Many aspects of African culture can be used to support development, but others have delayed progress

Africa is a vast continent with a diversity of cultures. Rather than see this as an impediment to development, the continent should take advantage of this rich cultural diversity in its quest for economic development. It should change the attitudes of its people towards work, interpersonal trust, time, youth and women.

There are probably as many different definitions of culture as there are different cultures. According to a 2017 article by Kim-Ann Zimmermann, “culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habitats, music and arts”. In 2016, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted a broad definition stating that culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by (a human) as a member of society.”

Film crew at a Nollywood film shoot, Akwa, Nigeria. Photo: Bestvillage

Some scholars maintain that culture is closely entwined with economic development, while others fervently disagree, arguing that the effects of geography and climate are the most significant factors in shaping global economic development. Jared Diamond supports this theory in his 1999 book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, where he argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world.

This implies that the striking differences between the long-term histories of different people on different continents are due not to innate differences between the people themselves but to differences between their environments. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the exceptions to Diamond’s rule are too numerous for us to accept geography and natural resources as the only explanation for differences in history and culture. Take, for example, Russia, which occupies the same latitude as highly prosperous northern Europe and Canada. Look at Singapore, which lies almost on the equator and is most definitely in the tropics, along with many of the world’s poorest nations. Consider Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries, which sits on some of the world’s largest diamond deposits.

In consequence, it is difficult to arrive at a single, uniform definition of culture, in particular insofar as it relates to development, because the concept is so fluid and dynamic. This constraint notwithstanding, several examples exist of best cultural practices in development. An interesting case study of the role played by cultural values in development is provided by Japan and its history of economic success.

In Japan, a combination of cultural values and practical business transformed a relatively backward economy into one of the most prosperous nations in the world in less than a century, with the majority of the gains achieved during the past 50 years, largely on the back of an aggressive export trade policy. In the aftermath of World War II, Japan’s emphasis on trade stemmed from the country’s lack of the natural resources needed to support its industrial economy, notably fossil fuels and most minerals. In addition, the limited amount of arable land forced the country to import much of its food needs.

The values central to Japan’s spectacular achievements and rapid elevation to the world’s third-largest economic power include, but are not limited to, its strong work ethic; an entrenched sense of group responsibility; company loyalty; interpersonal trust; implicit contracts that bind individual conduct; and commitment to education and investment in young people.

Can we, as development planners, take lessons from the example of Japan? One thing is clear; we cannot take a set of cultural values from one country and hope to implant them in another society. Japan was successful because it built its economy on its own home-grown values. Looking specifically at the development trajectory of Africa, we are forced to conclude that while there are many aspects of African culture that can be used positively for the development of the continent, some aspects of African culture have delayed progress.

Successful organisations believe in competition and rely on the hard work, commitment and loyalty of their employees. Interestingly, many African employees of major multinationals have given exemplary service, which has helped to make these companies profitable. Among these are mining companies in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia.

Foreign mining companies in South Africa, such as De Beers, were traditionally keen to recruit Basotho workers and nationals of other neighbouring countries to work in their mines because they saw them as dependable and hard-working. Yet when these Basotho miners and those of other nationalities returned home in 1994, many of them failed to find work because they had no experience in areas outside the mining industry. As former miners, they were unable to adjust easily and take on other, unrelated but available jobs without having to upgrade their skills.

Africa has many cultural values and beliefs. By and large, there are marked differences between the working attitudes and values of those Africans who have worked for foreign companies and those who have always worked for themselves. Specifically, Africans who worked for foreign employers learned discipline and commitment to the companies for which they worked, and this helped them to manage their own businesses as individuals. Moreover, certain African communities are reputed to have great business acumen or entrepreneurial skills, with their members showing versatility in various sectors of their economies. Examples include the Chaga in Tanzania; the Serahule in the Gambia; the Fula in Guinea, Mali, the Niger and other nearby countries; the Ibos and Hausas in Nigeria, and the Kikuyu in Kenya.

In his book Africa at the Crossroads: Philosophical Approach to Education (1974), Festus Okafor noted that in the rural areas of Africa, in days gone by, when a job had to be done the whole community would turn out with supplies and music and proceed to sing and dance through to the successful conclusion of each particular chore. In those days this generous solidarity brought the community together. This sense of solidarity, however, has declined over the past few decades.

According to the Japanese, interpersonal trust is an important cultural strength, especially in large corporations; if a person loses this trust he or she brings shame to the entire family. There have even been occasions where people have felt obliged to commit suicide. In Africa, as a consequence of colonisation, most traditional cultural values have been eroded or weakened, in particular, the concept of trust. In many African countries people do not trust their governments because they feel that they are not doing much to reduce unemployment and poverty or to combat corruption. In Japan, if a senior government official is accused of corruption, the official will face the law and have to resign. In Africa, nobody resigns; if anything, they fight back, claiming that their detractors are on a witch hunt.

In Africa, at the business level, the concept of trust is selective. For example, in fields such as law and medicine, some professionals will share facilities but maintain separate and distinct accounts. In family-owned small and medium-sized enterprises, it often happens that family members find it difficult to get along together once the head of the family dies. In some cases, siblings and children start fighting, resulting in protracted legal suits. In general, there is much suspicion and mistrust in many African societies, particularly in the area of business, leading business people to keep everything within the family rather than seek productive and forward-looking partnerships, as is the successful model in developed countries.

Developing societies cannot afford the luxury of a social-welfare system. As Okafor pointed out in his 1974 treatise, in African society everyone is accommodated through the extended family system. Consequently, if a family has one relatively successful member that fortunate person is expected to provide school fees, medical care, clothing, housing, and even pocket money for many others. While this system has merits – it encourages a charitable disposition and fosters cohesive family loyalties – in some instances it is exploited and abused by members of the family.

The extended family system can create dependency instead of encouraging siblings to stand on their own two feet. Moreover, these siblings are rarely appreciative and they may even gang up on their beneficiary. This is a narrative sometimes employed in Nigerian films of the “Nollywood” genre: when the “big man” dies, his kinsmen try to take his assets from his wife and children. Moreover, the demands of the extended family may prevent a successful family leader from investing in a way that could permanently improve the living standards of the entire family. When poorer relatives become envious and want a share of the successful family member’s properties and assets, the successful family member becomes isolated, which can discourage him or her from further helping the extended family.

It is often remarked, anecdotally, that the concept of time in Africa is somewhat flexible by comparison with that of developed countries. There seems to be some substance to this popular cliché. Several African scholars argue that Africans as a rule are not good at keeping time – despite the importance of timekeeping in some traditional customs. In their traditional milieu Africans were often compelled by certain routines to strictly respect time. For instance, there were particular times when certain rituals had to take place, such as a sacrifice. That said, many things have changed in post-colonial Africa, including attitudes to timekeeping. Those working in the private sector who must reach work on time are placed under particular pressure by this rather common post-colonial lackadaisical attitude.

Noticeably, those working for the public sector do not always observe the same constraints. Thus, if a good turnout is needed for planned meetings, constant reminders must be sent and follow up is essential in all areas of interaction. In some African countries, participants in workshops or seminars have to be given incentives – not only to attend but simply to be on time. Meanwhile, in most developed countries people expect that activities are begun and completed in a timely fashion. Consequently, many African business people find it difficult to compete on the global market, with some losing contracts because they have not met their deadlines.

Until recently, there were some jobs that Africans would not take. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s many Africans in major towns and cities had a tendency to avoid particular jobs because of cultural or sexual stereotypes. Men were reluctant to work as cleaners, cooks, janitors or waiters in hotels, for instance. When they did so, they would say that they were merely doing a temporary job while they looked for a permanent one. Mostly, they hoped to be clerks, soldiers, policemen and drivers. Given our weak economies, featuring high unemployment and poverty, all available vacancies or jobs should be highly competitive and should be filled by willing recruits without discrimination as to gender or cultural considerations.

On the positive side, there are some areas where the African people display their cultural talents and are making very good progress, namely in music and cinema. To do this they have had to embrace western norms of cooperation and partnership, as well as of creativity and innovation. For example, during the fight against apartheid in South Africa freedom fighters sought unity in their songs in the battle against their oppressors. Most of the former political prisoners on Robben Island, such as former president Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, acknowledged that liberation songs were morale boosters that helped to unite them in the fight for freedom. Southern Africa abounds with talented musicians and dancers, and this asset has been harnessed in scaling up the country’s creative economy. Moreover, it is a cultural tradition among Africans that whenever a community assignment needs to be performed, community members will come forward with their musical instruments, including drums, and play and sing to their kinfolk working on the task and encourage them to get the job done.

Another example of the valuable cultural capital inherent in African societies may be seen in the DRC, which continues to produce talented and gifted musicians, among them M’bilia Bel, Koffi Olomide and Papa Wemba. With the support of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko they were able to engage in cooperation and partnerships among various Congolese music groups to spread their music all over Africa and into Europe and North America. As part of this cultural revolution, their music became a source of pride and patriotism in their country, which had suffered brutal civil wars since independence in 1961.

According to the SXSW Schedule (2012), over the past few decades the African music industry, both traditional and modern, has grown exponentially, with a direct impact on African economies. Small-scale vendors have established local studios to produce music for the commercial market. Despite the low market prices, music has the potential to create jobs, which in turn will reduce poverty.

In this connection, African governments should take advantage of this huge asset and support African music, both traditional and modern, as part of their cultural reforms. If Africa is to reap the considerable potential benefits of this great asset, however, it will need not only to strengthen its copyright laws to prevent piracy, but also to enhance its partnership and cooperation with the private sector to scale up this sector.

Another cultural manifestation that merits closer consideration is African cinema. According to former UNESCO Director-General Kōichirō Matsuura “films and video production are shining examples of how cultural industries, as vehicles of identity, values and meanings, can open the door to dialogue and understanding between peoples, but also to economic growth and development” (2009). African cinema is an expression of the continent’s cultural identity, and demonstrates its endeavour to overcome foreign influences and develop its own voice. Moreover, African films have enabled many people to gain insights into Africa’s creativity, innovation and talents.

Certainly, the film industry in Africa faces constraints – including financial constraints, piracy, problems in distributing films to the market, and the lack of a proper regulatory framework. As a 2013 article by Rebecca Moudio shows, African film is not only an entertainment industry; it is an important money-maker. This is certainly the case with the Nigerian film industry, which currently employs more than one-million people, making it the country’s largest employer after agriculture, she writes. In addition, the output of the Nigerian film industry – known as “Nollywood” – has a massive following in Africa and among the African diaspora around the world. The former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan was a great supporter of Nollywood and proclaimed it as the country’s shining light, and he insisted that every effort be made to ensure this light continued to shine.

The film industry has continued to grow in other African countries such as South Africa, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Egypt, Morocco and Angola. South Africa has seen a steady rise in both the quality and reputation of its films. A South African film – Tsotsi – won the 2006 Academy award for the best foreign-language film. Because of its favourable weather, South Africa has provided locations for a number of major blockbusters, such as Blood Diamond (starring Leonardo Di Caprio), and Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood, as well as numerous television series.

These are all positive signs that the African film industry is breaking its traditional cultural boundaries. What the industry needs now are cultural ambassadors and strong political support and will, as well as financial support from the continent’s private sector and its development partners. The support extended by Goodluck Jonathan to Nollywood is particularly instructive in this regard. There can be no doubt that if African leaders encourage and promote African films the benefits will be immeasurable. Across its many countries, the continent represents an enormous market of over one-billion people. This offers an unprecedented opportunity for Africa, which it should not neglect. It offers prospects for reducing unemployment, in particular among young graduates. This, in turn, will reduce poverty and raise living standards in the countries concerned. With small budgets, the African film industry has been able to embrace some of its cultural talents such as teamwork, creativity, and innovation.

Culture is indeed a vital factor to be taken into consideration when discussing or contemplating action in development. Africa is a vast continent with a huge diversity of cultural norms and practices. There are great variations among its regions, countries and ethnic groups and this needs to be recognised.

Successes in Botswana, Mauritius and other countries prove that Africans can be punctual, innovative, entrepreneurial and forward-looking. In addition, much greater use should be made of the creative talents available on the continent, of its drama, films and music as effective tools for raising awareness among African people of the need for education and for a change in their negative attitudes and values to boost their economic development.

At the same time, we must accept that the attributes, which underpinned the rapid success of countries like Japan and other developed countries will take time to take root in Africa. To improve its economies, the culture of good governance cannot be seen as a distant luxury to be aspired to but avoided in practice. To boost economic development, all-important cultural values must be in place, which must be governed according to the values of transparency, accountability, trustworthiness and empowerment. Like Japan, each individual African country should build its own economy based on its home-grown cultural values. The successes of African films and African music are instructive. 

John O. Kakonge is currently president of the Association of Former International Civil Servants of the United Nations (AFICS) in Kenya. He has served as Kenya Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. Previously, he was UNDP/UN Resident Coordinator in a number of African countries, including Lesotho, Liberia, Gambia and Rwanda. He has published scholarly and policy papers and book chapters on environmental and sustainable development issues and holds degrees from the universities of Nairobi, Howard (USA) and Cambridge (UK). He is also a Fellow of Oxford University and an Associate Research Scholar of Yale University.