Tuesday, May 23, 2006

It's the culture, stupid

The title of this post is taken from the phrase the Clinton election team kept in front of its face in the election of 1992. The stupid was added to bring home the fact that the economy was the only thing that mattered in that election. So "it's the economy, stupid" was the theme.

One of the points I have been trying to make here from the start is that it is a mistake to generalize across cultures. That is a tendency on the part of Americans and it has gotten us in some trouble in Iraq and in other places (including in business, I might add.) But generalize we do.

The reason for this is that generalizing about human beings is a part of our culture. We will argue to the heavens, though, that it's not a cultural matter but a rational one. I get this all the time and have had a tough time with students when I raise that issue in the cross-cultural courses I teach. But it is a fact; Americans generalize about human beings because it is a part of our culture to do that. "All men are created equal" is an expression of this. The idea expressed by all pols no matter where they are found along the political spectrum that all people want liberty is another example of this.

But the fact is that people are different and the cultures that set the limits about what is acceptable from them, are all different too. And we need to understand that if we are going to be of any use in trying to solve the problems of the world. From my perspective, though, very few consultants, even the high powered types they fly in to staff these country programs, understand this. They figure if you tinker with the system and get it perfectly balanced, all fine tuned, then you can fly home with another successful country program under your belt and post your resume for the next challenge. But that is a typical American response. Why do they do that? Because it works in America. The problem is that it does not work in other cultures.

An example: They fly in consultants into this part of the world to help get the country humming along democratically. What they end up doing mostly, is writing laws and setting rules and procedures for it all. And what is the result? A nice, pretty new collection of laws of the country but no real change in the way the country does it's business.

The big problem here is corruption and it is a cultural problem, not a legal problem. Everyone points to that nasty little man Kuchma and talks about how bad he was while they go to the premiere school in the area and pay $300 to the principal to get their little dear enrolled. All understood by everyone, all accepted and acceptable, and all perfectly illegal under the law. But Kuchma is the bad guy.

What is going to change that kind of thing? Passing more laws?

Milton Friedman the acclaimed economist once said that he got it wrong in Russia. He had said, "Privatize, privatize, privatize." But he understood that was wrong now. Instead it should have been, "Rule of law, rule of law, rule of law." Well, he's still got it wrong. It is "Culture, culture, culture." And that is a beast of a different order of magnitude.

Here's a quote from Orwell that expresses the point: "Till recently it was thought proper to pretend that human beings are very much alike, but in fact anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour differs from country to country. Things that could happen in one country could not happen in another." It still is proper and in the US, rational to think this way.

And seeing what is before our eyes is an important thing to do if we are going to be useful at all. We in this little blog have tried to do that.

1 comment:

DLW said...

Well, the other problem is that there are a half a million def'ns of culture.

I think the more proper basis concept is habits and institutions.

To make changes, you gotta change people's habits, but to make changes you got to consider their existing ways of thinking about things and acting.

Here's to hoping that more such changes come from the bottom-up as a result of the OR and that Yusch gets convicted personally to ensure both stability and change at the top....