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Haiti in the Cultural Mirror of Africa

Sat, 29 Jan 2011 Source: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

The one year anniversary of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti and left over 250,000 dead, a quarter of its civil servants killed and most of its infrastructure destroyed have brought into the forefront why it is that after 207 years of independence from France colonial rule Haiti is in almost permanent misery, the poorest country in the western hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world.

On 2010 United Nations Human Development Index ranking of global human well-being such as poverty, literacy, education and life expectancy, Haiti ranks 145th among 169 countries for which the index was calculated. Haiti has the lowest human development in the Americas and among the last 42 low human development countries in the world. Haiti has practically been around this position since 1993 when the United Nations Development Programme started the annual report on human well-being globally.

Haitians themselves, Caribbeans, and international development experts have been asking questions: why is Haiti in so much despair, rolling from crisis to crisis, and so poor, worsened by the 2010 earthquake? In an objective piece entitled “You can’t deny that culture matters,” Dan Gardner, of The Ottawa Citizen, argued how “our values, beliefs, and attitudes make a big difference in whether we succeed or not.” That’s our culture, in the final analysis, shapes everything.

Dan Gardner was discussing Haiti’s long-running suffering - the latest being earthquake and its recovery, cholera outbreak, a quarter of its civil servants perished in the earthquake, and a presidential election troubles - and questioned why Haiti should be in such a situation for decades. The superstitious Sierra Leonean will say “na God mark am” (God has destined it). That isn’t true, that’s fatalism. God loves Haitians as much as He loves every human being.

This is against the fact that Haiti has over the years received billions of dollars in foreign aid and is in the prosperous western hemisphere, with hemispheric neighbour Brazil fast emerging as global economic power and uplifting millions of its citizens from poverty. At least some of this prosperity should have robbed on Haiti and free it from despair after despair, but it isn’t so. Not surprising, Dan Gardner seriously ponders, “Does culture make a difference in whether a community succeeds or not? The point would seem to be equally obvious. But you dare say it out loud.”

Yes, for some time, cultural issues have been seen in the ethnocentric light – it has been a no-go area, especially in academia and the international mass media. Public intellectuals have been nervous discussing culture and progress, for the fear that they will be seen as ethnocentric and foolish. But this is changing. Part of the reason is the power of social media networking that is collapsing barriers to thinking and creating global intellectual forum where everything is being discussed openly.

In Ghana, Dan Gardner need not worry asking such questions about culture and progress. Ghanaians themselves are already asking such questions, and working to refine the inhibitions within their culture that have been blocking their progress. The latest to join the Ghanaian enlightenment bandwagon is the prominent 51-year-old Ghana Academy of Arts and Science that organized a workshop in Accra in December, 2010 to develop the capacity of the Ghanaian mass media to deal with irrationalities within the Ghanaian culture that have been inhibiting progress.

Haitians, as ex-slaves from Africa (heavily from the Benin Republic, Togo and the Volta Region of Ghana area of West Africa), brought their cultural irrationalities (especially their voodoo) to what is today called Haiti. So the values, beliefs, and attitudes that impinge on their progress are no more or less different from Togolese, Ghanaians or other West Africans. But even within Africa itself some variations within each ethnic group’s culture explains differences in their respective progress.

The difference in progress between the Ewes and the Asantes is that of the fearsomely destructive juju occult practices among the Ewes that drive away not only Ewes themselves from investing in their own land for progress but other non-Ewes who are afraid of the juju practices. This partly explains why the Eweland is continuously poor. Central government or no central government, the reality is that the Ewes are as hardworking as are the Asantes but the fear of the deadly juju that has created fear and mistrust is partly responsible for the Ewes level of poverty.

Today some objective Ewes and investment experts aren’t afraid to discuss this openly, as the Ghanaian enlightenment movement increasingly opens up Ghana. Like the earlier problems of comparison of Ewes and Asantes, in other parts of the world this had been the case but it is changing as human civilization increases and everyone aims to live a better life freed from the fear of certain cultural inhibitions that hamper prosperity. Culture matters are now accepted or incorporated, and not rejected, as partly responsible for a group’s progress. And where the inhibitions are too much there are attempts to refine them through modern values such as the good governance, rule of law, human rights, freedoms, justice, and democracy.

In Haiti, Dan Gardner acknowledges that no matter where one looks at progress, “…there is something more fundamental at work. To acknowledge that one group’s culture is contributing to its extraordinary success invites an obvious question about groups plagued with social pathologies and failure. Is their culture responsible?” Yes, the Haitian or Ghanaian who thinks his or her failure is caused by witchcraft or an evil spirit is heavily influenced by the culture he or she was born into. There are no other explanations. This irrational aspect of the culture blocks the rationalization of other reasons why the Haitian or the Ghanaian woman is a failure. We cannot reject cultural explanation from this.

As Dan Gardner explains, the same applies to success: “… how do we account for the success of Chinese immigrants around the world?” It’s the Chinese and other Southeast Asians culture that breeds trust, in-built organizational tradition, hard work, initiative, rationality, achievement, and the hunger for education. Dan Gardner further explains that in the United States, Chinese and other Southeast Asians make up one-quarter of the student population in major universities even though they are just 3 percent of a total population of 307 million.

In Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (2001), edited by Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington, the difficult question of how culture influences progress is bravely tackled by various contributors from diverse background who loosely agree that culture matters in how a society progresses or fails. “Are some cultures better than others at creating freedom, prosperity, and justice?” Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana and Mauritius will tell you yes. But their culture isn’t taken for granted, as the Ghanaian enlightenment movement reveals, it is work in progress – refinements here and there, debates up there and down under, and civilized quarrels all over the place.

As the Ghanaian enlightenment movement reveals, against the backdrop of the contributors of Culture Matters, the culture and progress discussion isn’t to look down on any particular culture, “but to figure out how all people can improve their quality of life.” Dan Gardner particularly uses Lawrence Harrison’s long-running culture works to explain that, yes there may be economic exploitation or terrible history (as any African will tell you – slave trade, colonialism and unfair international political economy) but we can’t remove culture from discussing progress.

Lawrence Harrison, father of the culture-progress movement, argues that culture “offers an important insight into why some countries and ethnic/religious groups have done better than others, not just in economic terms but also with respect to consolidation of democratic institutions and social justice. And those lessons of experience, which are increasingly finding practical application, particularly in Latin America, may help to illuminate the path to progress for that substantial majority of the world’s people for whom prosperity, democracy, and social justice have remained out of reach.”

The same explanations are attributed to Haiti’s low human progress and its continuous despair (despite all the advantages at Haiti’s disposal). For the past 207 years, Haitian elites, unlike their Ghanaian elites, have not attempted to deal holistically with their culture in their progress so as to refine the inhibitions that have been blocking their progress. Dan Gardner asks, “How do we explain the dramatic disparity between Haiti and Dominican Republic, which share an island? How do we explain the even more dramatic disparity between Haiti and Barbados, which share a history of slavery and colonial oppression?”

You can give all sorts of reasons for Haiti’s recurring hopelessness but it is fairly honest - intellectually, morally, humanly and materially – to factor in the Haitian culture, too. Dan Gardner writes that, “Harrison and other scholars argue Haiti has been crippled, at least in part, by certain cultural values – such as the fatalism promoted by voodoo – that discourage initiative, rationality, trust, achievement, and education.”

Lawrence Harrison and others scholars explanations aren’t farfetched. In African societies where there are high incidence of witchcraft and evil spirit beliefs and voodoo practices they are mostly poor and fatalistic because of recurring fear, mistrust, wobbly organizational traditions and irrationality. In Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity (1996) Francis Fukuyama (one of the contributors of Culture Matters) explains the impact of trust on progress among countries and ethnic groups. The higher the trust, the higher the progress, and the lower the trust, the lower the progress.

Francis Fukuyama argues that the most common cultural characteristic influencing a nation’s progress and ability to compete is the level of trust or cooperative behavior based upon shared norms. The Ghanaian who discusses progress among the over 56 ethnic groups will tell you that there is more trust and organizational tradition among the Asantes than most of the other ethnic groups. That explains the Asantes’ rate of higher progress compared to the other ethnic groups. Despite this real fact, some, especially those who will ignore cultural factors and put strong accent on history and economic exploitation, will rubbish this as wretchedly ethnocentric thinking.

Today, as the Ghanaian enlightenment movement demonstrates, the Haitian or the African cannot reject culture in discussing prosperity. In Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind (2000) Lawrence Harrison argues that part of the stumbling blocks to progress (it doesn’t matter if the country has natural resources or not) is a society’s culture – that is revealed clearly in the mentality of the society. As an example, how do two countries of a comparable economic situation, say Hong Kong - no natural resources - and Nigeria - with considerable reserves of oil and other natural resources – that started off in the early 1950s - become so diverse in their progress in just 50 years? Culture and economic liberty are the obvious explanation.

Either in Haiti or Africa, the question is how we can self-consciously change cultures so as to encourage progress? Lawrence Harrison examines this in The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from (2006). In his discussion of Haiti’s never-ending crisis, Dan Gardner mentioned Harrison’s Central Liberal Truth and quoted the top American democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan as saying, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success of a society.”

And Moynihan added: “The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” In Ghana, unlike Haiti, through its emerging democracy and healthy press freedoms, there are attempts to use democratic politics to change the irrationalities emanating from within the Ghanaian culture that have been asphyxiating higher progress. The Ghanaian enlightenment movement is growing because of the country’s healthy democracy and mass media that have engendered freedoms, good governance, social justice and the rule of law.

How does Haiti become like Barbados (80% Africans - Akan, Igbo, Yoruba and others - and very high, 42th, on the UN Human Development Index) or Dominican Republic (shares border with Haiti, with 60% mixed race and 27% Africans and medium, 88th, on the UN Human Development Index)? How does any African society refine its inhibiting culture and use the refinement to spur progress? One lesson is from Ghana’s on-going enlightenment movement to refine the hampering cultural values that hold back progress. The other, as Francis Fukuyama indicates in State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century (2004), is the transfer of institutional and public- and private-sector know-how to “failed” or “weak” states such as Haiti and as are credibly happening in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

But added to Fukuyama’s proposal is integrating the transferred institutions into traditional values, as Ghana has been attempting to do for the past 23 years through its decentralization programmes. This will create a self-sustaining culture (with reasonable number of its inhibiting cultural values refined) that have in place strong democratic leadership and government and traditional institutions nation-wide that will enforce progress.

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi