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Indigenous Culture and the Western Concept of Development
Oct 1, 2002
The term development is frequently used in third world countries as a normative concept to imply improvement. But who defines improvement? A spontaneous reply might be that œthe norms for improvement are the same as those provided by the developed countries, as they are comparatively better off in an economic sense. However, development is more extensive and general, and comprises various noneconomic aspects of social life. It is a diverse concept that denotes œimprovements in the quality of life for people and extends far beyond the direct gains derived from the increased production of commodities and the offering of political, social, cultural, and environmental services.

Perhaps Tanzanian president Nyerere (1968) was right when he defined development in the following terms: development of the people, roads, buildings, the increase of crop output and other things of this nature are not development; they are only tools of development. An increase in the number of school buildings only if these things can be sold, and money used for other things which improve health, comfort and understanding of the people. Every proposal must be judged by the criterion of whether it serves the purposes of development and the purpose of development is the people.(1)

The existing situation

The concept of development is indivisible from the characteristics of individuals living in a given society or culture, because their own attitudes, beliefs, prejudices, and values influence their actions while playing their respective roles. If the goal of development is people, we can no longer ignore their normative structure, value system, and indigenous culture.

Culture must be an integral part of development. Development cannot be patterned on an outside model. Culture is an all-embracing concept that includes all aspects of human life, a œcomplex whole, which includes knowledge, art, beliefs, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.(2)

If we look at the western concept of development, the scene is quite unfavorable for the poor third world. Dogmas of societal development that have been developed by western theorists purport to provide a holistic approach to society. Solutions are global in nature, and therefore applicable to all societies irrespective of the unique indigenous norms and values that distinguish individual societies for each other. In the last few years, universalistic western norms and values have been introduced to “ rather enforced in “ the development process.

Indigenous norms and values cannot be reconciled with the spirit of capitalism, which is central to most Eurocentric development agencies. Imposing western norms that damage and often destroy indigenous values has come to be accepted as a primary necessity of western-style development, although this is not clear in the ongoing discourse. As long as an exploitative world economic system founded upon capitalism remains the dominant world economic ideology driving the first world's relations with the third world, development cannot be pursued from the inside. One consequence of this is that cultural reconstruction conceals real diversities in society. One example is meeting the needs of the small elite to the exclusion of those of the broad majority. Since most of the planners in many third world countries belong to the comparatively affluent and higher occupational strata, they differ in training and education from the majority of the population. Given this reality, their ideas and concepts of development differ from those of ordinary people. The kind of education they receive is largely western-oriented, as many of them are trained in the first world's universities and colleges.

Western-style development

Let's briefly review some theoretical explanations concerning the western view of development.

The underlying thesis of modernization, the belief in a universal Eurocentric concept of truth and the primacy of instrumental reason, cannot be equated with a genuine respect for indigenous norms and values. It is fair to state that modernization has the most negative effects on traditional norms and values. In fact, today indigenous values are treated with even less respect than before, for they are believed to have lost their significance as the major stumbling point on the path to modernity. Talcott Parsons writes that adopting universal values and norms is a key to modernity and that the end-product is development.3 Max Weber based his work on the belief that as western society develops, more of its members act in ways guided by the principles of rationality and less by customs of tradition.4 He sees much of this distinction in terms of a fundamental contrast of ideas and values. In his view, the coming of the modern era represents the social birth of the individual as a relatively free agent not bound by rigid and unquestioning conformity to past tradition.

Therefore development, according to modernization theory, depends upon so-called traditional and primitive values being displaced by modern ones, and the view that substantial economic growth cannot occur without changes in, say, technology, the level of capital investment, and market demand. However, quite a bit of contrary evidence shows that such growth does not always require major alterations to value systems and social institutions. For example, Gusfield points out that the traditional religion of Islam has been reinforced by the diffusion of modern technology, particularly transport, which makes hajj a far more practicable proposition for many people who could never hope to make it otherwise.5 At the same time, Mair argues that because making hajj is an expensive proposition for most Muslims, they must exercise great care with household revenue and other economic growth-related activities to be able to afford it.6

Karl Marx's philosophy paints a very negative view of indigenous value patterns' function in the development process.7 Ironically, Marxism identified development as the modern western ideal.8 This is the theoretical background from which dependency theory emerges, a theory that is reluctant to allow the introduction of respect for indigenous thought into its philosophy. œThe traditional sector is seen as unproductive and as an obstruction to the development of an economy with its own independent dynamism.9

Some negative side-effects

What does today's developed world (in western terms) look like? Social peace and harmony continue to be disrupted by such development.

Development, which used to be a means to an end, now has become an end in itself. It tends to increase the frustration, relative poverty, and feelings of deprivation among those who live in the third world. Media reinforces this view by projecting western-style development, now termed globalization, in such a way that third world people must die for it. The world is not becoming a global village, as widely proclaimed, but a cage in which the parrot of third world development is enthralled. The West, in its capacity as the parrot's master, treats it and feeds it as it wishes (usually in the form of aid).

The aftereffects of such development models (e.g., free trade, deregulation, privatization, and structural adjustment) are destructive in nature. Mander and Barker write that millions of people are left homeless, landless, and hungry and, at the same time, lose their access to such basic public services as health and medical care, education, sanitation, and fresh water.10 A question arises here: Do these globalizing institutions know what they are doing, or do they just blindly follow a failed ideological model?

These institutions have an assignment: To remove all impediments to the free flow of global capital as it seeks to pry open the world's last natural resource pools, markets, and cheap labor (and to keep it cheap). To suggest that they do all this to help the poor is highly cynical. Media, their most powerful weapon, acts like a mirage in the desert of the third world by making distant water (development and prosperity) appear quite near and thereby deluding the thirsty travelers of the poor countries.

Proposed solutions

How can indigenous norms and values run the process of development in a better way without enslaving themselves to Eurocentric models? First, traditional knowledge must not be considered inferior or irrational. Recently, a World Bank report concluded that the œeconomic gaps between developed and developing countries are due to knowledge disparities. Zakar and Ekins have strongly argued that traditional knowledge is not created any differently than modern western knowledge, for both have evolved through the process of experimentation and adaptation and, ultimately, meet the standards of scientific principles.11 Principle 22 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states: œIndigenous people and their communities have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognize and duly support their identity, culture and interests. And enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development.12

Second, if we agree with the functionalist assumption that whatever exists in society exists due to its functional nature, let the third world people devise their own way to development. Our unique ability to consciously accumulate knowledge from practical experiences and pass it on to future generations distinguishes us from animals. Thus, just like the West incorporates some indigenous knowledge (e.g., a holistic approach to sustainable development) into its knowledge system, third world communities should be allowed to take the same approach to western technology.

Third, let the developing nations determine their own definition of what development is so that it will fit into the context in which they live. Indigenous culture and its traits must not be interrupted from outside, as is now the norm. The West indirectly (and sometimes directly) forces poor developing countries to accept its own cultural traits, for example, language (English a medium of instruction), sharing selective information, and technology (usually of inferior quality). Why should people in the third world allow themselves to be transformed into œliving machines deprived of emotions, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes, which is the ultimate goal, either intentionally of unintentionally, of industrialization and modernization?

Fourth, any technical solutions to a particular society's problems should be put into its sociocultural context. For example, many developing countries rely largely on agriculture to increase their GNP. Thus, they must obtain the relevant technology and other imperatives necessary for farming. Sustainable development goals can be achieved by empowering local people through community participation. As Barr says: œIncrease the participation of indigenous people in the planning implementation and evaluation of projects affecting their future living conditions.13

And last, but certainly not least, the various problems plaguing third world societies, such as poverty, inequality, political and economic instability, and ethnic conflict, can be solved only through the approach of cultural relativism driven by the process of a genuine trickle-up approach of development.


As long as the unequal system of exchange exists between the first and third worlds, third world development will always take the form of first world charity, with the result that development always will be imposed and will never emerge naturally from within the third world society itself.


1 J. K. Nyerere, Freedom and Socialism (Dar-es-Salam: Oxford University Press, 1968), 59-60.

2 B. Edward Tylor, The Origins of Culture (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958).

3 Talcott Parsons (1902-79): American sociologist and scholar whose theory of social action influenced the intellectual bases of several disciplines of modern sociology. See Theirry G. Verhelst, No Life without Roots: Culture and Development (London: James Currey, 1990).

4 Max Weber (1864-1920): German sociologist and political economist best known for his thesis of the Protestant ethic, which relates Protestantism to capitalism, and for his ideas on bureaucracy.

5 J. Gusfield, œTradition and Modernity, in A. Etzioni and E. Etzioni-Halevy (eds.), Social Change (New York: 1973).

6 L. Mair, Anthropology and Development (London: Macmillan, 1984).

7 Karl Marx (1818-83): Revolutionary, sociologist, historian, and economist. He published (with Friedrich Engels) The Communist Manifesto (the most celebrated pamphlet in the history of the socialist movement) and Capital (the movement's most important book).

8 A. Webster, Introduction to the Sociology of Development (Hong Kong: Macmillan Education Ltd., 1990).

9 Catherine V. Scott, Gender and Development: Rethinking Modernization and Dependency Theory (London: Lynne Rienner, 1995), 93.

10 J. Mander and D. Barker, œDoes Globalization Help the Poor? (10 Jan. 2002). Online at:

11 M. Zakria Zakar, Coexistence of Indigenous and Cosmopolitan Medical Systems in Pakistan (Germany: Verlag Hans Jacobs, 1998); Paul Ekins, A New World Order: Grassroots Movement for Global Change (London: Routledge, 1992).

12 Nancy S. Barr, œSeeking a Partnership, UN Chronicle, no. 30 (June 1993): 6.

13 Ibid., 42.