…it is the institutions around the culture that need to be changed or reformed to become fit-for-purpose for the current modern era. Intercultural exchange can also be a mechanism through which sub-optimal norms are updated or discarded. Cultural entrepreneurs have also been found to be effective influencers; albeit with varied success.


If culture is a factor in Africa’s relative underdevelopment thus far, why not reform it? It is a herculean task. Cultural practices endure precisely because they worked towards a desirable purpose of the majority of a population during a prior period. For instance, tightly-knit kinship and the moral systems around it were useful for agricultural production, which typically is the early stage of a country’s development. But is such a system suited to the current “modern economic regime that relies on increased interactions with strangers”? While loose kinship societies currently populate the global technology frontier, it is not suggested that tightly-knit kinship societies give up their norms to achieve similar feats. Instead, it is the institutions around the culture that need to be changed or reformed to become fit-for-purpose for the current modern era. Intercultural exchange can also be a mechanism through which sub-optimal norms are updated or discarded. Cultural entrepreneurs have also been found to be effective influencers; albeit with varied success.

Policy and Institutions

“A modern economy is characterised by a rapid growth in non-parental transmission, and in fact such mechanisms of intergenerational transmission are one of the hallmarks of modernity” (Mokyr, 2016). Policy reforms can be used to effect cultural change. It is a fact that “exposure to different institutions/norms during crucial developmental-ages significantly changes individuals’ behaviour.” Institutions can be used to change culture. And it is weak institutions that allow bad cultural practices to persist. Because even when a cultural practice is bad, in the face of strong countervailing formal institutions, it can be discouraged to extinction. In other words, “culture persists in certain institutional environments and not others.” Culture and institutions are complementary and the roles they play in wealth creation depends on the environment and context. Still, even as culture may be amenable to institutional changes, the lead time to the desired outcome could be considerable. In fact, it “can take several generations to reach a new steady state [even] after institutions have changed.”

One study actually shows that it is in the absence of institutions that culture matters, but that once institutions are in place, culture is not so relevant. The study further argues that “economic freedom is relatively more important for growth than culture”, albeit the effects of culture on growth are not totally dismissed. It could be inferred that institutions could be used to change culture. And when strong institutions are in place, sub-optimal cultural practices and the systems that sustain them would have little room for influence or power.

…“education is the most powerful factor in making men modern”. Political leaders could be persuaded to the cause of modernity through education; which some top American and European universities already facilitate. For younger citizens, school curricula could be modified to promote critical thinking over rote learning.


“Culture changes in response to a new environment”. Culture is hard to change, however. The reasons why this is the case are as follows. First, parental transmission, through which a great deal of culture is passed down from generation to generation, is hard to shake off; that is, even in the face of evidence of sub-optimality. Second, entrenched organisations like the state and religious institutions, which garner economic benefits, power or influence from certain values and beliefs, are typically reluctant to give up their power. Third, some growth-hindering cultural practices engender population growth and thus the spread of these values and beliefs.

With these entrenchments, how then can culture be successfully reformed? Culture consists of two major components: Inherited values, a historical component, and social interactions, a contemporaneous component. As inherited values are transmitted from parents, they are hard to change. Social interactions, however, are malleable to change, and are thus channels through which culture could be changed, updated or reformed. Thus, interactions between accomplished Africans in the diaspora, who could be encouraged to return home via incentives, and their compatriots on the continent could be effective. Put in positions of authority in business and government, they could effect cultural change. Multinational companies already do this but with mixed results. For instance, a 2015 survey by Russell Reynolds Associates on senior African executives in the diaspora shows that while senior African talent no longer view returning home to work as a failure, the willingness to do so varies by country.

Also, “education is an effective way of inculcating the right sort of beliefs among citizens” (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2019). Put another way, “education is the most powerful factor in making men modern”. Political leaders could be persuaded to the cause of modernity through education; which some top American and European universities already facilitate. For younger citizens, school curricula could be modified to promote critical thinking over rote learning. For those outside the school system, public advocacy on specific negative cultural practices has been found to work, especially when backed by the international community. In tandem with advocacy, legal measures could also be put in place in to strengthen deterrence. For instance, female genital mutilation has been criminalised in many African countries. And just recently in South Africa, spanking a child was declared unconstitutional. These are just few examples. More fundamentally, policy and institutions could be used to countervail cultural practices and entrenchments inimical to prosperity.

Rafiq Raji, a writer and researcher, is based in Lagos, Nigeria. Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

References are available at https://rafiqraji.com/2019/10/31/culture-development-the-case-of-africa/