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An interview with Jonathan Warren

April 3, 2017

This week we asked JSIS faculty member Jonathan Warren about his book Cultures of Development: Vietnam, Brazil and the Unsung Vanguard of Prosperity

Jonathan Warren

1. How did you get interested in this topic?

Economic development is one of those universal issues – almost every person I’ve ever met in the US, Germany, Brazil, Vietnam, and elsewhere all want to be more prosperous. And yet the experts paid to understand this topic – namely economists and development theorists – have been unable to even acknowledge that economies are culturally grounded, let alone consider culture in their theorizations of market based economies. I came to see how a comparison of Vietnam and Brazil could help me show others how utterly absurd this oversight has been.

2. Vietnam and Brazil seem to be very different countries that many people don’t think about together. What made you interested in this comparison? In what ways are these nations similar and different?

They are profoundly different but the question for me was sorting out which particular differences matter with respect to economic development. The wonderful thing about these case studies was how Brazil followed all the prescriptions of the so-called Washington consensus and Vietnam almost none of them and yet Vietnam has risen from being one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1980s to be in the position of soon passing Brazil, which didn’t endure colonialism and two major wars in the 20th century. The Brazilian economy has shrunk over the past thee decades if you factor in population increases. My task was to figure out why and I settled on such variables as the currency of nation, discourses of the poor and poverty and the epistemology of modernity.

3. In this book, you seek to include more socio-cultural concepts into development studies. Can you explain how you do this and the important of inter-disciplinary methods?

There are lots of major theoretical gaps within development studies because they ignore culture. So for instance, there is consensus that there is much less political will in Latin America than in East Asia for investments in education, health and infrastructure which lead, in turn, to economic development. But there are no answers offered as to why there are these differing degrees. Well this is a major theoretical gap in which we don’t know what we most need to know and with this book I fill these holes.

4. Do you have any advice about fieldwork, research, publishing etc. for our students?

Usually the critique of academia is that it’s too detached. I’ve always found the opposite to be the case. Ideas that circulate in academia too often enable, fuel, or legitimate many of the problems that people face. And so it’s important to identify these links and then go after them. For example, Lawrence Harrison who headed the Fletcher School of International Affairs and USAID in Haiti in the seventies and in 2010 blamed “vodou” and “African culture” for the problems that Haiti faced. He argued that if they wanted to turn things around they should become “black Englishmen” like people in Barbados. There is a lot of malarkey like this that we need students and scholars to identify and contest with quality research and scholarship. I believe that sound scholarship based in rich empirical research that is aimed at taking on these issues will perhaps not immediately be welcomed but eventually will find a very appreciative audience.