Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 20th century theologian, popularized the term "God of the Gaps" to refer to the belief in a god that takes over where science stops. It's an unsustainable faith, he argued, because the role of "god" in the world keeps getting smaller as science progresses.
 
When it comes to economic development, the concept of culture seems to be our "God of the Gaps" equivalent.  What economists can't explain, we blame on "culture."
 
David Brooks falls into this trap in a recent NY Times piece on the tragedy in Haiti. He says:
 
"As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book 'The Central Liberal Truth,' Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them."

Don't get me wrong…I would be the first to say that cultural influences, social norms, levels of trust, etc. play a vital role in economic development. However, there is nothing scientific about Brooks' argument here. It is a God of the Gaps explanation. Even worse, he dumps all of these potential impacting factors into a bucket that he amorphously calls "culture," when culture itself is a concept that does not benefit from a clear shared definition but does carry connotations of inheritance and immutability. That's why comments like these sound ethnocentric at best and racist or zenophobic at worst.
 
Certainly, let's get scientific in how we understand the impact of cultural factors on development. But let's stop making culture the substitute for that which cannot otherwise be explained.

Posted via email from Human Ventures

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