Slums built on swamp land near a
garbage dump in Indonesia.
Credit: Jonathan McIntosh

“The best empires have added greatly to human happiness; they have established peace over wide areas, have built roads, have improved public health, have stimulated trade, have brought improved systems of law, have introduced new technical knowledge, and so on. Whereas the worst empires have brought pillage, and slaughter and slavery in their train.”—Sir Anthony Lewis
t has to come from the inside,” insists Lawrence Harrison, director of the Cultural Change Institute at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. “All the most effective examples of cultural change have come from the inside: the Meiji Restoration in Japan after 1868, Ataturk’s cultural revolution in Turkey after 1923.” Harrison is talking about the necessity for modernization and cultural adaptation to be driven internally and the impossibility of imposing it from outside.
The Cultural Change Institute has had a nine-year genesis, as Harrison recalls. “In 1999, I organized a symposium at Harvard, and the Templeton Foundation put a little money into it. That led to the book, Culture Matters, which was an academic bestseller, co-edited by Samuel Huntington and me. That, in turn, resulted in support of the Culture Matters Research Project that then led to funding of the Institute.”
The idea for the Institute was suggested to Harrison by Marin Strmecki, of the Smith Richardson Foundation, at the launch party for Harrison’s latest book, The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change A Culture and Save It From Itself. Harrison says he is disappointed by the limited impact of The Central Liberal Truth, though it has already sold 7,000 copies in hardback, besides being translated into Russian and Chinese. He is hoping its publication in paperback in July 2008 will give it a new lease on life.
In contrast, Culture Matters is still selling well. “It has done spectacularly,” says Harrison, “there are now 11 foreign language editions. It is selling 2,000 or 3,000 copies every year—eight years after it was published.” But the focus of Harrison’s activity has now shifted to the Cultural Change Institute (CCI). The Institute was established in 2007, with the help of a $1 million grant from Templeton Foundation.
The goal of CCI is accelerating political, economic, and social development in poor countries and among underachieving groups in the advanced democracies. To achieve the goal, CCI hopes to add to existing knowledge of how cultural values and attitudes influence progress and to help governments, development aid institutions, NGOs, and universities interested in promoting the values, beliefs, and attitudes associated with progress.
“The work, of course, focuses on the Third World, but the lessons are highly relevant for underachieving minorities in First World countries.” As an example, he cites a domestic project, “We held a workshop on May 16-17, 2008 for the California Teachers Association in Sacramento with a couple of hundred people present. One of the Association’s officials read The Central Liberal Truth and thought that its lessons could be applied to their number one problem, which is bringing Latino and Afro-American students up to national standards in high schools.”
The book has produced feedback further afield too. An official of the USAID mission in Timor-Leste, the Portuguese-speaking breakaway part of Indonesia, read The Central Liberal Truth and announced his conversion in blunt terms. “I had always assumed that what you were saying was a load of baloney,” he told Harrison, “and that if you got the signals right people would respond, whatever the culture. But having seen enough in Timor-Leste to think maybe you’re right, could we get together?”
slug The outcome was that a member of the CCI executive committee visited Timor-Leste early in 2008 and designed a project that will involve a substantial presence of the Institute and could serve as a pilot for a larger collaboration with USAID.
The Institute has commissioned some 20 additional case studies that will be the focus of a conference at the Fletcher School, October 24-26, 2008. The edited papers will appear in a new book.