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Culture of Nations, Companies, Tribes and Families

This article is motivated from an article by David Brooks of the New York Times. The root problem with India, Pakistan, Syria, Sudan etc. is not politics, not corruption but culture. Cultures provides the value systems that make one endure tough times. All cultures have value because they provide coherence, some foster development and others retard it. Some cultures check corruption, while others permit it. Some focus on being forward looking others on their past. The question at the center of this all is : Can we self-consciously change cultures so they encourage development and modernisation.

Lets take my favourite example, Air India and Jet Airways. The first an airline that served Indian through its socialist days. The planes were not maintained well, the waiting lounges were dirty, the liquor in the first class lounges were flicked before they were placed. Then we had Jet Airways that changed Indian Aviation from the early 90’s. It is interesting that all input to the airline business have not more than two suppliers. For airplanes we have Boeing and Airbus, for engines we have Rolls Royce and General Electric., for booking systems we have a couple more. Then what differentiates the service of these 2 airlines which ultimately translates into brand image. It is culture.

David in his article talks about diplomats in New York rack up a lot on unpaid parking tickets, but not all rack up at the same rates. It was observed that diplomats from countries that rank high on Transparency International corruption index pile up huge numbers of unpaid tickets. Diplomats from Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Mozambique, Pakistan and Syria committed huge number of violations. Not a single violation was recorded against the Swedish, Japan, Denmark, Israel, Norway and Canada. In a speech 65 years ago, Walter Lippman quoted, people don’t become happy by satisfying their desires. They become happy by living within a belief system that restrains and gives coherence to their desires. A veteran foreign worker contemplated the power of culture in shaping behaviour. It was the cultural difference that explain why some nations develop quickly while others do not. Some cultures encourage the belief that individuals control their own destinies, while others encourage fatalism.

The question remains, can we self consciously change cultures so they encourage development and modernisation. Daniel Patrick Moynihan observes, the central conservation truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. But it is politics that can change a culture. Cultural change cannot be imposed from outside except in rare circumstances. It is led by people who recognise and accept responsibility for their own culture’s problems and selectively reinterpret their own traditions to encourage modernisation. It is observed that gigantic investments in education and especially in improving female literacy usually precede transformation. In 1905, 90% of Japanese children were in school. These investments laid the groundwork for takeoffs decades away. Other factors include leaders who encourage economic liberalisation, movements that restrict the power of clerics. For cultures to changes it takes centuries not decades and are separated from one another by veils of complexity and difference.

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