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I was sadly reminded of the general inefficacy of, in particular, US aid.

Book Review: The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save it From Itself by Lawrence E. Harrison

Around a decade ago, I was in Bangkok, working in the international aid community, specifically in women’s issues. About this time, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund had suddenly discovered these “women’s issues”. “Gosh,” their experts exclaimed, “if you give the money to women rather than men it gets used better. Wow, micro-loan schemes really work.” Etc, etc… I remember sitting in a committee room in the main UN building with an anthropologist specialising in women’s issues, both trying not to roll our eyes, and not succeeding. Reading The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change A Culture and Save It From Itself, by Lawrence E. Harrison, I was reminded of that moment.

I was attracted by the book’s central thesis, with which I profoundly agree, that “culture matters”, that unless you address specific social attitudes to say girl children, all the money in the world injected into poor communities won’t ensure that they are properly fed. The author too, is a man who should have interesting things to say about development, as the former director of USAID missions in five Latin American countries between 1965 and 1981.

But after reading this book, I was sadly reminded of the general inefficacy of, in particular, US aid. I haven’t been able to find Harrison’s original academic background, but there’s no doubt that where he’s coming from here, institutionally and in thought, is economics. Decades after everyone else came to this conclusion, the field has finally realised that producing a lot of equations about development based on how you think a whole lot of “rational men” (yes, they always said “men”) who looked an awful lot like themselves, was producing curiously inaccurate results.

So now it has discovered culture. That’s a good thing. Now, however, I fear the economists are going to have to learn that applying the same simplistic methodology to human behaviour as they used to apply to economic figures will not be effective.

It is hard to credit just how simplistic this book gets. It is, for example, sure it has found the answer to the problem of making cultural change happen: “What is necessary is an all-out, coordinated program that involves child rearing, religion and religious reform, education and education reform, the media, civic groups, and above all, strong political leadership committed to the democratic-capitalist model.”

Right, that’s that solved then.

It has found that there are obstacles to development in Islam, Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and animism (being particularly nasty about voodoo). Right, so they’re all going to have to change then. Simple. Confucianism Judaism and Protestantism will confront some problems from being too successful, Harrison suggests, but still everyone else should copy them to get to that point.

How are these conclusions arrived at? Well by such complex analysis as Haiti being evidence of “a realization of the Malthusian prediction – that population tends to increase at a faster rate than its means of subsistence and that unless it is checked by moral restraint or disaster widespread poverty and degradation inevitably result”. Malthus might still be useful for newspaper columnists for rhetorical purposes, but his use in serious academic study disappeared – or should have disappeared – some decades ago.

And Ecuador’s problem with punctuality is a result of its Spanish, Catholic, past, “the current of excessive individualism in Iberian culture”. Oh, and Catholic liberation theology is bad because it is “anti-capitalist”. But with Buddhism, sometimes it is good and sometimes bad. “That variety is reflected in the performance of Buddhist nations: Freedom House ranks Myanmar (Burma) with the least free countries like North Korea and Cuba. Yet Mongolia and Thailand are listed as ‘free’ countries.” (Right, so that lack of freedom has nothing to do with repressive military juntas supported by outside money, or the fact that the whole country was constructed by the colonial power from two groups, the lowland Burmans and the highland tribes, that had nothing in common?)

This book operates on unacknowledged, unconsidered assumptions that utterly determine its results. In a potted history lesson we learn: “When Christopher Columbus arrived at Hispaniola in December 1492, it was populated by the Taino Indians, members of the Arawak family … The Taino civilization was less advanced than those of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca, on the Central and South American mainland.” Oh, “less advanced”, so what does that mean? Since the Maya had long since collapsed, it might be assumed that the Taino, who had continued on, were “more advanced”, even if their technology, as Harrison seems to be measuring, had not got so complicated.

There are, however, unintentional bits of hilarity. After ploughing through humourless accounts of how they had to get just like us, I came across this gem about Octavio Mavila, a proponent of “Japanese values” in Peru, which he defined as “order, cleanliness, punctuality, responsibility, achievement, honesty, respect for the rights of others, respect for the law, work ethic, and frugality”, and set up a foundation to promote these. I’ll let Harrison take up the tale here:

Mavila achieved international notoriety in December 1996 when he, along with other guests, was taken hostage at the residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru in Lima by left-wing revolutionaries. From the moment he became a hostage, he gave sermon after sermon to the revolutionaries on the Ten Commandments of Development. He was among the first hostages released.

That’s funny, really funny. Might even suggest a tactic, if a risky one, should you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of hostage. But it’s clear that Harrison, a fan of Mavila, just doesn’t “get” it.

What I’d prescribe for Harrison is a dose of Pierre Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice, in particular its approach to social interactions as play – the understanding that no human society operates by fixed rules, but in a game in which the undeclared, often unconscious, guidelines are constantly being changed by the participants in a complex, sophisticated dance. This is not something that can be reduced to a formula and a collection of tick-boxes.

Harrison’s heart is in the right place, and indeed I would agree with many of his prescriptions for action. Few, except a real neo-conservative, could disagree with his call for universal worldwide primary education. But if he were to march into Afghanistan waving these principles before him, with his plans for the “reform of Islam” alongside the education funding, well it is not hard to see what would happen.

He’s learnt that economics is not enough; he’s found culture. Now he’s got to find subtlety and understand complexity, and that the rest of the world is not “just like him”. Oh, and a sense of humour would probably help too.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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