Garretts initial thoughts on culture, education and religion

An outsiders, possibly naive, perspective.
Talking to an array of interested parties in Mali, of which there are many, there does seem to be something approaching a common view, and one that as an outsider I was reluctant to admit openly, that there is a culture which denigrates planning, which frowns upon taking the longer view. ‘I will look after what is in front of me and God will take care of the rest’ is something I have heard uttered more than once.
But where does this come from, is it a reference to religion and fate? faith? in God, which ever one you happen to believe in? is it a cultural phenomenon, where tribal and historical mores come to the fore?
Or perhaps, as has been suggested by some of the local stakeholders we have met, a matter of education?
The answer to this is crucial in a number of aspects. Planning is seen as foreboding, inviting fate to play a negative role in your future, that you are somehow trying to outdo God and plan for the future when you know that this is not possible, as only God can decide your fate.
Culture is very strong, in my opinion, in developing countries, and dictates to a large extent peoples activities and opinions. Whether everyone agrees with this in place like Mali, in their heart of hearts, is another matter of course.
Proselytising on the inherent truth in science, and dare I call business education a science?, can be seen as inviting failure.
However there does seem to be something approaching a consensus that more education can ameliorate this attitude.
Replacing one dogma with another can be very dangerous, as vacuums usually are, never mind what nature thinks.
Education may help to smooth the transition from a society determined by fate to one determined by action. True, there is no way of telling the future, but there are many ways of potentially altering it, and for ones benefit. I may plan for the future and also make contingency plans, for
without them, you are indeed inviting the naysayers and doom prophets upon you with tales of ‘told you so’. But culture and more importantly, certain elements of it pertinent to our work, can be explained in more
realistic, practical, relevant terms. The challenge is not to confront culture, and who can challenge something without knowing its core, its source, its essence, especially when they are so nebulous and uncertain, but rather to offer alternatives that are attractive to people, from all
religions and tribal backgrounds, offer what does not involve conflict with core values, but which can augment them.
There is room for such thinking, and talking to locals this has become abundantly clear.
So the challenge is set, the task is great, the road ahead uncertain and unmapped, but what must be taken, dare I say it, to borrow a well worn phrase, is the road less travelled.
Anyone got a map?

3 Responses to “Garretts initial thoughts on culture, education and religion”

  1. Daniel says:

    Garrett — a fascinating observation, though I wonder whether your solution (education) is correct. First education itself constitutes planning for the future — if you don’t foresee better income, opportunity, etc. from education, there’s little reason to pursue it. A counterexample — the multitude of immigrants who came to US in the late 19th & early 20th century represented many cultures (Irish, Italian, Jewish, etc.), and were as a rule generally uneducated. The average Malian today may in fact have the same or even higher general educational level than the majority of these immigrants, yet the latter specifically WERE planning — for themselves, for their children. Immigration itself was investing for the future — saving up all their money for the transatlantic voyage for the hope of better opportunities. So, perhaps education isn’t the reason for the attitude you describe.

    Let me suggest that this attitude may in many respects be a perfectly logical and even appropriate response to one’s environment. Planning & investing requires expectation of future stability — if you’re a business owner, you have little reason to invest into your business if you think the country may plunge into civil war. If you’re squatting in a slum, there’s little reason to invest in your house if it may be bulldozed at moment’s notice. If you’re a farmer, there’s little reason to invest if you can be destroyed by drought. The cultural attitude may thus simply be a reflection of this instability in one’s environment. A good counterpoint would be to look at the expat Malian community in Europe & US, and see whether the same cultural norms against planning persist, and for how long.

    Keep the observations flowing!

  2. admin says:

    Firstly, thanks for the time and thoughts, always great to her from others. However, my thoughts on education are not just from my own experience, but, and this is perhaps the main reason we are here is to listen and learn from the locals and foreigners that work here.
    I heard from ex-pats here about the educational system and the ups and downs it has experienced over the past decade. Too much detail to go into here, but another time perhaps.
    I followed this initial assessment with careful teasing out of the pertinent issues with locals and was told by just about all locals, something similar. The general consensus being that whatever about the cultural and religious reasoning, that in their opinion, education was the likely best, encompassing best answer. Although as ever not likely the complete answer, one that all the interested parties (and some not so interested to be honest) who we spoke to felt that offered the best chance of a broad alleviation of the basic problem.

    Personally I subscribe to the point of view that education is in itself a good thing for everyone, that knowledge is itself a public good and in the public good, a better educated population sees benefit in not littering, in being able to read and write, in being able to better understand basic healthcare through basic hygiene (by the by there is a world record attempt in early October in the local football stadium for the greatest number of children to be washing their hands with soap simultaneously) and so on, pictures of plastic bags in the gutter in India, with pictures showing that this clogs up waterways, which brings mozzies, which brings malaria, which brings death. Again education for a very basic purpose and one that makes sense for everyone. But I digress.

    I can only speak for the Irish, perhaps others can enlighten about the Italians etc. but the Irish had hedge schools when education was banned for Catholics, teachers and students alike risked life and limb for education, and for no discernible reason. Just an example which may add to the plot.

    Also when you are aware that the general population is lowly educated then it is easier to get on when you have some, a view which may or may not hold water for the general population.
    And then of course you have people who learn purely for the pleasure of it, that knowledge in itself adds to your personal wellbeing and not just for health and employment, but for a better understanding of the world around you.

    You are right about the potential of a study of ex-pat Malians in the EU and US, it would be interesting, but also have a look at Asian ex-pats in the EU and US, phenomenally successful in educational terms from one generation to the next.

    So, what the hell am I saying?, perhaps I am too educated and too dumb at the same time to know.

    I shall expand on this later, suffice to say that I am becoming ever more convinced of the ratchet effect of human development, personal and societal, and that this process is somehow natural.

    That when people have access to adequate water, food, shelter, some energy, and basic healthcare, that there is some innate human desire/want, to learn, to acquire basic knowledge, to understand more.

    Thanks for the time and thoughts and apologies for the amount of both you have just gotten from me.


  3. Emily says:

    Hi All,

    Garrett, let me first say, I loved you last post. I think I now have a mark on my soul from reading it.

    To comment on the education bit: there is a book on economic development titled, the Elusive Quest for Growth. The book’s goal is to basically debunk economic theories that have made a mark on history. One of these theories is that education is in direct correlation with economic growth; education is in fact not postively correlated with economic growth (as seen in research conducted by at least 3 economists). That said, the quality of education is what is important, hence the importance and need forMicroVenture Support. The quality of tools and resources given to a population are what really build their capacity to grow (domestically and globally).

    No one knows this better than the educators of the western world (e.g., Garrett) because you have seen that a quality education is the only way to reach out and change behaviors (even in those kids who “have” everything). In the words of Muhammed Yunus, “we are all entrepreneurs”. All humans have the capcity to reach their full potential, we just have to give them to right tools to do so.

    Cheers to my friend and loved one in Mali. Good luck!