Cultures of Development: Vietnam, Brazil and the Unsung Vanguard of Prosperity

By Mobrand, Erik | Journal of Southeast Asian Economies, August 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Cultures of Development: Vietnam, Brazil and the Unsung Vanguard of Prosperity


Mobrand, Erik, Journal of Southeast Asian Economies


Cultures of Development: Vietnam, Brazil and the Unsung Vanguard of Prosperity. By Jonathan Warren. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017. Pp. 140.

Most research in development studies leaves culture at the margins, observes Jonathan Warren in Cultures of Development. Where the significance of culture for developmental outcomes is acknowledged, it tends to be relegated to a black box. This under-conceptualization of culture's influence is especially notable in policy-oriented research. Critical development scholars, on the other hand, give attention directly to the ways developmental projects fail to anticipate how ideas and cultural practices may transform interventions. These scholars, though, resist commenting on the positive ways that culture can be used and refrain from making any policy prescriptions. Warren thus points to a hole in development thinking: while there are vague notions that culture shapes development, as well as a body of work offering culture-sensitive critiques of development projects, there is today little discussion of the ways that culture might be harnessed for collective developmental purposes.

The book sets out to make an initial contribution in this area through comparisons between Brazil and Vietnam. Warren makes it clear that his field of expertise is Brazil, and that he is a more recent arrival to the study of Vietnam. This background means he presents Vietnam through his knowledge of Brazil, just as he reflects back on Brazil in light of what he observes in Vietnam. To Southeast Asianists, this perspective should be fresh.

Vietnam is presented as a country with a more successful record of development compared with Brazil. This starting point may be peculiar given that Brazil's per capita income still towers over Vietnam's. Nonetheless, Warren points to the positives in the Southeast Asian nation's recent improvements in economic and social development, while growth and social progress has, on the whole, been disappointing in the last few decades in the South American country.

The association of poorer Vietnam with development and wealthier Brazil with stagnation may be further excused because Warren's aim is not to account for different levels of development. Rather, he seeks to find specific linkages between cultural factors and developmental logics. The main theme here, and the subject of core chapters, relates to how people think about external models of development. These models have to do with governance or with economic institutions. Warren introduces a distinction between two types of thinking. In one view, external models are held up as ideal and, when efforts to implement them are unsuccessful, blame is placed on local factors. This thinking leads to frustration with people at home. In a second view, the cause of any poor fit between models and practice is ascribed to the models themselves rather than to local conditions. Confident in their own society's traditions and resilience, actors adapt or "indigenize" models to local conditions. The latter view, argues Warren, holds more promise for development.

The first view is found in Brazil, especially among the elite. That country's elite, aspiring to emulate the West, find themselves frustrated by the habits of their lower class compatriots. Their complacence or lawlessness impedes development programmes, maintain the elite. In the Brazilian context, this class snobbery is overlain with a strong dose of racism as class and racial distinctions are far from cross-cutting. In Warren's diagnosis, this elite culture erects barriers to inclusive social development plans and makes the state copy or "monocrop" foreign economic institutions with disappointing results. The situation contrasts with Vietnam, where Warren finds greater solidarity among people. …

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