Afromatics II: Cultural Matters

by Nana Manu

At the present time and with the current state of technology available, there is absolutely no reason for people to be dirt poor. The poverty seen in Africa does not arise from a a lack of tools; rather, it stems from how we apply or misapply those same tools. With each passing decade in which large swathes of Africa continue to lag behind their counterparts in other continents, our under-performance in the development stakes becomes apparent.

Afromatics is my version of Systemics as applied to African realities. Take as a given that every society will have systems in place. The minute you have more than a couple of individuals living and/or working together, a method or way will evolve to contain and shape the interactions such individuals have with each other. Examples of successful systems can be found in sports, business and the broader society. They can be as intricately assembled as John Wooden’s pyramid or as simply summed up as the Kop’s mantra from the seventies: pass-and-go. They do share one thing in common though: they are built and maintained to engender some successful outcome for those affected most by that system. They are not to be worshipped or seen as the be-all; rather, they are a means to an end and when they cease to do that job, it is time to critically look at them, refurbish them if feasible or abandon them if they no longer meet their prime directive.

In Afromatics I, I rolled out the two goals we need to keep in mind in any development effort, namely, higher per capita incomes and relatively better income equality. Given these relatively non-controversial goals, the question that begs for an answer is the “how to” achieve these goals. How do Ghanaians, Nigerians or the denizens of any other African country improve their life chances? Some will say it is well-nigh impossible. I say that is NOT the case. You just need to have the right mindset.

In striving to achieve our (agreed on) development goals, the three most relevant systems we need to examine are the culture, economic and political edifices in effect today.

In each of these realms the questions we should ask are a) what is the essential character of the arrangements we have in place today and, b) are these arrangements putting us closer to our development objectives or not.

Before we can answer these queries though, wouldn’t it be useful if we looked at those countries who are doing much better than us in terms of providing for their citizens?

The richer countries on this globe typically have a strong correlation with democratic political systems. They have an even stronger correlation with free market or capitalist systems (even though the contours of such systems differ from country to country). It is in the area of culture though that one finds the strongest correlative relationship. Richer countries typically exhibit a number of traits that have been dubbed progress-prone while poorer countries will show progress-resistant tendencies. Take a look at this typology and find out where you think your country fits in. Be honest!

What can one learn from this? Logically, if a society wants to be rich, it needs to identify the cultural values it has which work against prosperity and then change or adapt its culture in those problem areas. Cultural relativists will of course seek to shoot down such subversive thoughts; but, there is no shame in changing behaviour that leads to bad outcomes. To those who defensively mutter that “how dare you even hint that Ghanaian (substitute any African country here) culture could be at the root of the problems we have today”, I say this: which Ghanaian culture are we talking about? Is it the culture of the Gold Coast or Ghana? Is is the the culture in these areas before we had ever set eyes on those pesky colonialists? Or is it the culture that has evolved over the past 50 years of independence? Is it the culture of rural or urban Africa?

The culture we want, no that we need, is the culture that solves the problems we have today. Culture must dynamically respond to the exigencies of the current era. Pride in your culture should center on how that culture works for you in the present time; it is about how adaptable it is to changed circumstances. It is definitely not about ignoring the ways in which it is proving dysfunctional in the current environment we face.

Remember that rich countries such as the USA, UK, Japan used to be poor too. But they changed and they are rich now. We should (change) too. We need to be careful though that when we try to discern those aspects of their culture worth emulating, we do pick the right cultural traits from the right era. One can convincingly argue that modern America has strayed from the cultural roots that allowed it to become the greatest economic power ever known. A society built on maximum consumption and easy credit is not exactly the role model we should look to.

Our colonial past led to a situation where paternalistic rule run rampant; that even more than the resources plundered by the invaders was the costly heritage bequeathed to us. Back in those days the “parents” actually had to report back to their bosses in the home country. With independence our “new parents” or local elites didn’t have to report back to anybody and without the necessary checks found out that they would get away with anything and everything. Guess what happened? They did. The acts of commission and omission by the political class has seeped into the fabric of society and resulted in a bastardized value system today that does not meet the goal we have of transforming the entire nation economically. Nobody can say with a straight face that the culture we see today in Ghana or any other African country has been so successful in terms of societal development that it should be put on a pedestal.

Our culture can and should be changed. It is eye opening to look at the success of African immigrants in the US and UK. If these individuals can achieve so much so many miles away from their roots, why can they not do the same in their ancestral homelands. Immigrants embody the culture of their country of origin but given the different rules of the road when it comes to their new society, they are savvy enough to conform and adopt those cultural memes that will allow them to be successful in their new home. In other words they adapt their culture. If the political and economic systems in the home country sent them similar incentives, they would obviously find it useful to change their behavior.

Some will chime up that there are other reasons for why we are still to reach our potential; and, yes there is some truth to that. Geography plays a role; so too does the lack of capital, good governance, patriotic leadership and human capital among other causative factors. But each of these constraints can be overcome if society deems it necessary to do so. Malaysia enjoys a similar climate to Ghana, don’t they. Nigeria has gotten umpteen billions from oil, no? What about all the NGO aid over the years spent on building human capacity in Africa? How can you stamp out corruption if society does not care how you get your money? Without addressing the core issue of what kind of societal values we think are important, efforts that focus on addressing these other constraints to development will not be sufficient to transform the society.

This is not about making Africans into something we are not. Japan is the second biggest economy in the world. The foundation for their rise can be found in the Meiji era in which Japanese society decided to consciously break away from their feudalistic past which was seen as not being able to compete with Western countries. In spite of the over 100 years of the adaption of Japanese society to prosper in this global world order, Japan still has one of the most distinct cultures on this globe and the Japanese understand where and when to adapt their cultural behavior and where and when not to. We should be similarly smart about picking our spots when it comes to modifying our values.

A conversation on cultural matters is one that every African should have, individually and in groups. It is a conversation that can be turbocharged by the right kind of leadership given the unique role politics can play in transforming culture. What Africa needs is visionary leadership and a heightened level of consciousness among those following such leaders.

Afromatics III will examine the kind of political economy in Africa that can act as a catalyst for societal wide renewal; Africans deserve those cultural norms that underpin the good life.

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1 comment

michaelkpoh January 5, 2009 - 10:30 pm

Nana, once again an excellent article.

A few comments; I am particularly intrigued by the fact that you mention ‘cultural values which work against prosperity!

In my opinion, that is the key to all our challenges. Of course counter arguments will be made and other factors such as corruption, lack of economic and infrasturctural facilities, inadequate level of political development or maturity, on and on will be argued effectively.

However if the underlying culture mitigates against development, Ghanaian and or African societies will not go beyond where they currently are. We will only have ‘plastic development’ or surface development; by whch is meant development that is not substantive or deeply rooted. If you peel away a few of the levers, the (development) infrastructure – physical and intellectual – that remains will easily crumble.

A case in point is the telecoms sector with specific reference to wireless; we have been able to ‘leapfrog’ the developmental and testing stages Western countries went through to develop wireless telephony and we have basically ‘imported’ the technology and plastered it on systems or infrastructure that is weak. Should some major disaster happen, we will be left scrambling to maintain or recover what we have built. This is not to say we do not have the requisite human capital; indeed we do, however the systems we have are not ‘cultural’, local or home-grown. Enough digression.

Back to the ‘antagonistic’ cultural values issue; you make an interesting point about Africans who come to western countries and undergo metamorphosis becoming very successful. How do they do this? Your answer; they adapt themselves to the prevailing cultural and economic values in operation.

You also mention Japan which is one of the most economically advanced countries in the world, yet advertises one of the most distinctive cultures to boot. They have – as you point out – been very adept at adapting aspects of their culture which are not supportive of development and have opted for development-oriented values which have helped advance their cause.

My last comment relates to your point about adapting our cultural values to engender ‘incentives’ which will help promote development. I think that this comment is ‘pregnant’ & self-explanatory!

Overall I could not agree more; the point in my opinion is ‘cultural values’ or ‘cultural-Mindset’, if there is such a word. In my opinion most development-related issues in Africa and Ghana can be traced to Mindset.


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