Culture’s relationship with development and poverty may be at best contingent

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Culture is incredibly nebulous and encompasses a broad range of specific concepts. Small, Harding and Lamont (2010) outlined seven different ways culture is related to poverty and development, such as values, frames, institutions, repertoires… And they conclude that the best approach to defining culture and its relationship with development and poverty is a pragmatic one – i.e. specifying the aspects of culture that one is discussing.

While that can help, it simultaneously puts different aspects of cultures into apparently isolated silos that does more harm than good for analytical purposes. For example, while they distinguish between institutions and values, it is hard to not recognize the intricate interdependencies and endogeneity between them. Take for instance, marriage dowry-giving as an institution in many South Asian societies – the reason such an institution persists might be how those communities value it and regard it as being important to ensuring good marriages and karma. As such, while I agree the best approach to understanding culture and its relationship with development and poverty should be a pragmatic one, carefully delineating them might do more harm than good.

Rather, I adopt a broad definition of culture – “the whole complex of distinctive, spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or societal groups. It includes not only arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs” (UNESCO, quoted in Payne and Nassar [2010]).

What exactly is the relationship that culture has with development and poverty?

First, culture is part of the definition of both development and poverty.

Echoing Sen (2004) in ‘How does culture matter?’, if the purpose of development is to raise people’s quality of life, culture is part of development. He uses the example of Caesar’s comment of Cassius – “he hears no music; seldom he smiles” to explain how having high income but without enjoying the finer things in life (i.e. spiritual, fun, music, arts, etc), cannot be said to constitute development success. Further, if poverty is defined as social exclusion – people’s inability to participate in societal life – then exclusion from cultural activities important to oneself (such as Chinese New Year, Christmas, Hari Raya, Diwali…) also constitutes poverty.

Second, culture can promote and encourage development and poverty-reduction.

Culture can encourage development and poverty-reduction by encouraging people to adopt certain behaviours that helps achieve them. Invoking Weber, Sen suggests that certain cultures encourage a kind of work ethic that is helpful for development (e.g. a strain of Protestantism called Calvinism extolls hard work, frugality and discipline helps certain countries like UK achieve development, compared to other countries without such cultures). A country that values honesty and integrity and detests corruption will similar tend to have lower corruption, which is helpful for development – especially when the government is clean and not corrupt. A similar argument can be made for Singapore, in which LKY described Singapore as possessing certain Asian Values which emphasise an orderly society over individual freedoms, that helped Singapore grew economically. This is also seen in the concept of ‘social discipline’, in which the people were willing to follow the Government’s pro-developmental policies (e.g. hard work, stop at 2) and not oppose the government’s policies. Or if certain cultures encourage social capital accumulation for people, e.g. certain communities where the people are very tightly-knit and willing to go the extra mile to help each other (say, harvest each other’s corns, unlike Hume’s metaphorical neighbours, or find jobs for each other), then it encourages poverty-reduction.

Culture, when embodied in the languages of a society, can also be helpful for development. For example, Singapore society’s mastery of English has been able to give it an advantage over neighboring countries in terms of attracting FDI (especially in the early years when most FDI came from English-speaking countries). Today, as a majority (70%+) of the population is ethnic Chinese, the relative mastery of the Chinese language (Mandarin) is also expected to help Singapore develop close trading links with China, a growing economic powerhouse.

Culture can also promote certain kinds of states that are helpful to development and poverty-reduction. In particular, Asian Values (particularly Confucianism) has been evoked by thinkers to explain the rise of the Asian Tigers, whose success have been credited to their developmental states. Developmental states are characterized by a particular feature – embedded autonomy, in which the state is autonomous (i.e. not captured by societal/external forces), while embedded within society – so that it has good information that allows it to make and refine policies best for the country, creating and achieving joint developmental projects together with societal actors.

Autonomy is achieved by both internal informal networks and formal structures that create a ‘reinforced Weberian bureaucracy’. Internal informal networks are derived from features such as meritocracy, common educational and socio-economic background; in combination with formal structures such as clear rational-legal rules that guide behaviour, merit-based recruitment and promotion in a hierarchical career progression. These encourages the pursuit of corporate goals and creates strong corporate coherence and solidarity, strengthening the bureaucracy’s ability to resist capture by societal/external forces. This allows the state to be less corrupt and works to achieve development, instead of hindering development.

Embeddedness is achieved by having institutionalised channels that connect state and society. For example, the ‘descent from heaven’, state-facilitated retirement of bureaucrats into private business organisations (amakudari) in Japan; conglomerates with close state connections (chaebol) in South Korea; and state-owned enterprises’ close linkages with private businesses in Taiwan.

Culture is said to play a part in both autonomy and embeddedness. For example, autonomy is partially achieved as a result of the society’s emphasis on meritocracy and how the best and brightest of the society is attracted to work in the state bureaucracy, giving it corporate coherence and autonomy. In Confucianism, the ‘士’ (scholar) is ranked highest, before the ‘农’ (farmer), ‘工’ (craftspeople) and ‘商’ (businesspeople). Also, the aspects of embeddedness in these countries appear to be part of their business culture – that is how business is conducted in those countries. Culture hence may well explain why the successful East Asian Tigers (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan) all have developmental states that drive their economic success.

Ironically, the very same culture can also be barriers to development and poverty-reduction.

The most controversial (and misinterpreted) argument is that of Oscar Lewis (1969), who argued the existence of a ‘culture of poverty’. I present the misinterpreted version first because it is clearer. Small, Harding and Lamont (2010) summarised Lewis’ argument as “sustained poverty generated a set of cultural attitudes, beliefs, values and practices, and that this culture of poverty would tend to perpetuate itself over time, even if the structural conditions that originally gave rise to it were to change”. In this view, certain groups were poor and remain poor because of their culture. In effect, this argument blamed the victim. In fact, Lewis was actually much more nuanced. He attributed the creation of the ‘culture of poverty’ to the structural traits of society (class-stratified and capitalist) which alienates the poor, causing them to adopt a certain set of behaviors to adapt and cope with the situation. However, the children of the poor also adopted these behaviors, perpetuating poverty.

Nevertheless, I do not buy into such culture of poverty arguments. Empirical evidence do not support them. For example, in USA, the relative poverty of Black Americans compared to the majority White Americans has been attributed to the latter’s supposed predisposition against work. However, when their unemployment rate fell, this discredited the culture of poverty argument since it suggests that Black Americans were not unwilling to work, but simply unable to find work.

Culture may also promote certain kinds of behaviors that are detrimental to development and poverty-reduction, which therefore contributes to low development and poverty-reduction. For example, many poor South Asian families continue to practice the gifting of dowries during marriages, which exacts a large toll on the poor families’ finances – already-poor families often must borrow money, sell land and the like to do so – yet it continues to be practised. Certain cultural practices hence hinder development and poverty-reduction.

Sen (2004) argued that culture influences value formation and evolution, which then influence each society’s identification of certain means to the ends of development and poverty-reduction as appropriate or inappropriate. As such, a particular method to development, e.g. focus only on economic growth may be culturally appropriate in some societies, while not appropriate in others. What this implies is that certain cultures may hence reject particular means of development on cultural grounds, regardless of its efficiency in generating development and reducing poverty. In some cases, this can retard development and poverty-reduction. For example, in Philippines, the Catholic Church’s view of family planning with the use of contraceptives and abortion as being culturally inappropriate (not sanctioned by the Catholic religion), has been widely attributed to be a contributor to Philippine’s slow economic growth as growth has not been able to keep pace with the population growth (among other reasons).

How can culture both help and hinder development and poverty-reduction? Perhaps whether culture helps or hinders development and poverty-reduction depends on the specific aspect of culture we are discussing – so some parts of culture is good, some is bad. But as Small, Harding and Lamont (2010) points out: “the right set of values or beliefs may actually undermine one’s mobility when they are exercised in a difficult (read: different) context”. Indeed, for example, while social capital can be helpful to development and poverty-reduction, it can also hinder it – for example, when social capital is so strong within a community that it engenders some kind of in-group/out-group distrust such that the community rejects help from outsiders. One example may be the Piraha tribe in the Amazon, who could benefit from lower infant mortality and better nutrition if they were more willing to receive help from outsiders.

If we combine Small, Harding and Lamont’s point with Fareed Zakaria’s “if culture is destiny, what explains a culture’s failure in one era and success in another? If Confucianism explains the economic boom in Asia today, does it not also explain the region’s stagnation for four centuries?”. I suspect whether a culture helps or hinders development and poverty-reduction would depend on whether that culture is synergistic with pro- or anti-developmental strategies or trends at particular times.

If that culture is synergistic with a pro-developmental strategy or trend – i.e. it makes the strategy easier to be implemented and results more easily achieved, or in the case of trends, advantages the community to be most able to take advantage of the trend – then culture helps development and poverty-reduction. For example, social discipline and Asian Values (in whatever form) in Singapore was synergistic with the government’s developmental strategy which favoured an orderly society that did not publicly oppose the government was attractive to foreign-direct investment hence helped achieve development and poverty-reduction. Or, how Singapore’s two main languages are English and Chinese helps development and poverty-reduction was only because at particular times in world history, the dominant economies use the same two languages of English and Chinese. Conversely, countries who do not have the same two languages as part of their culture thus do not benefit since their culture is not synergistic with the world’s economic forces.

However, when the same culture of not opposing the government is synergistic with an anti-developmental strategy, it will not help but hinder development and poverty-reduction. An example may be Malaysia, where the dominant Malay ethnic group were willing to support the New Economic Policy that favoured Malays (e.g. reserved quotas for Malays in civil service, university, etc) even though it had a net-negative effect on society (e.g. low quality of university, brain drain etc). In such a case, the culture and development strategy is not synergistic in the right way and hence does not help but hinder development and poverty-reduction. In fact (I suspect), for Malaysia’s culture to help development and poverty-reduction in terms of the New Economic Policy should be one that opposes the government.

In conclusion, culture’s relationship with development and poverty is best understood as contingent. Whether culture helps development and poverty-reduction depends on whether it is synergistic with pro-developmental or anti-developmental strategies or trends, at particular points in time.


Lewis, O. (1959). Five families; Mexican case studies in the culture of poverty. Basic Books.

Payne, R. J., & Nassar, J. (2015). Politics and Culture in the Developing World. Routledge.

Rao, V., & Walton, M. (2004). Culture and Public Action. Stanford University Press.

Small, M. L., Harding, D. J., & Lamont, M. (2010). Reconsidering Culture and Poverty. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 629(1), 6–27.

Zakaria, F., & Lee, K. Y. (1994). Culture Is Destiny: A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew. Foreign Affairs, 73(2), 109.



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