Archive for the 'culture and development' Category

A payoff out of poverty?


Reyna Luisa Olmedo Vasquez, the nurse for the clinic in Paso de Coyutla. At health clinics like this one in rural Meico, poor people are paid to bring in their children for checkups.

I am spending the holiday season with my family in California. For the past few days we have been renting a house in San Franciscos Haight-Ashbury. Today,  as part of the “going local” process we went to have breakfast at Boulange on Cole with one of those wonderfully thick Sunday editions of The New York Times.

The magazine has an interesting article entitled  A Payoff Out of Poverty? about Mexicos ground-breaking Oportunidades program. In order to break the cycle of poverty for millions of Mexicans, the state started in 1997 to give the poor cash. But unlike conventional welfare programs it conditiones the receipt of cash on activities designed to break the culture of poverty and keep the poor from transmitting that culture to their children. Thus mothers receive small cash payments when they attend workshops in hygine and health, regularly turn up at medical check-ups with their families and sent their children to school. 

The results are highly promising: With more than 5 million families enrolled, Mexicos poverty rate has sunk from 37,4% in 1996 to 13,8% in 2006. Rates of malnutrition, anmia and stunting have dropped, as have other illnesses. Middle-school and High-school enrollments have risen enormously. And while some sceptical observers feared that the programs cash would either be spent on alcohol or lead to increased domestic violence against women (who are the main recipients of the money), it seems that the majority of men have come to realize the benefits of the program.

The success of the program is such that a number of other countries have started to experiment with it, including Turkey, Cambodia and Bangladesh. But adepts also include New York City, where a pilot program will test whether the Oportunidades model can help New York neighbourhoods where poverty is passed down from one generation to the next.


Islam and Corporate Social Responsibility

Hanniah Tariq, in an interesting post on Social Edge, asks, what role cultural differences play with regards to CSR. She writes:

Clearly expectations with respect to business vary from region to region and developing countries in particular provide a socio-economic, religious and cultural context for corporate responsibility, which is in many ways different from developed countries. Hence it is arguable that a different path must be followed for different regions, as distinct drivers exist for them and as throughout the development of the role of responsible business in society, lessons learnt continue to characterize it as a contextual business response to external and internal drivers rather than an absolute model that can be followed and replicated in developing countries.

Moving on to the Islamic world, she asks:

1. whether a different socio-economic, religious and cultural context calls for a different corporate responsibility strategy? 

2. is it prudent and useful for the Islamic world to try and derive principles for CR based on Islamic economic principles?

These questions resonnate with a move towards „culture“ within the development establishment since the late 1990s.

Culture matters …

I am thinking here of the 2000 publication of  Samuel Huntingtons and Lawrence Harrisons Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. In another such endeavour, in 2005, the German development agency GTZ (Society for Technical Cooperation) and the Goethe Institute, responsible for the dissemination of German culture abroad, initiated a Culture and Development cooperation project, arguing that

experience has shown that a lack of knowledge and comprehension of foreign cultures and values is one of the main reasons why projects and programmes fail. A decisive factor for successful cooperation is … an improvement in the intercultural competence of actors on both sides. Besides knowledge of and respect for the other side’s values and attitudes, this includes developing an awareness of one’s own culture and values.

In order to start this process, the GTZ hosted a number of round table discussions with its partners around the world to discuss the differing meanings of the term „progress“ in the various regions.

Since, Lawrence Harrision has completed an ambitious Culture Matters Research Project (CMRP), seeking to identify “cultural values and attitudes [that are] facilitators of, or obstacles to, progress” so as to develop “value- and attitude-change guidelines … for the promotion of progressive values and attitudes.”

… but how?

While as an anthropologist I certainly agree that culture, understood as the life-style and values of groups of people, does play a role in development (and thus potentially also in CSR practices), the understanding of culture in these discussions is all too often incredibly mechanistic, decontextualisted and a-historic.

Most authors assume that huge groups of people – whole nations, religious communities, ethnic groups – share the same practices and values. This assumption lacks any empirical basis – instead what can be shown is that even in small villages we find a heterogenic mix of voices and practices and that with the global circulation of goods, ideas and people, lifestyles everywhere are becoming more mixed and differentiated.

Very often our ideas about „a culture“ are shaped by the interests of elites, who manage to speak for a supposedly homogenous group. In order to gain a public voice and political or economic power, they very often simply ignore the realities on the ground.

Islamic Economics

I am thinking here, for example, about Islamic economics, viewed by many as a traditional, religiously rooted alternative to Western capitalism.

Continue reading ‘Islam and Corporate Social Responsibility’