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Confronting Culture

Confronting CultureIn a recent Washington Post op-ed, The Fletcher School's Lawrence Harrison examined the relationship between political and cultural change.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.08.07] The Iraq Study Group's recent report on the war in Iraq focused on the withdrawal of United States' troops from the Middle East, but largely overlooked an issue at the heart of the conflict: the creation of a democratic Iraq. According to one Fletcher School expert, political change doesn't come easy. He wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed that political shifts in Iraq must be accompanied by cultural change, which “takes much more than dispatching troops, holding elections and writing constitutions.”

“The cultural values favorable to pluralism and entrepreneurship are indispensable to building democracy and capitalist prosperity,” Lawrence Harrison, a senior research fellow at The Fletcher School at Tufts, wrote in the Post . Past attempts to build democracies in poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, he added, have proven that those values can't be created overnight

“Some cultures … clearly do better than others in promoting democracy and prosperity,” Harrison, who spent two decades with the U.S. Agency for International Development, wrote in the newspaper. He recalled learning this lesson firsthand at USAID missions he directed in the 1960s and 1970s in Central America and the Caribbean.

“Like other young idealists, I believed that President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress -- a 'Marshall Plan' for Latin America -- would make the region safe for democracy,” he wrote in the Post . “But as I encountered daily the intractability of Latin America's problems, it became clear to me that poverty and injustice were rooted in the region's values.”

In the Middle East, there are similar challenges, according to Harrison, who authored a book on this topic, The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It From Itself, that was published last year by the Oxford University Press.

“ Iraq and Afghanistan show that, where culture is adverse, a blind belief in the power of freedom is a frail foundation for U.S. policy,” he wrote. But Harrison pointed out that all hope should not be lost.

“Culture is not destiny,” he wrote. “The failures in Iraq and instability in Afghanistan do not prove that these or other countries are condemned to stagnation and political oppression.”

War, however, is not the right way to achieve political progress in Iraq and elsewhere, according to Harrison. Rather, he wrote in the newspaper, the keys to both cultural and political change include “education that inculcates democratic and entrepreneurial values; improved child-rearing practices; religious reform; and development assistance keyed to cultural change.”

According to Harrison, eliminating illiteracy and providing all people with a high school education will pave the way for “progressive cultural change.” He also noted that altering child-rearing techniques -- so parents begin to instill values that support progressive cultural change in younger generations -- will set the stage for progress. Harrison added that divorcing religion from politics and encouraging aid agencies to consider culture in their research, strategies and programs is vital.

While these cultural changes are important precursors to political change, Harrison -- who leads The Fletcher School's Culture Matters Research Project (CMRP), an initiative that explores the role of culture in the evolution of societies -- believes that politics can help to effect cultural change, too.

“Enlightened policies can, over time, produce cultural change -- change that in turn spurs political pluralism and economic development,” wrote Harrison.

The war in Iraq proves “how difficult it is to create a more democratic, just and prosperous world,” Harrison wrote in the Post . “Confronting culture can make that challenge more manageable.”

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