Pondering Culture, Democracy and Development

            David Brooks is upset. On January 14, 2010, in the tragic aftermath of that country’s earthquake, the New York Times columnist expressed his frustration over Haiti’s inability to overcome its massive poverty and to begin to progress more quickly than it has in the last several decades. He compared Haiti unfavorably to the neighboring Dominican Republic in his column that day and finally concluded that it is Haitian culture that is to blame for the nation’s woes. Its high levels of mistrust, odd inability to acculturate its citizens to a sense of responsibility and pervasive voodoo religion combine, he suggested, drawing on Lawrence Harrison for his nomenclature, to make the nation “progress resistant.” To address these concerns, which Brooks argues have proven impermeable to even generous amounts of external development aid, Haiti must turn to a cast of local leaders willing to practice strong paternalism and demand the populace adopt Western (read American) middle class values. It is these, he suggests, which will permit the nation finally to move ahead.

            Doubtless, many share this thoughtful columnist’s concerns and impatience, but it is by no means clear that this “softer form of paternalism” as compared to the authoritarian varietal seen in the Pinochet Chilean dictatorship or today’s Burma, for example, will succeed or that its accompanying costs in human dignity and agency might not exceed its benefits. As it happens, democracy relies on deliberative individual choices. So too do markets. So for both to function at high levels requires a population capable of exercising such choice making. No one knows with certainty how to ensure that social capacity or better, capacities, but it is surely clear that a democratic political economy demands social learning that recurs across time and generations.

            Given this reality one wonders if the metric for judging whether progress is being made ought also to be generational. Can we expect Haitians to adopt middle class values quickly and to act as Americans might “to get their nation moving in a positive direction?” Do we need to recruit a local class of leaders willing to impose those values on communities to ensure “progress” is achieved? Maybe, but I wonder if the issue being addressed is more complex than envisioned and whether we wish systematically to impose our values on the citizens of Haiti or of any nation that aspires to democratic self-governance.

            The difficulty in principle is that democracy rests finally and firmly on individual agency. What Brooks proposes is to mold that possibility into a Western ethos in Haiti because, in effect, it will be “good for them.” But this stance overlooks a profoundly important and ticklish challenge: how can one do that without enervating or eliminating agency itself? How can one practice even well-intentioned paternalism without denying the very dignity of those one supposedly wishes most to support in their pursuit of democratic choice making?

            Nonetheless, Brooks is surely right that whatever was occurring in Haiti prior to the recent catastrophe had not resulted in improved outcomes for the nation’s citizens in recent decades. Indeed, the reverse was true. So the answer is not pure cultural relativism, i.e. to embrace whatever is because it is the product of the local culture. Instead, it is to tether one’s impatience and to work with local and national leaders, rather than appointing the same, and help them to create circumstances in which their own citizens can grapple with how their habits, values and mores might be linked to development-related challenges and obstacles. Ideally, such efforts could bring relevant communities to the point of addressing collectively how they need to change to accomplish the social goods that presumably all desire.

            One might still criticize the Western aid worker providing such opportunities for impairing agency by guiding Haitians, whether robustly or perhaps even in indirect ways. But the goal of providing others opportunities and conditions to exercise their agency is obviously very different than telling others how they must behave, even if the messenger is a local citizen and not an outsider. In short, the challenge for would be nation-builders is to develop strategies that build upon imperfect agency but nonetheless recognize it is inevitably intertwined with human dignity and thereby with the possibility of self-governance. One does not create democracy and development simply by ensuring ballots are printed or elections fair, but more fundamentally by fomenting in the population the habits of mind and heart that create the possibility for the exercise of deliberative agency. It is not clear that the road to such social learning is first to say to a nation’s people that they must relinquish their freedom to another’s values and determination. It may appear profoundly paradoxical to allow agency to populations that have failed against an abstract calculus for its exercise, but then democracy itself is predicated on just such a claim being accorded to all citizens as citizens. Democracy demands, but cannot itself guarantee, a population that can consider prudently the palette of choices its responsibility entails in a manner that serves the collective good. With this in mind the question becomes: How can would-be aid workers help to secure the social learning necessary to provide that result?