Amartya Sen, recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Economics, discusses the role of culture in addressing development. Sen says that on a positive note, culture is being taken more seriously than it has previously. However, an important question is whether it is being seen as useful for development. Most debate seems to be about whether culture matters, Sen says, but most economists have never taken the view that culture does not matter. Rather, it has been textbook economics that view culture as an relatively minor issue as compared the motivation of the individual to maximize self-interest.
No one debates whether culture matters, but how it matters. When the focus is on whether culture matters, Sen believes we don t engage in the most interesting questions about the process of how culture matters in development. Those who debate the issue this way attempt to win over skeptics with simplistic arguments, which Sen believes undermines the fundamental issue: if culture is to be perceived as an important part of development than the complexity of culture has to be taken seriously. Sen states that culture does matter to development because it is about the way the people live, and how the quality of their lives are improved. Culture is one of the things that will influence the success of development. Even if you had high GNP per capita, without art, literature, music, life would not be worth living Sen argues.
Culture has an economic component. Tourism provides economic wealth. Preservation of historical sites, the absence of crime, are all economic assets, so culture can also be economically rewarding.
Sen notes that our behavior patterns depend upon a variety of values: economic behavior has cultural influences and political participation has cultural features. He says that the culture of public discussion is important and illustrates his point with an anecdote about the era when Soviet Union authoritarianism was first being challenged in the 1950s, and Nikita Khruschev asked a student he knew who wrote War and Peace.
Social capital and intellectual property rights are now a major influence on people s thinking and this is positive, Sen says. People are coming to realize that there is a constructive role for culture. However, culture has different meanings. What we treat as acceptable depends upon what values we have and our value formation. Sen calls this a critical point, how we diagnose what counts and what counts as an acceptable means to an end. In their book, Culture Matters, Harrison and Huntington compare South Korea and Ghana who had economies of similar scale during the 1960s. Twenty years later, South Korea s economy was 15 times greater with a high degree of technology and sophistication. But why did this happen? The authors speculate that the Koreans work ethic and culture of thrift, investment and organization were driving factors. For his part, Sen believes education played a vital role as well. The Koreans, historical adversaries with Japan, however, are influenced by their culture (and vice versa). Japan, despite having almost no industry following the second World War, nevertheless, had a high rate of literacy. Sen notes the Japanese government, dating back to the 19th century, had a history of investing in public education.
Sen provided several examples of how various countries were believed to be culturally advanced because of the growth of their economies. Importantly, however, history is continually revising its notion of advanced cultures as different countries emerged as economic powerhouses. So culture is not simply a matter of history, though that is important. One must not take a static view of culture, but a dynamic and integrated one. The example of Ghana-Korea is part cultural, part historical, part political, and part educational.
Cultural is not only a positive, but can also have negative effects. Sen says social capital is a fungible resource. Issues that generate a community s sense of identity can also degenerate into one that provides a sense of us versus them. Britain makes an interesting case study. During the time of Kipling, the English had one sense of identity. This century s expansive immigration of different races from throughout the Commonwealth has changed English society. Upon arrival, all the Queen s subjects have the right to vote, so much political power resides with minorities. In turn, many view Britain as a community of cultures. This disturbs Sen because he believes it can easily lead to the thinking about segregation of the society, one that is divisive rather than inclusive. For example, if you are born into a Hindu community, you go to a Hindu school, etc.
Dynamic, integrating and diversifying elements are all part of the debate on how culture matters. Sen believes a fourth aspect is the matter of choice. At various points in his own life, Sen has thought of himself as a Buddhist or an atheist. Making room for choice is important. We also must stop taking a static view of culture. To illustrate his point, Sen describe a book he recently read about Afghanistan in the 1930s and how the author portrayed it as a highly tolerant society. The Taliban, which controls the country today, and have adhered to a strictly conservative interpretation of the Koran, have framed their arguments that they are returning Afghanistan to its traditional life. Sen characterizes this as unrealistic. Sen also offers the example of the religious Jew in the 12th century who left the alien culture of Europe in order to relocate to the more familiar and friendly Muslim culture of Cairo. Sen says that to believe those who say there is an historical animosity between Muslims and Jews is a mistake.