Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Culture and economic performance in the Arab world

Moisés Naím argues in this editorial that the success of Arab Americans –they have higher levels of education and income than average—disproves the notion that “Arab culture” is somehow responsible for the relative backwardness of the Middle East. (Thanks to Dan Drezner for the pointer –don’t miss his take and the comments).

On a practical level, Naím’s article has a gaping hole: the national and religious mix of Arab Americans is very different than the ones found in the Middle East and Europe (more details here). He’s comparing apples to oranges.

But it’s worth going back to the culture issue. In this context, it’s such a broad term that it’s virtually meaningless, so one needs to break it down.

If by “culture” we mainly mean “religion”, once can say with certainty that it’s totally irrelevant. The economic performance of many Christian nations is very poor (Latin America, Philippines), while there’s no evidence that Islam per se impedes economic growth (Marginal Revolution has a lot on this topic, check out this post and this one).

But if we include such aspects as institutions, politics, etc. in “culture”, it’s impossible to deny that they have an impact on a nation’s prosperity. In this regard, most Middle Eastern nations do have one thing in common: they were part of the Ottoman empire for centuries. While I’m no expert on this topic, it’s fairly clear that the Ottoman’s were good warriors but very incompetent economic managers (more on this topic here) who didn’t put in place a decent institutional framework.