As the reader proceeds from one essay to the next, differences emerge, a valuable editorial choice. Some authors argue that culture is a factor, some that it matters a lot, and some, as if grasping for a magic wand, that culture is the only game in town.
The first problem that emerges is that each author has his or her own idea of development. Although Harrison in his introduction lists literacy, life expectancy, the status of women, infant mortality, democracy and human rights, most contributors limit development to economic development, and economic development to the sum total of 'things' produced or possessed. The issue of how people in general acquire these 'things' is largely avoided.
The second problem is that there is a crusade to ignore history. David Landes writes that, through observing cultural characteristics, one could have easily predicted the economic rise of West Germany, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Apparently all that money we spent in those places to hold back the Soviet Union, Red China and North Korea was wasted. They would have done it anyway. Mariano Grondona's historical and theological analysis of the role of religions is incredibly uninformed and simplistic. (You ought to be able to state someone else's position correctly before criticising it.) He even claims that, "Martin Luther was the religious pioneer of intellectual pluralism." And George III was Thomas Jefferson's best friend.
More general is the dismissal of the colonialism/dependency "myth". The authors believe it's fair to attribute democracy and human rights to the United States, and criticize other countries for their lack of democracy and penchant for military governments. However, the United States overthrew or helped overthrow freely, democratically elected governments in Iran (and brought the Shah to power), Guatemala (leading to 50 years in which tens of thousands of people were massacred), the Congo (we're still living with this one), Haiti (and this), Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, etc. etc. The U.S. trained and funded the militaries in Latin America about which these authors now complain. Why don't they know this?
Most importantly, almost all of these authors (Barbara Crossette and Orlando Patterson excepted) treat culture as if it were timeless, monolithic and outside history. There are subcultures, family cultures, rural cultures, city cultures, town cultures and class cultures (for a start). Cultures change. Cultures adapt. Cultures are ambigous. The most precise the writers in this book get is the distinction between North and South Italy.
It is good, I have learned, to ask a few questions about books like this. Who is speaking? Whose voice is heard? (It's not always the speaker's.) Whose voice isn't heard?
Most important here are the voices not heard. As far as I can tell, not one of these authors grew up poor or lived with the people he (she) now wants to advise. Sad, but not surprising. As close as anyone comes is the mention of liberation theology, which is totally mischaracterized. (The authors who criticized it cannot have read a liberation theologian.) No one asks the poor what they think would help.
There are excellent books for those interested in the view from the bottom: Nancy Scheper-Hughes, "Death Without Weeping"; Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, "Children on the Streets of the Americas"; Jim Yong Kim et al, "Dying for Growth"; and Veena Das et al, "Violence and Subjectivity". For a critique of seeing-from-above, see, James C. Scott, "Seeing Like a State".
Most dangerous is the pervasive concept that if someone is poor, it's their fault. Herrnstein and Murray argued in "The Bell Curve" that the difference was genetic. "Culture Matters" is one step over. It's still their fault, but they can change. I am not arguing that all cultures are equal. I am arguing that it is taking the easy way out to treat a culture as if it were not the product of centuries of internal actions and reactions, its history and geography, as well as interactions with other cultures, histories and geographies. Blame is a slippery slope. As one U.S. Government Agent said about Native Americans, "If they cannot be made like us, they must be killed."
The sadest mistake of all in this book is this. Britain did not free the American colonies. Slave owners did not end slavery. Corporations did not invent rising wages. Democracy, human rights and development are the products of insurrection. Democracy, human rights and development are the achievements of revolutionaries, radicals and union organizers. We can join with those of other cultures who are working for these things. We can even ask their help bringing democracy, human rights and development here, right where we live.