During the time when I advised rural credit unions in Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer, I saw the struggles of these institutions, which varied from village to village. Some had leaders and staff that were clearly committed to the success of their credit union, which provided some locals with loans and gave others a place to put their savings. In other places, a local chief might take a large “loan” that would not be repaid, thereby causing the credit union to fail. Part of my job was to help get this money back to the institution so villagers could recoup at least some of their savings.
Overall, the credit unions worked relatively well, at least when compared with most organizations in the country. Other types of agricultural cooperatives struggled. Western aid organizations would sometimes send local staff for training in the West. Some would come back and admirably support the cooperative, but others would simply use their positions to enrich themselves and their kin. Patronage can help in-group social solidarity and is a type of redistribution that locals often do not see as corruption; but if one wants to build strong institutions, the practice doesn’t work.
Through this experience, which turned me from a business career to an academic one, I learned about the cultural roots of institutions, including the question of why democracy and development don’t happen quickly. That was why I was so interested in the recent American Purpose conversation on democracy promotion with Elliott Abrams.
Given Abrams’ experience in several U.S. administrations, it was understandable that his approach was top-down, focusing on diplomacy with governments, opposition groups, and civic associations.
However, country histories and cultures can be radically different, with disparate implications for democracy. In the Middle East, for instance, tribal organization has meant that pan-ethnic civic groups have a hard time succeeding. Politics there is very kin-focused, involving strong loyalties to people rather than ideas or principles. (Of course, we see personality-focused politics elsewhere, but for different reasons.).
This means we’ve had very mixed results with democracy promotion. We’ve done better in Central and Eastern Europe, though still with problems, and seen almost total failure in the Middle East in the aftermath of the hopeful Arab Spring. We’ve long tried democracy-promotion in Africa—with poor results, as the recent wave of military coups has shown. There have been a few successes; but countries like Cameroon, with two dictators since independence in 1961 despite a move to multiple parties in the 1990s, are more common.
You can set up the institutions, but to make them run well requires that the broad populace commit to the overall health of society. Too often other priorities, such as kinship and patronage, intervene; the institutions are simply looted and left to rot. Those who are on the inside make out well, but the vast majority lose out when infrastructures fail, credit collapses, or democracies devolve into authoritarianism. This can happen with governments, local nonprofits, or even churches, if they are mismanaged or exploited. This helps explain some of the American travails in exporting democracy and development. The top-down approach will simply face stronger barriers in some places.
As the culture goes, so go the institutions. The Scandinavian countries are admired around the world for their quality of life. Their institutions, from government and welfare state to churches and NGOs, have played a key role in this quality of life. But the Scandinavian institutions arose out of a unique cultural environment—specific patterns and values inspired by pietistic movements that engendered trust and cooperation. They crystallized in church-based institutions to help the needy, which eventually evolved into today’s strong Scandinavian welfare state. The quality of these institutions can’t be created ex nihilo elsewhere.
This institutionalist fallacy—that one just needs to set up the right institutions or give them money—is a very common mistake, made whenever someone proposes a “Marshall Plan” to develop countries or continents like Africa. I can understand such a proposal coming from college sophomores; but people who should know better are still making this very basic error, most recently former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown in his book, Seven Ways to Change the World (2021). Even Nobel Prize-winning economists like Daron Acemoglu stumble, explaining development by (rightly) focusing on institutions but (wrongly) neglecting their roots in culture.
The optimistic idea is that if you adopt the institutional form, the rest will follow. This argument has been undermined by the postcolonial failure of institutions in Africa and elsewhere that were designed by well-meaning elites who didn’t understand how they’d work in those contexts.
We should consider the lessons from U.S. social history. The master here is Tocqueville. He coined the phrase “habits of the heart” to describe the specificities of cultures, which include things like our attitudes toward life, how such attitudes affect our practice, and how we get along with others and participate in society. The sociologist Robert Bellah and colleagues made “Habits of the Heart” the title of their 1985 bestseller, subtitled “Individualism and Commitment in American Life.” Based on interviews and observations across a broad swath of American society, the book pointed out our concerning shift to greater individualism, including its implications for American democracy. Bellah, although he was a sociologist influenced by Max Weber, also had anthropological training; he wrote about the ways in which Japanese culture was prepared for modernization by the religious influences of the Edo period from the 17th to 19th centuries.
Quality institutions can’t be easily exported elsewhere because they are founded in culture and social order. The anthropologist Mary Douglas, in How Institutions Think (1986), observes that institutions work because we “carry the social order around in our heads” and use it to navigate our relationships. Anthropologist and legal scholar Lawrence Rosen argues that culture expresses its sense of the order of things by codifying it in law and institutions, a point that social scientists like Francis Fukuyama have made as well. Yet we often forget the crucial link between culture and institutions.
Worldwide, the places in which democracy, education, and corresponding development are highest are often the places with the longest exposure to Western institutions like church-based missions. In Europe, these were originally the places in which the power of kin groups was reduced through church bans (which had started by the first millennium) on cousin marriage. The changes created more civic activity, like volunteerism and less corruption. They took place over long periods of time and worked on people’s sense of their place in the larger world and of whether one has a responsibility to one’s kin alone or to the wider community as well.
Yet we should not always forgo transporting democracy because we think other countries or cultures incapable of it. I would call that the “othering” conceit, which stresses immutable differences. Ideology like that underpinned the apartheid system in South Africa and segregation in the United States. But the opposite conceit is what may be called the “ethnocentric” one, which says that all we have to do is set up institutions: They will function well because culture doesn’t matter. People really want to be like us; they just need a little help to do so.
This latter assumption is naive and idealistic—as Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were when they got involved in Vietnam. President Jimmy Carter’s actions in Iran betrayed his ethnocentric idealism. Ronald Reagan, prompted by a more culture-aware Jeanne Kirkpatrick, understood the barriers to democracy better but was criticized for cozying up to dictators. George H.W. Bush wisely refused to do a state makeover in Iraq, something his son attempted both there and in Afghanistan, with poor results.
In the postcolonial era, we have wasted lives and money and caused needless pain to many. More modest attempts have nudged some countries toward democracy, though some have slid back. It is to be hoped that we have finally learned some lessons about military interventions and democracy makeovers. Historical amnesia and hubris sometimes get in our way.
I wish we had followed Reinhold Niebuhr’s advice in the 1950s. He saw much of this coming in his 1952 book, The Irony of American History, which warned, among other things, about good intentions leading to bad outcomes. Niebuhr defended our involvement in World War II against the arguments of the isolationists, but knew Vietnam was wrong. He eschewed utopianism but rejected acquiescence. He was a realist with an orientation toward justice. He avoided mistakes by drawing distinctions between different situations, based less on cultural knowledge than on understanding the constraints of human institutions and the temptations of power. He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1948 but went out of fashion during the optimism of the 1960s, which afflicted both our foreign policy and our economy.
The best recipe for wise international involvement is a combination of cultural knowledge and a humility around the issue of human accomplishment, attached to an orientation toward justice that does not overreach.
Michael Jindra is a cultural anthropologist at the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University whose writing and forthcoming book center on the relationship between lifestyle diversity and economic inequality.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe