Does African Culture Impede Development?
Undergraduate Journal of Global Citizenship
Does African Culture Impede Development?
Chang-Dae David Hyun
Many scholars hastily claim that African culture impedes development; however, this is
an invalidate claim. First of all, culture is continuously evolving according to circumstantial
factors internal and external to the country, and it is unclear how much culture affects
development. For example, external influences such as geography, colonialization, and the
global system contribute to underdevelopment far more than culture. In this paper, I will begin
by defining culture and development. Then, I will explain how third (circumstantial) factors
could impede development and culture. The following sections will show two of the common
mistakes made by scholars who attempt to argue that African culture harms development, and I
will address flaws in those arguments. First, many scholars argue that Africans? communalism
hinders an individual capacity to innovate and therefore restrains developmental capacity.
However, similar cultural traits are found in many advanced countries around the world. Second,
many scholars try to prove that the economic difference between Asian and African countries
emerged from their cultural differences. However, these scholars who romanticize Confucian
values fail to notice that Asian Confucianism was once considered backward in the 19th century
and the Asian Miracle of the 20th century was possible mostly because of the Cold War interest
that fueled the Asia?s economic growth.
In order to understand the relationship between culture and development, we must begin
with their definitions. Although the definition of culture varies among many scholars, I believe
renowned anthropologist George Murdock correctly captures the fundamental idea of culture.
Murdock argues that ?the cultures of the world are systems of collective habits. The differences
observable among them are the cumulative product of mass learning under diverse geographic
and social conditions.?1 As Murdock argues, culture is the collective habits that are formulated
based on people?s surroundings such as geography and society. Since the surroundings can
change, it is important to understand that culture is constantly evolving to adapt to a new
environment. Such fluidity of culture makes it difficult to analyze its implications on
Similar to culture, development can be described in various ways. However, I believe
Gunnar Myrdal, who is a Nobel Laureate in economics, gives an accurate definition. Myrdal
argues that development is the ?movement upward of the entire social system. This social system
encloses, besides the economic factors, all noneconomic factors.?2 He considers that education,
health care, distribution of power, institutions, and attitudes are all part of development that
societies need to improve on.3 His interpretation is unique in the way that he emphasizes
improving society as a whole. He is different from many modernization theorists who often
prioritize economic growth over other factors of development.4 It would be a mistake to solely
look at development from economic factors; rather, we have to consider it from a holistic
perspective. In summary, it is difficult for us to establish a causal relationship between culture
and development because the former is fluid and the latter takes multi-dimensional forms.
Therefore, it would be inconclusive to argue that African culture impedes development.
1 Augusto Lopez-Claros and Valeria Perotti, ?Does Culture Matter for Development?? World Bank Group: Policy
Research Working Paper 7092 (2014): 6.
2 Gunnar Myrdal, ?What is Development?? Journal of Economic Issues 8, no. 4 (1974): 729.
4 Yushi Ito, ?Kawakami Hajime and Inoue Tetsujiro?s conflicting views of the religion and the state,? in Japan and
the High Treason Incident 2013, ed. Masako Gavin and Ben Middleton (New York: Routledge, 2013), 172.
Does African Culture impede development?
In this section and the section following, I will provide two common arguments made by
scholars who associate African culture as the impediment for development, and explain their
flaws. First, many scholars focus on proving that certain aspects of African culture impede
development, even though these values are also prevalent in other advanced countries. Daniel
Etounga-Manguelle, who is a Cameroonian economist, writes a list of things that undermine
Africa?s developmental capacity in his article Does Africa Need a Cultural Adjustment
Program? He argues that Africa?s hierarchical and vertical society naturally makes subordinates
conform with authority without validating orders.5 Also, he argues that ?the African?is so
convinced that the past can only repeat itself that he worries only superficially about the future.?6
Therefore, he contends that Africans do not plan their future.7 Furthermore, he writes that since
the community dominates the individual, there is less room for individual innovation.8 Moreover,
he argues that since Africans believe in sorcery and witchcraft, they have difficulty in
rationalizing.9 The problems with his analysis are that he generalizes his claim to all Africans
and some of these observations are also found in many developed countries.
Dainel Etounga-Manguelle makes a very generalized claim about all of the cultural
attributes of Africans. Even if some African cultures practice sorcery, and sorcery is used to
manage conflict and preserve the status quo, 10 it is most likely that not every society in Africa
practices sorcery according to the author?s description. Furthermore, although communalism
5 Daniel Etounga-Manguelle, ?Does Africa Need a Cultural Adjustment Program?? in Culture Matters, ed. Samuel
P. Huntington (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 68.
6 Ibid, 69.
8 Ibid, 71.
9 Ibid, 73.
could be prevalent, there are many successful individual entrepreneurs including the Yoruba
women.11 Moreover, the author?s generalization also applies to social hierarchy, and social
relationship between community and individual, and perception about the future.
Even if we assume that these generalizations are true for all Africans, this does not
explain why these qualities impede development, because we see these cultural attributes in
advanced countries as well. I consider that religion is not much different from sorcery because
both are imaginaries created by social groups. Renowned Israeli professor Yuval Hirari argues
that religions ?exist only in people?s collective imaginations.?12 As Hirari argues, religion is an
imagination created by people who try to explain supernatural powers in a way that is similar to
sorcery. Often times, both beliefs do not require proofs in their logic. Furthermore, similar to
sorcery, religion is often misused by a small group of elites to preserve their status quo while
exploiting its followers. But scholars rarely argue that religion impedes development in Western
countries. Also, rigid social hierarchy and prioritization of community over individual is not just
limited to Africa, but is also prevalent in Asian countries. The Confucian societies of Asia
including China, Korea and Japan, all have strict hierarchical societies where many individuals
accept authority without questioning. Furthermore, many of these countries prioritize community
over individuals. For instance, in South Korea, the country?s economy grew remarkably in the
1970s under the Saemaul Undong which was based on Korean traditional communalism that
provided rules for local autonomy and collective cooperation.13 It is quite ironic that
communalism and respect for community is attributed to economic success in Asia while its
11 Bola Udegbe, ?African Families in a Global Context,? in African Families In A Global Context, ed. Goran
Therbon (Goteborg, Sweden: Elanders Infologistics V?st AB), 94.
12 Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (London: Vintage, 2011), 30.
13 Djun Kil Kim, ?A Schumpeterian Analysis of the Saemaul Undong Movement in 1970s South Korea within the
CDD Framework,? Seoul Journal of Economics 28, no. 4 (2015): 416.
considered as the impediment to development in Africa. This double standard extends to
comparison between sorcery in Africa and religion in the West. Regardless, scholars often focus
on scrutinizing Africa.
Is Asian Culture better than African Culture?
Another common mistake by many scholars is that they compare Asian culture and
African culture in order to argue that the former is superior to the latter in promoting economic
growth. However, scholars tend to romanticize Confucian values although they were once
considered backward. Samuel Huntington, who is an influential American political scientist,
begins his book Culture Matters by comparing South Korea and Ghana in the 1960s. He argues
that both countries had comparable levels of per capita GNP, similar divisions of economy
among primary products, and comparable levels of economic aid.14 However, he contends that
thirty years later, Ghana?s per capita GNP was one-fifteenth that of South Korea?s GNP.15 Then,
he uses culture to explain the differences in economic growth. He writes that ?South Koreans
valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization, and discipline. Ghanaians had
different values. In short, cultures count.?16 Here, Huntington tries to prove that Ghana failed to
grow economically because Ghanaian culture was not as disciplined as Korean culture. However,
I consider that Huntington hastily came to a conclusion without looking at the history.
In the 19th century, Asians? hard-working Confucian values were considered as an
impediment to development because Asian countries failed to develop as much as Western
countries. Consequently, China was defeated by the British during the Opium War and Japan
14 Samuel P. Huntington, Culture Matters. (New York: Basic Books, 2000), xiii.
was forced into unequal treaties with America. Many Asians at the time doubted their Confucian
tradition and Japan even denounced the old tradition to be backward and underwent the Meiji
Restoration.17 However, many scholars romanticize and overemphasize Asians? cultural
influence on economic success by referring to the 20th century. Consequently, many would argue
that Asians? hardworking culture brought remarkable economic growth during the East Asian
Miracle of 1965 to 1990. I do agree that the hard-working culture partly attributed to the East
Asian Miracle; however, Cold War interest was more important than culture in terms of
East Asian Miracle would not have happened if there had been no antagonism between
global superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. East Asian Miracle coincided with
the Cold War era. It was a period when the United States feared Communist expansions into
Asia including the People Republic of China. Consequently, the United States exerted greater
influence in the Asia-Pacific region to ensure that other countries continue to remain under the
control of the United States. For example, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were particularly
important for the United States, considering their proximity to the communist countries of China
and North Korea. Therefore, the United States invested massively both economically and
militarily. Between 1946 to 1976, the United States provided 12.6 Billion dollars in economic
and military assistance to South Korea.18 This amount was similar ?to the amount of aid received
by the whole of Africa.19 Furthermore, from 1953 to 1967 Taiwan received 3.64 Billion USD in
economic and military assistance mainly in the form of grants. Moreover, the United States
17 Augusto Lopez-Claros and Valeria Perotti, ?Does Culture Matter for Development?? World Bank Group: Policy
Research Working Paper 7092 (2014): 3.
18 Richard Stubbs, Rethinking Asia?s Economic Miracle (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), 106.
government pumped massive amounts of money into the Japanese economy since the post-World
War II.20 Therefore, it would be a mistake to compare Ghana and South Korea?s economic
success solely through the cultural narrative because South Korea benefitted from massive
amounts of foreign aid, whereas Ghana received few loans.
What other possible explanation for Africa?s under-development?
Many scholars hastily criticize Africa?s individual cultures, however, there are many
other consequential factors to explain Africa?s under development. I will argue that
circumstantial (third) factors such as geography, colonialization, and global system impede
Africa?s development. First, Africa?s geography could be a disadvantage to the development
because its tropical climate is more vulnerable to natural disasters. Renowned American
economist Jeffrey Sachs argues that tropical climates are vastly more underdeveloped than
temperate zones.21 In fact, twenty eight out of the thirty richest countries in the world are located
in temperate climates.22 A possible explanation for this outcome is that tropical climates are less
productive (due to high soil erosion and high incidence of pests, and exhaustion under rain forest
conditions) and infectious diseases are more prevalent; therefore, life expectancy is lower, labor
productivity is lower, and education levels are low.23 Moreover, Sociologist S. Colum Gilfillan
supports the claim that geography is critical to development. In his article ?The Coldward
Course of Progress,? he argues that ?an essential consideration determining the scene of world
20 Ibid, 96.
21 Augusto Lopez-Claros and Valeria Perotti, ?Does Culture Matter for Development?? World Bank Group: Policy
Research Working Paper 7092 (2014): 16.
leadership in civilization...is mean temperature.?24 Gilfillan even considers that temperature is a
deterministic factor for development. He shows the history of human progress from the fertile
valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, to the Nile Valley, to Athens, China, London, Paris and New
York where civilization progressed to colder locations.25 These findings suggest that geography
and climate affected Africa?s underdevelopment more than culture.
Furthermore, colonialization has contributed to Africa?s underdevelopment. The entire
African continent was colonized by Europeans during the 19th century. During this period,
countries? natural resources were looted, human capital was exploited while leaving scars to
African cultures. In short, the colonial past has significantly undermined the developmental
capacity for the continent. Furthermore, the de-colonization process was carried out under the
interests of Western countries. In The White Men?s Burden, William Easterly argues that the
West imposed boundaries that encouraged ethnic conflict which further divided the continent. He
?First, the West gave territory to one group that a different group already believed it
possessed. Second, the West drew boundary lines splitting an ethnic group into two or
more parts across nations, frustrating nationalist ambitions of that group and creating
ethnic minority problems in two or more resulting nations. Third, the West combined into
a single nation two or more groups that were historical enemies.?
For example, the Rwanda Genocide is an outcome of ethnic division by the West that led to mass
killing between the Hutus and Tutsis. I will argue that the colonial period and de-colonization
24 S.C. GilFillan, ?The Coldward Course of Progress,? Political Science Quarterly 35, no. 3 (1920): 408.
25 Augusto Lopez-Claros and Valeria Perotti, ?Does Culture Matter for Development?? World Bank Group: Policy
Research Working Paper 7092 (2014): 17.
process not only damaged to the African cultures, but also, significantly undermined the future
developmental capacity of the countinent.
Moreover, neo-liberal policies and globalization have contributed to Africa?s
underdevelopment. In the 1980s, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank presented
the Economic Recovery Program to relieve Africa from debt; however, their neo-liberal policies
further accumulated debt in Africa.26 Part of the economic recovery plan includes removal of
government subsidies and price controls, privatization, removal of protectionist measures, and
cuts in public expenditure.27 Consequently, local companies have been wiped out by foreign
companies because subsidies were reduced for local products while tariffs were alleviated for
foreign products. For example, China was one of the beneficiaries of neo-liberal policies in
Africa. Shortly after the policies by the Bretton Wood Institutions, cheap Chinese products
dominated the African market, which forced local industries to shut down. From northern
Namibia to central Kenya, traditional products and retailers have been edged out by Chinese
businesses.28 Moreover, David Shinn argues the Chinese are accountable for the loss of 250,000
jobs and 37% of Africa?s textile capacity in recent years.29 Neo-liberal policies and globalization
perpetuate Africa?s underdevelopment because they encourage rich countries to prosper while
poor countries are further marginalized. Therefore, in a world where the global system creates
dependency for Africa, cultures have less role to play.
26 Akinpelu O. Olutayo and Ayokunle O. Omobowale, ?Capitalism, Globalization and the Underdevelopment
Process in Africa: History in Perpetuity,? Africa Development 32, no. 2 (2007): 105.
28 Chris Alden, ?China in Africa,? Survival 47, no.3 (2005): 156-157.
29 David H. Shinn, ?The China Factor in African Ethics and Human Rights,? Paper presented at the 2006
OxfordUehiro-Carnegie Council Conference (2006).
Many scholars hastily claim that African culture impedes development; however, it is an
invalidated claim. First of all, culture is continuously evolving according to circumstantial
factors surrounding the country, and it is unclear how much culture affects development.
Because, there are other third factors such as geography, colonialization, and politics that affect
both culture and development. As history and other research suggests, third factors contributed to
Africa?s underdevelopment far more than cultures. Regardless, many scholars hastily criticize
Africa?s culture as an impediment to development. Many scholars try to prove how certain
aspects of African culture impedes development, even though these values are also prevalent in
other advanced countries. Furthermore, scholars attempt to refer to Asian Confucius culture as
ideal for promoting growth. However, they fail to include failures of Asian Confucianism in the
19th century and Cold War interests of 20th century that were far more consequential than
We should not make a generalized claim that African culture impedes development.
Because if we put too much emphasis on scrutinizing individual cultures, it might end up
justifying exploitative nature of the global system. Instead, it is important for us to understand
circumstantial factors that play a significant role in shaping individual cultures. It is not to say
that we should ignore cultural aspect completely and avoid making any judgements, because
there are critical issues to be resolved such as gender inequality and abuse of women in Africa.
What is more important, however, is to continue trying to resolve atrocities done to human
dignity while looking at the problem of Africa?s underdevelopment within the context of the
international system, and offer solutions accordingly.