs engendered conservatism. Put simply, the West encouraged new ideas and adopted them once they passed the test of rigorous scrutiny. On the other hand, the East largely held on to its orthodoxies.

Does China’s later economic success challenge this view? Not necessarily. China’s rise is relatively recent. And even to this day, it lags the West with respect to technological innovation. Its early history suggests this should not have been the case, however. In Mokyr’s (2016) account, science and technology flourished in China during the rulership of the Tang (618-907 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties but subsequently declined and stagnated during the Ming (1368-1644 CE) and Qing (1644-1911/12 CE) dynasties. Thus, the reason Europe had an industrial revolution and China did not, is that in addition to a radical change in culture that allowed scientific inquiry and innovation to thrive, there was no truncation in the trend on occasion of conflict or politics.

It is not suggested that there was no resistance by conservative forces in Europe to such liberalism. What differed in Europe from China and the Islamic world, where science and innovation initially thrived, was that the conditions, environment, politics coupled with the determination of its elite, allowed for liberalism to prevail over conservatism. Europe was also more receptive and adopted new technologies far quicker than China. For instance, owing to the printing press, far more books were published in Europe than in China, where “movable type printing” only took off from 1800 (Mokyr, 2016).

A contemporary case is the contrast in the economic evolution of mainland Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai and Hong Kong, which was a British protectorate until 1997. Lately, there has been sustained protests by Hong Kong youths against the increasing exercise of power by the mainland Chinese government over its special administrative region. Clearly chagrined by the prolonged protests, Chinese authorities have happened on a likely culprit: culture. Why do youths in Hong Kong behave differently from those in Beijing or Shanghai? They are educated differently. In mainland China, the young are indoctrinated with patriotic zeal at formative ages, via rote learning. In Hong Kong, the young are deliberately taught to think independently and critically. Thus, mainland Chinese youths are not as likely to challenge the government as their counterparts in Hong Kong.[7]

Malcolm Gladwell devotes a chapter to culture and air transportation safety in his 2008 book “Outliers: The story of success”. Gladwell posits Korean Air had the most plane crashes in the 1990s because of its hierarchical culture: co-pilots had difficulty pointing out errors by their captains because of the airline’s (and broader Korean) culture of deference to elders.[8] A culture of deference is also attributed to the 2013 Asiana 214 plane crash. Analysis of aviation accidents in sixty-eight countries supports the hypothesis that culture plays a role in safety.[9] Enomoto & Geisler (2017) find the higher the GDP per capita and culture of individualism in a country, the lesser the number of plane accidents. Conversely, they also find the higher the number of flights and power distance scores, the higher the number of plane accidents.

Citing Pinker (2018)[10], Spolaore (2019) argues that the cultural thesis of “open science” based on Robert Merton’s scientific virtues of communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organised scepticism and “inclusive institutions” for European progress in Mokyr (2016) presupposes that the current era of fast & seamless global communications should see unprecedented levels of progress across the world. Is that the case, though? Not entirely. Because even as global communications are easier and faster than ever, technological progress remains uneven. Put another way, that communications and international collaborations are easier now and yet technological progress remains skewed towards Western nations is perhaps evidence of the robustness of the cultural argument. But what specific aspects of a culture drive economic progress? I survey the literature on the relationship between culture and economic outcomes and explore the role of culture as a factor in Africa’s relative underdevelopment to date.

2.0       Cultural characterisations
Most studies employ cultural characterisations of individualism and collectivism by Hofstede (2001), autonomy and embeddedness by Schwartz (1994), and trust and equality by Inglehart (2000) (see Table 1).[11],[12],[13],[14] Individualism, autonomy, egalitarianism, trust and tolerance have been found to be significant cultural traits for rich countries while embeddedness, hierarchy, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, market orientation, and equality are the dominant cultural dimensions in poor countries (see Table 2).[15]

Table 1: Cultural dimensions
Hofstede (2001) Schwartz (1994) Inglehart et al. (2000)
Individualism/Collectivism Harmony Trust
Power distance Embeddedness Hard work & thrift
Masculinity/Femininity Hierarchy Tolerance
Uncertainty avoidance Mastery Public good provision
Long-term/Short-term orientation Affective autonomy Equality
Intellectual autonomy Market orientation
Source: Schwartz (1994), Inglehart (2000), Hofstede (2001), Gorodnichenko & Roland (2011)

Hofstede defines his five cultural dimensions as follows: Individualism/collectivism is the degree to which individuals are expected to look after themselves or remain integrated within groups, usually around the family. Power distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. Masculinity/femininity refers to the distribution of emotional roles between the genders. Uncertainty avoidance is the extent to which a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Long-term/short-term orientation refers to the extent to which a culture programs its members to accept delayed gratification of their material, social and emotional needs.

Table 2: Culture vs. Wealth
Rich Countries Poor Countries
Individualism Embeddedness
Intellectual Autonomy Hierarchy
Affective Autonomy Power Distance
Egalitarianism Uncertainty Avoidance
Trust Market Orientation
Tolerance Equality
Adapted from Gorodnichenko & Roland (2011)

Schwartz’s cultural values and their characteristics (in parentheses) are as follows: Harmony (unity with nature, protecting the environment, world of beauty); Embeddedness/Conservatism (social order, respect for tradition, family security, wisdom); Hierarchy (social power, authority, humility, wealth); Mastery (ambition, success, daring, competence); Affective autonomy (pleasure, exciting life, varied life); Intellectual autonomy (curiosity, broadmindedness, creativity); and Egalitarianism (equality, social justice, freedom, responsibility, honesty).[16],[17],[18] Inglehart’s cultural values of trust, hard work & thrift, tolerance, public good provision, equality, and market orientation are self-descriptive.

3.0       Culture & economic outcomes
Culture affects economic development. A comparison of the results of an experimental Ulitmatum Bargaining Game (UG) among the Machiguenga tribe of the Peruvian Amazon and participants in Los Angeles in America show significant differences in economic decision-making.[19] The experiment especially demonstrates that humans make economic decisions differently based on their values and beliefs. But even as this fact has always been reckoned, there was hitherto a reluctance to consider it as a factor in the explanation of economic phenomena because “explanations will become less clear-cut than they seem to be in the world of economic models.”[20] Cultural economics studies have since been able to successfully use survey data, study of second-generation immigrants, and experiments to overcome this supposed measurement constraint.[21]

Studies show individualist cultures engender higher economic growth relative to collectivist cultures. This is because “of the social status rewards associated with innovation in that culture.”[22] And studies find that this individualism-innovation-growth nexus is robust to the effects of institutions and other growth-related factors. The suggestion is not that collectivist countries do not engender innovation. Rather, it is that the innovation observed in collectivist cultures tend to be incremental and relatively irrelevant over time. Acemoglu & Robinson (2019) put it in the most straightforward way: “It doesn’t mean no innovation and no technological progress, as China’s own experience during the Song dynasty and the Soviet Union’s early success attest to.”[23] The consensus view is that individualistic societies are likely to maintain their technological leadership and thus likely to remain richer.

Table 3: Hofstede (2001) country index scores (ranks) for select countries
Country Power Distance Uncertainty Avoidance Individualism


United States 40 (38) 46 (43) 91 (1)
Germany 35 (42-44) 65 (29) 67 (15)
Australia 36 (41) 51 (37) 90 (2)
UK 35 (42-44) 35 (47-48) 89 (3)
South Africa 49 (35-36) 49 (39-40) 65 (16)
East Africa 64 (21-23) 52 (36) 27 (33-35)
West Africa 77 (10-11) 54 (34) 20 (39-41)
Source: Hofstede (2001)

Culture also plays a role in financial development, which is germane to economic growth.[24] Specifically, a strong correlation is found between uncertainty avoidance and the financial development of a country. That is, countries with high uncertainty avoidance or a low appetite for risk, tend to have relatively less developed financial systems (proxied by private sector credit extension and stock market capitalization). Incidentally, they also tend to have relatively lower levels of trust. Unsurprisingly, much of the developed world is characterised by a high level of trust. Generalized trust, where the goal of trust is towards the society, engenders economic efficiency while personalised trust, where the goal of trust is towards a small group (e.g., family, etc.), weighs on economic efficiency. Put another way, as most economic activities require dealing with strangers, countries with a generalized trust culture tend to be relatively more prosperous.

4.0       Culture & African development
A high level of trust is a cultural trait associated with rich countries. A low level of trust has been observed among African populations.[25],[26] The historical origins of mistrust in Africa has been traced to the slave trade. “Individuals whose ancestors were heavily raided during the slave trade today exhibit less trust in neighbours, relatives, and their local government.”[27] The heterogeneity of African populations has also been attributed for its relatively lower level of trust. This is because “heterogeneity increases the likelihood of mis-cordination and distrust, reducing cooperation and disrupting the socioeconomic order.”[28] Little wonder, cultural affinities matter more than national institutions in Africa.[29] When ethnic groups partitioned across different African countries were compared in one study, it was found that “there were no systematic differences in economic performance within split ethnicities whose partitions following independence would come to be subject to different national institutions.”[30]

And even while colonialist choices still underpin the institutional framework of most African countries, they are not of the kind to bring about a positive change in values.[31] This is not the case in general. A study shows that these institutional choices were correlated with the mortality rate of the European colonialists.[32] Where the colonialists faced high mortality rates, as they did in most of Africa, they set up extractive institutions (e.g. slave trade). Where they did not, like the US, Australia and New Zealand, they settled and set up institutions that enhanced growth factors like the rule of law and thus encouraged investments.

For instance, the British colonialist divide-and-rule strategy has been found to be detrimental to state-building in its former African colonies.[33] Unsurprisingly, former British African colonies place greater store in their ethnicity than their European-imposed national identity. There are some nuances in this regard, however. In areas close to capital cities, where incidentally European colonialists largely concentrated their developmental efforts, there is evidence of state capacity. But in areas far from capital cities, where state capacity is literally non-existent, ethnic insitutions prevail and hence explain why the economic performance of partitioned ethnicities are similar despite being under different national institutional arrangements.

For instance, using light density at night as a proxy for economic activity, one study finds a significant relationship between pre-colonial ethnic institutions (stateless ethnicities, petty chiefdoms, paramount chiefdoms, and pre-colonial states) and regional development in Africa.[34] In other words, kingdoms, empires, chiefdoms and the like, that were in place before European colonisation continue to be relevant to African development.[35] And the rigidities of these pre-colonial ethnic-based political centralizations explain the incapacity of some African states to exercise full authority over property rights, tax collections and monopoly of violence to this day. Clearly, for better or worse, African ethnic institutions are a factor in its economic development. In light of these realities, ethnic institutions could very well be formalised to fill these gaps in state capacity.

The case of Botswana suggests colonialism is not an excuse, however.[36],[37],[38] Parsons & Robinson (2004) show how the majority Tswana tribe of Botswana had a relatively egalitarian and accommodative political structure before the arrival of colonialists. Whereas tribal loyalties was a huge obstacle to state formation in many other African jurisdictions under colonialsim, and are adjudged to still be the case presently, the relative homogeneity of the Tswana’s pre-colonial political institutions in Botswana, which already integrated non-Tswana tribes almost seamlessly, made the transtion to a unitary state almost a natural one.

5.0       Changing culture
If culture is a factor in Africa’s relative underdevelopment thus far, why not reform? It is a herculean task. Cultural practices endure precisely because they worked towards a desirable purpose of the majority of a population during a prior period. For instance, tight kinship and the moral systems around it were useful for agricultural production, which typically is the early stage of a country’s development. But is such a system suited to the current “modern economic regime that relies on increased interactions with strangers”?[39] While loose kinship societies currently populate the global technology frontier, it is not suggested that tight kinship societies give up their norms to achieve similar feats. Instead, it is the institutions around the culture that need to be changed or reformed to become fit-for-purpose for the current modern era. Intercultural exchange can also be a mechanism through which sub-optimal norms are updated or discarded. Cultural entrepreneurs have also been found to be effective influencers; albeit with varied success.

5.1       Policy & Institutions
“A modern economy is characterized by a rapid growth in non-parental transmission, and in fact such mechanisms of intergenerational transmission are one of the hallmarks of modernity” (Mokyr, 2016). Policy reforms can be used to effect cultural change.[40],[41] It is a fact that “exposure to different institutions/norms during crucial developmental-ages significantly changes individuals’ behaviour.”[42] Institutions can be used to change culture.[43] And it is weak institutions that allow bad cultural practices to persist. Because even when a cultural practice is bad, in the face of strong countervailing formal institutions, it can be discouraged to extinction. In other words, “culture persists in certain institutional environments and not others.” Culture and institutions are complementary and the roles they play in wealth creation depends on the environment and context.[44] Still, even as culture may be amenable to institutional changes, the lead time to the desired outcome could be considerable. In fact, it “can take several generations to reach a new steady state [even] after institutions have changed.”[45]

One study actually shows that it is in the absence of institutions that culture matters, but that once institutions are in place, culture is not so relevant.[46] The study further argues that “economic freedom is relatively more important for growth than culture” albeit the effects of culture on growth are not totally dismissed. It could be inferred that institutions could be used to change culture. And when strong institutions are in place, sub-optimal cultural practices and the systems that sustain them would have little room for influence or power.

“Culture changes in response to a new environment”.[47] Culture is hard to change, however. The reasons why this is the case are as follows.[48] Firstly, parental transmission, through which a great deal of culture is passed from generation to generation, is hard to shake off; that is, even in the face of evidence of sub-optimality. Secondly, entrenched organisations like the state and religious institutions, which garner economic benefits, power or influence from certain values and beliefs, are typically reluctant to give up their power. Thirdly, some growth-hindering cultural practices engender population growth and thus the spread of these values and beliefs.

With these entrenchments, how then can culture be successfully reformed? Culture consists of two major components: inherited values, a historical component, and social interactions, a contemporaneous component.[49] As inherited values are transmitted from parents, they are hard to change. Social interactions, however, are malleable to change, and are thus channels through which culture could be changed, updated or reformed. Thus, interactions between accomplished Africans in the diaspora, who could be encouraged to return home via incentives, and their compatriots on the continent could be effective. Put in positions of authority in business and government, they could effect cultural change. Multinational companies already do this but with mixed results.[50] For instance, a 2015 survey by Russell Reynolds Associates on senior African executives in the diaspora shows that while senior African talent no longer view returning home to work as a failure, the willingness to do so varies by country.[51]

Also, “education is an effective way of inculcating the right sort of beliefs among citizens” (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2019). Put another way, “education is the most powerful factor in making men modern”.[52] Political leaders could be persuaded to the cause of modernity through education; which some top American and European universities already facilitate. For younger citizens, school curricula could be modified to promote critical thinking over rote learning. For those outside of the school system, public advocacy on specific negative cultural practices has been found to work; especially when backed by the international community. In tandem with advocacy, legal measures could also be put in place in strengthen deterrence. For instance, female genital mutilation has been criminalised in many African countries. And just recently in South Africa, spanking a child was declared unconstitutional.[53] These are just few examples. More fundamentally, policy and institutions could be used to countervail cultural practices and entrenchments inimical to prosperity.

5.2       Intercultural exchange
“Intergenerational transmission of human traits, particularly culturally transmitted traits, has led to divergence between populations over the course of history” which in turn, has “introduced barriers to the diffusion of technologies across societies.”[54] Knowledge and experiences are easily and often first shared between peoples that are closely related in culture, language, and habits.[55] In other words, the success of a developed country is closely related to the practices of its ancestral population or its cultural proximity to a developed one. As “historical and cultural variables affect the propensity of the citizens of a country to trust the citizens of another country”, “perceptions rooted in culture are important determinants of economic exchange.”[56] Still, while ancestry matters, it is not insurmountable for disadvantaged populations if the barriers to “communication and interaction across cultures and societies” are addressed. Still, the intercultural exchange required to overcome these disadvantages must be deliberate and focused.

Does that then mean contemporary development policies are efforts in futility? Spolaore & Wacziarg (2013) argue they are not. An understanding of a people’s history and culture allows for the identification of the barriers to the spread of knowledge and innovation they create and thus allow solutions to be fit-for-purpose and effective. And there are examples of these. For instance, “Japan is geographically, historically and genetically distant from the European innovators, but it got the Industrial Revolution relatively early” (Spolaore & Wacziarg, 2013). And because of Japan’s success, South Korea and later other Asian nations were able to also climb the economic ladder. (Japan “became a cultural beachead”.) Hong Kong was similarly a “beachead” through which modernity spread to China.[58] “Southern Chinese cities or special economic zones developed largely as the result of having generalized what had worked in Hong Kong” (Spolaore & Wacziarg, 2013). This view underpins how special economic zones are today used to accelerate economic development around the world.

In the current era of globalisation and high-speed innovation, these hitherto high barriers are easier to scale. “There is still room for development policies to reduce barrier effects and to accelerate the spread of ideas and innovations across populations, especially in the context of an increasingly globalised world where barriers to the diffusion of development can be brought down more rapidly” (Spolaore & Wacziarg, 2013). There is evidence technology adoption is faster nowadays. Still, while “adoption lags have converged across countries over the last 200 years”, “penetration rates have diverged.”[59] This is what explains why despite the ubiquity of new technologies, the income gap between poor and rich countries remains wide.

5.3       Cultural entrepreneurship
Being as cultural change largely consists of social learning and persuasion, cultural entrepreneurs, like today’s celebrities and social media influencers, can be effective cultural change agents.[60] According to Mokyr (2016), “cultural authorities [or celebrities] often have no special expertise and yet somehow become the source of authority or focal points in cultural choices.” Mokyr further argues that when knowledge is effective (that is, when techniques or predictions based on this knowledge work well), beliefs can change quickly: once people see an airplane fly, they will accept the propositional belief that objects heavier than air can actually defeat gravity”.

6.0       Conclusion
Clearly, culture matters for development. And it is one of the factors that underpin the relative underdevelopment of African countries. Studies show individualist cultures engender higher economic growth relative to collectivist cultures. A high level of trust is a cultural trait associated with rich countries. Incidentally, African countries are characterised by low trust owing to slavery and colonialism. Institutions, intercultural exchange and cultural entrepreneurship are means by which the negative aspects of sub-optimal cultural practices could be mitigated, reformed or eliminated.

I propose an action-plan that includes critical-thinking in school curricula, laws against negative cultural practices, incentivisation of the arts to promote progressive values, special economic zones in partnership with successful countries, allocation of senior government positions to citizens in the diaspora, and national orientation programmes to promote proven innovation-enhancing values. They are discussed below.

Critical-thinking school curricula for early education
Rote-learning remains the dominant teaching method in many African countries. To become innovation-focused, young Africans need to acquire critical thinking skills early on. It is not as difficult as it may seem. Affluent and middle-class Africans already differentiate their kids by sending them to foreign-affilliated “international” schools to learn these critical skills. While it would be a herculean task to re-orient local teachers towards this type of pedagogy, there are already affordable tech-based solutions. Pre-recorded classes by teachers already skilled in critical thinking pedagogical methods abroad could be played to local students. Parents with means, could also stream or download such educational materials for their wards via the internet.

Promulgation and enforcement of laws against negative cultural practices
Corporal punishment is unconstitutional in South Africa. It could be so everywhere else on the continent. Female genital mutilation is also increasingly illegal across Africa. These are few examples of how laws could be used to change negative cultural practices.

Progressive and liberalist approach to censorship of the arts
As celebrities – artists, actors, etc. – have a huge influence on African youths, there should be a deliberate effort by African governments to faciliate collaboration between local and foreign celebrities with a view to achieving intercultural exchanges. Local ones could also be incentivised and encouraged to espouse values that engender innovation in their works. Governments can signal this intent by how they approve works of art – music, movies, etc – for airing to the public.

Special economic zones in partnership with successful countries
As evidence shows special economic zones have been successfully used to transfer knowledge and technology from developed countries to developing ones, in Asian countries, no less, African countries could easily find in them a quick and effective way of not only acquiring knowledge and technology but desirable work cultures as well.

Allocation of government positions to Africans in the diaspora by statute
There are many successful Africans in the diaspora. To succeed, they had to attune themselves to the cultures of the foreign lands they found themselves. Incidentally, they are also best positioned to bring about cultural change in their home countries. Already familiar with their home cultures, they are likely to be more persuasive in their transmission of their newly acquired innovation-enhancing norms and habits. To be sure, they do not always succeed in doing so. Still, their understanding of “both worlds” makes them compelling advocates of new ways.

National orientation programmes to promote proven innovation-enhancing values
In China, patriotic zeal is instilled in citizens at a very early age in schools, at work, and so on. Patriotic songs and messages are aired from speakers on the streets for the continued indoctrination of citizens as they go about their daily businesses. It is not suggested that such extremes should be applied in African countries. Thankfully, there are more creative and effective ways nowadays. For instance, Burna Boy, a popular African music artiste, recently released a song about Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man. In the song, the musician uses the example of Mr Dangote, whose reputation for hard work is well-known, to espouse the virtue of hard work. In a melodious tune now sang by millions, Mr Burna Boy wonders why anyone would be lazy if Africa’s richest man continues to work hard than most people. This is a striking example of the many creative ways that cultural change could be facilitated.

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