In the globalised world that we live in today, the question of why some nations are richer than others in terms of wealth and power is one that is often asked by many people. There are academics who have devoted years of their research trying to answer this question, and as a result there are several different theories that aim to explain why political and economic power is concentrated in the hands of several Western states (Western Europe & the US). Such research also leads to questions concerning the existence of racial hierarchies within countries such as the US and South Africa. Unsurprisingly, considering that these topics are complex and at times controversial, there are no definitive answers. Nonetheless, understanding some of the causes behind inequality is the key to producing any kind of plausible solution to the problem.
Harvard historian David Landes argues in his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations that the rich are rich because they have a culture that supports success. This particular explanation for ‘the rise of the West’ can be traced as far back as the 18th century during the Enlightenment, when modernisation theory emerged. Quick recap of a theory that we explored during our first year – modernisation theory regards underdevelopment as being caused by ‘internal problems’ within a country, specifically a country’s culture. Modernisation theorists claim that in order to develop, societies must move away from traditional agrarian ways of life to a more modern, industrial lifestyle.
Thus, the route to development taken by the West is generally cited as a blueprint model for all countries to follow. Influential modernisation theorists, Max Weber and Emile Durkhiem also cite the Protestant faith’s encouragement of a strong work ethic as one of the main reasons for Western Europe’s success. Quite controversially, they claim that the people of the ‘underdeveloped East’ are irrational and incapable of setting up enterprises; consequently they are considered inherently unable to develop due to their culture.
‘Culturists’ as they are known, consider the behaviour and culture of the poor to be the main cause of poverty, and therefore believe that poor people are primarily responsible for improving their position. But what is ‘culture’? Raymond Williams, one of the founding figures of ‘cultural studies’ even claimed that culture is ‘one of the most ambiguous words in the English language’. Nonetheless, when attributing ‘culture’ to a nations success and development (or lack thereof), it has been suggested that culture is determined by the physical environment, as opposed to social conditions. The fundamental argument of this theory, known as environmental determinism, is that the physical environment influences the psychological mind-set of individuals, thus defining the culture of a society. There is a particular focus on climate; people that live in tropical climates are said to be ‘lazier’ and more promiscuous, whereas people that live in countries with frequent variability in the weather are said to have more determined and ambitious work ethics.
Sounds ridiculous, right? Luckily, there are alternative theories that refute claims made by culturists and modernisation theorists. Dependency theory originated in Latin America during the 1960s, arguing that an unfair international economic system is the cause of inequality and poverty throughout the developing world, having created a culture of dependency. Similarly, there is the strong argument that the success of the West is built on force and expropriation. The impact of colonialism on the developing world and the legacy it left behind is so immense that it has no doubt contributed to the vast amount of inequality we see between regions today. Although colonial powers may have left, the after effects of years of ruthless exploitation remain. These ideas fall under what is known as the ‘global historical approach’ whereby there is an emphasis on the roles played by other civilisations throughout history that have ultimately lead to the inequality that we see today.
I briefly mentioned in my previous post that many regions that suffer from poverty today were once centers of knowledge and innovation. Ironically, the success of many Western states can in fact be attributed to discoveries that originated from the underdeveloped nations of today. For example, although many believe that Western philosophy originated in ancient Greece, it has been argued that its origins in fact lie in Africa. Greek scholars such as Plato, Aristotle, and Herodotus lived in Africa and studied under African priest-scholars of the Egyptian Mystery System. Historians later attributed the origin of philosophy to the Greeks as a way to maintain racial and intellectual superiority over Africans.
Ibn Al-Haytham, originally from Iraq, was a great polymath that lived from 965 to 1040 and is mostly known for The Book of Optics and his analysis of the human eye and light. He in fact wrote over 200 books and influenced Isaac Newton with his work on the laws governing the movement of bodies and the attraction between two bodies (gravity). Hence, Newton’s discovery about gravity did not come from the apple that fell from the tree, but from Ibn Al-Haytham. Other prominent and influential Middle Eastern scholars include Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi, a Persian mathematician, astronomer, and geographer. Al-Khwarizmi formulated the basic principles of algebraic equations; in his book The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing he describes how to use algebraic equations as a way to calculate zakat and inheritance divisions. His books were later translated into Latin in the 1000s and 1100s and he was known as Algoritmi. Similarly, Ibn Al-Haytham was known as Alhazen – changing the names of prominent Middle Eastern scholars to sound slightly more European was a very common practice in the European Renaissance as a way to discredit their scholarship and remove their contributions to Western Europe.
This manipulation of history has arguably established a culture of white supremacy, particularly in the field of development. The belief that white people are racially and intellectually superior to other races is often promoted by the media and therefore ingrained in the minds of many people. Think of films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Machine Gun Preacher whereby people of colour are depicted as helpless victims unable to overcome their own challenges without the help of a noble and respectable ‘White Saviour’. This ideology manifests within many development policies that come from the major international financial institutes, such as the infamous structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s, as they reinforce the notion that poor people are in such a position due to a fault of their own and can only improve with the knowledge and expertise of those from Western states.
If the many different theories and development policies that have emerged since World War 2 have taught us anything, it is that there is no blueprint to development. What works in one country might not work in another, and attempting to duplicate and enforce the route taken by one region onto another can prove to be more destructive than productive. Regardless of the different viewpoints one may hold on what has led to the vast disparities in economic and political power (on both a global and regional level), it most definitely exists, and any kind of ‘level playing field’ unfortunately remains a myth. The downfall of many nations can arguably be attributed to the stripping of their rich history and culture, so would manufacturing a homogenous world modelled on the success of Western states really benefit anyone anyway? Instead, perhaps nations should reexamine their respective histories and try to utilise their unique cultures in a way to further development. Due to the fact that institutional racism is widespread, I would argue that the winners of this scenario is not simply the ‘West’ and the losers the ‘East’; instead it appears that people of colour are the losers in both the West and the East.
Deena Abdo (Dubai Campus)