Cultural values, not dictators like Libya's Qaddafi, are chief obstacle to Arab progress
If Arabs want significantly greater freedom and economic development, they and their leaders must be fully committed to making it so.
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But are major changes or “revolutions” really possible anywhere? The Asian or Sinic “Tiger” countries (Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea) offer impressive evidence that in significant degree they are. These countries share a profound, centuries-old link to traditional Chinese culture that has been adapted to the goals of individual nations.Skip to next paragraph
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The tigers are the nations that during the past half century leaped over the rest of the so-called developing countries to join the already developed world, a process they began under wise authoritarian leadership. Even Sinic China and Vietnam have not made that leap despite extraordinary economic growth, in large part because of lingering negative cultural values.
Nor has any country in Africa or the Middle East made the leap, excepting Israel. Nor has any country in Latin America, as Costa Rican Nobel Peace Laureate Oscar Arias explains in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs.
Lessons from South Korea
Take just one of dozens of possible illustrations of the differences; In 1960, Egypt had almost exactly the same per-capita GDP as Nicaragua and South Korea. Fifty years later, according to International Monetary Fund figures, South Korea’s per-capita GDP is 5 times Egypt’s and almost 10 times Nicaragua’s. Why?
Many factors are at play, but the chief differences between those who made it to the developed world in the past half century, and those who didn’t, are getting the economics right – other nations could have made similar choices to the Sinics, but for their own reasons did not – and, as the AHDR report says, culture and values, critical factors in economic decision-making and implementation.
Among the key Sinic cultural factors are the conviction that: (1) education is an expressway to success for individuals and nations; (2) goals should be far higher than mere survival and pursued over the long haul with single-minded diligence and a demanding work ethic; (3) merit should be sought out and rewarded; and (4) frugality and focus must guide the expenditures of funds and energies.
Some other cultures in the past and present have similarly progress-prone qualities, ranging from Max Weber’s much-remarked European Protestants to Jews, Basques, Scandinavians and Americans. African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American cultures largely do not.
If the Arab peoples want significantly greater freedom and economic development, they and their leaders must be fully committed to making it so. But frustration at not having a job or even a “high” from ousting a dictator won’t suffice. Current explosive enthusiasm must become constructively focused and effectively pursued over the long term. This is what the Arab peoples need if they wish to significantly improve their living standards or perhaps even join the developed world.