Culture in development

The rise of East Asian tiger economies has renewed attention to their being embedded in culture and society.

Some cultures, it is said, are inherently “development-resistant” while some are “development-prone” and will of course get ahead in the global race. Held up as examples are the Sinitic cultures and their Confucian values, considered as possibly behind the rise of the Asian tigers and the looming superpower status of China.


The cult of the caudillo, corruption in the bureaucracy, and the general softness of institutions in the Majority World were all identified as causing underdevelopment, the roots of which are accounted to culture.  As the African Daniel Etounga-Manguelle put it, “Culture is the mother, institutions are the children.”

This line of thinking has been fiercely resisted by anthropologists who feel great discomfort over the idea that some people are poor because there is something wrong with their culture. This is like “blaming the victim,” and politically incorrect in today’s multicultural megasocieties where pluralism and diversity are sacred mantras.


It also needs saying that for centuries China was asleep. Confucianism as a scholarly tradition was hierarchical and elitist and did not lend itself to creating conditions for the flourishing of enterprise.

A more promising line of analysis is the interplay of culture and institutions as they go through the crises of history.

Depending on the nature of the culture—the deep structures that rarely, if ever, change through time—accidents of history may cripple entire peoples psychologically and result in maladaptations as indigenous social structures collapse.

In this country, for instance, the sense of “sakop”—that radius of trust and acknowledged sphere of mutual responsibility and accountability between datu and people—got arrested at the level of family or clan and did not expand into a wider circle to embrace that construct called the “nation-state.” The sense among Cordillera peoples that a leader is “silongan”—someone under whose wing an entire community takes shelter—got eroded. In its place was installed a thin layer of power brokers—the principalia —whose allegiance was no longer to their people but to their colonial overlords. Postcolonial politics became a mere contest among family dynasties whose main interest is preserving the wealth and privileges handed down to them.

Because the culture is hospitable to foreign influence, it developed distortions such as “reverse ethnocentrism,” embracing alien political and economic structures deemed superior even when there is an obvious mis-fit with the way things work in the culture. We are more concerned about our image abroad—whether on extrajudicial killings or credit ratings—rather than the plight of our hapless people and what actually works in our context.

In contrast to this other-directedness are cultures that lock themselves against the stimuli of growth and innovation from the outside, as with much of the Arab world that feels humiliated by the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and has been frozen in time and in the memory of lost grandeur.

Such historical disruptions have had profound effects on culture and the economic behavior of nations.


Japan, threatened by US warships in Edo Bay, set into motion the institutional changes that led to the Meiji Restoration, industrializing by imitating German technology and building on its own metallurgical tradition.

Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, separated from Malaysia, transformed itself into a financial capital based on a civic culture of “Asian values.” While some chafed under the stern paternalism, the leadership has retained authority by instituting a relatively clean and competent civil service.

In contrast, the Marcos regime, in spite of long hegemony, frittered away its historic opportunity to overturn the entrenched oligarchy. It merely mimicked the ways of the traditional elite through a tight circle of cronies serving as rent-seeking proxies. The dismantling of our democratic institutions enabled plunder, which in turn pauperized the country.

Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and author of “Rise Up and Walk, Culture and Religion in Empowering the Poor,” published in Oxford, UK.

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