Amartya Sen: Democracy Isn't 'Western'

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Sen, the 1998 Nobel laureate in economics, is the author of "Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny," published next week by Norton.]

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." Culture too, like our stars, is often blamed for our failures. Attempts to build a better world capsize, it is alleged, in the high sea of cultural resistance. The determinism of culture is increasingly used in contemporary global discussions to generate pessimism about the feasibility of a democratic state, or of a flourishing economy, or of a tolerant society, wherever these conditions do not already obtain.

Indeed, cultural stereotyping can have great effectiveness in fixing our way of thinking. When there is an accidental correlation between cultural prejudice and social observation (no matter how casual), a theory is born, and it may refuse to die even after the chance correlation has vanished without trace. For example, labored jokes against the Irish, which have had such currency in England, had the superficial appearance of fitting well with the depressing predicament of the Irish economy when it was doing quite badly. But when the Irish economy started growing astonishingly rapidly, for many years faster than any other European economy, the cultural stereotyping and its allegedly profound economic and social relevance were not junked as sheer rubbish. Theories have lives of their own, quite defiantly of the phenomenal world that can be actually observed.

Many have observed that in the '60s South Korea and Ghana had similar income per head, whereas within 30 years the former grew to be 15 times richer than the latter. This comparative history is immensely important to study and causally analyze, but the temptation to put much of the blame on Ghanaian or African culture (as is done by as astute an observer as Samuel Huntington) calls for some resistance. Mr. Huntington closes his contrast with a spectacular formula: "South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization and discipline. Ghanaians had different values. In short, cultures count." Ghanaians, and perhaps many other Africans, seem doomed to stagnate, according to this analysis.

In fact, that cultural story is extremely deceptive. There were many important differences, other than any differences in cultural predispositions, between Ghana and Korea in the 1960s. First, the class structures in the two countries were quite different, with a very much bigger--and proactive--role of business classes in Korea. Second, the politics were very different, too, with the government in South Korea eager to play a prime-moving role in initiating societal reform and economic development in a way that was not true in Ghana. Third, the close relationship between the Korean economy and Japan, on the one hand, and the U.S., on the other, made a big difference, at least in the early stages of Korean economic expansion.

Fourth--and perhaps most important--by the 1960s South Korea had acquired a much higher literacy rate and a much more expanded school system than Ghana had. Korean massive progress in school education had been largely brought about in the post-World War II period, mainly through resolute public policy, and it could not be seen just as a reflection of cultural difference. This is not to suggest that cultural factors are irrelevant to the process of development, but they do not work in isolation from social, political and economic influences. Nor are they immutable.

The temptation of founding economic pessimism on cultural resistance is matched by the evident enchantment, even more common today, of basing political pessimism, particularly about democracy, on alleged cultural impossibilities. While it is easy enough to understand the widespread--and increasing--doubts about armed intervention allegedly aimed at jump-starting democracy in Iraq through largely foreign and military planning, it would be quite a leap from there to become skeptical of the general possibility of the emergence of democracy in any country that is currently nondemocratic. It is worth remembering that democracy has developed well enough in many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and in the case of some, such as South Africa, even foreign assistance to local democratic movements (for example through economic boycott) has positively helped. ...

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John Edward Philips - 3/27/2006

When oil money made it possible to offer universal primary education in Nigeria, many of the teachers were Ghanaian.

Ghana has the disadvantage of not having its own language, but having to use English. If you looked at the percentage of people in Korea and Ghana who could use English, Ghana would win hands down. Ghana's "literacy" is measure in English while Korea's is measured in Korean.