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Cultural diversity for dialogue and development

Map of African diversity
Map of ethnic diversity in Africa. According to a study from Harvard Univeristy, sub-Saharan Africa is the world's most ethnically diverse region. Graphic: Harvard University / People's Atlas of Africa, (ed.) Marc Leo Felix


May 21 is the UN World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. Given today’s conflicts, political uncertainties and support for nationalism, it is important to be reminded of the benefits that diversity brings to development.

When it comes to ethnic groups that may represent different cultures, there has been a discussion among scholars about the impact of ethnic diversity on conflict and cooperation, and on economic development. According to these discussions—and setting aside the very real ethical questions such discussions bring—ethnic diversity is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it may result in a lack of cooperation between ethnic groups, due to linguistic, cultural or religious differences, which in the worst case may lead to violent conflicts and thus be harmful for economic development. On the other hand, ethnic diversity may act as a 'melting pot' of abilities, experiences and cultures, which may lead to increased innovation and creativity.

One of the most cited articles (pdf) on this topic in empirical economics is by William Easterly and Ross Levine in 1997 who concluded that Africa’s high ethnic diversity was partly responsible for its lack of economic growth compared to the rest of the world—often called Africa’s ‘growth tragedy’. Since then, many empirical economists and political scientists have found a negative association between ethnic diversity and economic and conflict-related indicators.      

However, most of these studies assume that culture is embedded in the concept of ethnicity. That is, people of the same ethnicity share the same cultural values. There is little quantitative research into this claim and in fact it is not necessarily the case, especially for ethnic groups coming from the same ethno-linguistic family. Additionally, ethnicity is a ‘self-reported’ identification, which may change during times of conflict and economic hardship.

The idea that culture and ethnicity are different concepts is supported by a recent article (pdf) investigating culture, ethnicity and diversity in 76 countries. The article’s authors define culture as set of norms, values, attitudes and preferences, and go on to use the World Value Survey to construct an index of cultural diversity for each country. They find no correlation between ethnic and cultural diversity. In other words, countries with low ethnic diversity are not necessarily culturally homogenous, and countries that are ethnically very diverse are not very diverse in terms of culture.

Another important finding is that ethnic diversity has no effect on civil conflict, while cultural diversity has a pacifying effect. Finally, when differences in culture and differences in ethnicity coincide, i.e. there is an overlap between the two (although quite small), this is when they predict the civil conflict, public good provision and development.

These findings resemble the findings from SIPRI’s projects in Kyrgyzstan. When we conducted numerous interviews with youth and adults in the south of the country, we found evidence that the nature of the long-lasting conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbek groups is economic-based rather than ethnicity-based. Both groups struggled for economic resources in the resource-rich Fergana valley and political leaders were seeking support from the two groups.

I think this adds to the growing evidence that ethnicity per se does not explain conflict or economic development. It is a political tool to define ‘us’ and ‘others’ and is used to direct one group of people towards another in a battle for power. As the authors of the above study argue, high cultural differences at the country level could be an indicator of a more tolerant society, and therefore they are associated with a low incidence of civil conflict. Another plausible interpretation of their result is that high cultural diversity may make it difficult to mobilize groups for conflict, therefore creating grounds for dialogue and cooperation.


Dr Anastasia Aladysheva was a Senior Researcher with the Peace and Development Programme.