It is important to understand why culture affects and is an integral part of human development and should not be overlooked. Demographic experts predict that the human population will reach 9 billion by 2050, but the rise will not occur equally around the world. The existing demographic divide between the wealthy developed countries and the poor developing countries will only widen because majority of the increase will occur among the developing countries whilst that of the former will actually decline progressively. As it is, the combined population of developed countries only make up 18% of the total world population, and 9 of 10 individuals living here are in the top 20% of the global income distribution. In contrast, about 40% of the world’s population lives on less than two dollars per day (Arnett, 2012). Variations in human development occur because of differences in cultural settings, which in turn are significantly impacted by socioeconomic status (SES) of a group. Educational level, income level, and occupational status are all parameters within the SES. It pervades all aspects of human development, from risk of infant mortality to quality of education and job prospects to affording healthcare in old age. It is no surprise that differences in SES are sharp between developed and developing countries.
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Like SES, gender and ethnicity are strong drivers of culture and are key factors in development. The dichotomy is blurred now, but throughout our history cultural expectations of men and women have been vastly different. The Hunter-gatherer way of live evolved because our Homo ancestors needed to adapt to the long infant dependency to the mother, who remained in a stable home base caring for the offspring and gathering edibles within reach while the males ventured out to hunt for food. An extreme example of women assuming a secondary role occurred in Imperial China (10th or 11th century) where young women of the wealthy elite who did not need them to work were subjected to painful foot binding to prevent further growth. This was a display of status and became the symbol of beauty in Chinese culture. So deep-seated is the gender difference in Antiquity that it manifested in the ancient conceptions of human development that the three ancient religions – Dharmashastras (Hindu), Greek (conceived by the philosopher Solon), and the holy Talmud (Jewish) – were all written by and for men only. Women were excluded from areas such as religious leadership and philosophy. Religion, along with race and language, is a component of ethnicity.
Recent scientific conceptions of human development also hinge on the influence of the social environment. Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory (Bronfenbrenner, 2005) draws attention to the broader cultural environment beyond the mother-child relationship that people experience as they develop. He distinguishes an exosystem of social institutions – school, religion, and media – that have indirect but pivotal influences on development. His more encompassing macrosystem of cultural beliefs and values form the foundation of economic and governmental systems. Middle Eastern countries possess governments and economic systems that are based on Islam. Conversely, developed countries believe in the value of individual freedom and this is reflected in their capitalist economy and democratic government.
No matter how we look at it, every aspect of human development be it biological, psychological or social, is invariably intertwined with culture. Moreover, a study on human development that focuses on the 18% of the world’s population living in developed countries that can fund major research undertaking is both inadequate and unfair. Poor developing countries have rich and complex cultural systems that have legitimate impact on human development. Therefore it is vital that we learn about human development as it is experienced around the world.