The power of culture: Why we couldn’t make lasting transformations By Assegid Habtewold

June 29th, 2016 Print Print Email Email

The article “Undoing the Unproductive Cultural Reforms TPLF Carried Out” explained how the ruling party scrupulously reconfigured our culture making it susceptible to its divisive and self-serving agendas. The article’s call to action was raising and supporting leaders who not only lead us undoing these unproductive cultural reforms but also play a proactive role in leading us pass through other important cultural reforms to transform our country. However, it occurred to me that transforming a culture isn’t an easy task. It entails some ‘beatings’ from the inhabitants of the culture. Culture is powerful and whoever intends to change it must first know the consequences. This article is aimed at informing our leaders, who may dare to challenge the status quo that has kept us at bay, the power of culture.

I’ve studied the dominant cultures in the world as part of my job as a leadership workshop facilitator on topics such as diversity, change management, and as I consult organizations in configuring (reconfiguring) their corporate culture and aligning their people and processes along side their corporate shared values. These chances gave me the opportunity to realize that this is a universal reality, not unique to us Ethiopians alone. Every culture (whether societal or corporate) has ‘worshippers’- status quo maintainers. The latter resist change, and may even sabotage it unless the leader gains buy-ins from resisters and also fence sitters. Remember this: Many people may not even know that the way they think, the pattern of their behaviors, the way they decide, and act are the results of their cultural orientation. These things operate at deeper (subconscious) level without much awareness from our conscious side of the brain. That makes it harder to question, let alone to attempt to reform the status quo. Many people take your positive intent to bring change personal, and therefore, they don’t let go the status quo without a fight.

That is why this tremendous task of reforming a culture requires bold and courageous leaders since they definitely face so many hurdles including persecution from some corners. The reason being the majority in a given culture defends the status quo including those counterproductive traditions, myths, taboos, and sayings in their culture without questioning and knowing why they were installed in the first place. Many inhabitants of a given culture are blind loyal and don’t think twice to revert to violence (at least verbally) when the ‘norms’ are challenged. Here is a popular psychological experiment carried out by Harry Harlow to illustrate the formation and maintenance of a culture.

The experiment was conducted in a lab, which was configured to spray cold ice water throughout the room when the ladder in the middle is touched. There were five monkeys in this experiment, and bananas on top of the ladder. The starved monkeys ran toward the ladder to reach the bananas as soon as they entered the lab. When they touched the ladder, all of them were sprayed with brutal cold ice water. The water was so cold that they immediately descended without grabbing the bananas. After a couple of trials with the same brutal cold ice water spray on all of the monkeys, they developed ‘group thinking’ and stopped trying so as to avoid the cruel cold-water spray. Soon after, the spray was discontinued. The monkeys would have enjoyed the bananas without being sprayed if they changed their mind and attempted to climb the ladder again. They didn’t. After awhile, one of the original monkeys was substituted with a new monkey. The latter didn’t have any clue about what was going on. When this newcomer ran toward the ladder to grab a banana, the four original monkeys attacked it thinking that the water spray treatment was still in place. The beating continued even if all of the original monkeys, which witnessed the cold-water spray firsthand, were substituted- one by one- with new ones. What these monkeys that defended the bananas knew was that they had been beaten the first time when they tried to do the same even if they didn’t know why. Afterward, they also watched other new comers were beaten. Soon after, they joined the ‘group thinking’ and started to defend the bananas from newcomers even if they didn’t have any clue why this beating started in the first place.

I’m sharing this story not to scare you, if you’re a change agent genuinely attempting to bring lasting change in our country. However, you should know that you couldn’t succeed in employing a lasting and impactful transformation without conducting a cultural transformation. Whatsoever great and positive name you may give your change agendas, and whatever extraordinary outcomes you may promise to our people, the majority’s default response is an emphatic NO! Your innocent, genuine, and passionate drive to change things around for good may be taken as disrespect to their ‘god’- their culture, and as a result, you spend your precious time and resources in fighting resistances. The moral of this story is that people are blind loyal to their culture and they put up a fight to prevent change including those counterproductive cultural values that they were unaware why they were put in the first place. Unfortunately, many of our leaders are also victims. Most of them may not join the act and ‘beat’ others but they are afraid to be beaten, and therefore, they refrain from challenging the status quo.

One of the things that used to frustrate me when I was active in the opposition camp from 2002 to 2006 was that some key leaders of opposition parties thought that they could just remove the ruling party armed to the teeth with weapons, and loads of money by just giving media interviews and agitating people by telling how bad the ruling party was. TPLF used the weakness. Rather than presenting an alternative transformational plan that outlines how they intended to transform our country better than TPLF, they invested the majority of their time and resources ‘opposing’ TPLF’s plan. The bylaws and programs of some of the parties that I got a chance to read including my own party were copy and pastes from somewhere. Even today, I still marvel whether we have opposition parties that have more than promises. Do they have, let’s say, 10 or 20 years developmental transformational plan that outlines on how they deliver their promises? Even if there’re some, I still wonder whether these transformational plans are bold enough to demonstrate on how to transform our culture by challenging those cultural values that have prevented us from defeating dictatorship, poverty, and backwardness…

But having a transformational plan isn’t enough. I’m familiar with the ruling party’s transformational development plan, and the model they opted to ‘transform’ the country. TPLF announced that it chose the developmental state model after the success of the Asian Tigers, the newly industrialized nations. Yes, in the late 20th C, some East Asian countries adopted state-led macroeconomics to transform their countries. What we have in today’s Ethiopia, however, isn’t a state-owned macroeconomic system. What we’ve is, rather, a few elite politicians, mainly from one ethnic group, controlling every aspect of life in Ethiopia- the economy, security, military, diplomacy, and so on. The macroeconomic system in Ethiopia has been rigged and cannot respond to the miracles the Asian Tigers experienced. While having such a gross favoritism in place, it’s hard to create a shared national vision. People would have tolerated the temporary state-owned command economy, and lack of affluent democratic institutions if they’d shared the national vision. While there is an apparent favoritism (not even based on political ideologies, but rather, based on ethnic affiliation), there is no way that TPLF could lead the country out of poverty and beat backwardness in their lifetime, let alone in 5 – 10 years.

I’ve already shared with you, in one of my previous articles, the transformation of one of the four Asian Tigers, South Korea. Without shared vision, the leadership of South Korean couldn’t have mobilized the populace and transformed their country. As I clearly showed in that article, South Korean leaders reconfigured their culture. They trimmed those values that were counterproductive and added some values that in turn empowered them to advance their transformational plan. What is fun is that, TPLF’s leadership is busy doing many things (on top of favoritism) that sabotage national transformation, and some how, they hope to duplicate the success of Asian Tigers :-) Here is just one additional reason why they couldn’t transform the country, state-sponsored corruption. In the presence of massive corruption, no government in history ever succeeded in transforming its country.

Then, you may ask, what is the alternative? Our community leaders should begin the transformation, first in their personal lives, and then within their own organizations (groups, parties, businesses, churches, etc.) It’s possible. Other countries attained cultural reform and transformed their countries from poverty to prosperity, from dictatorship to democracy, from backwardness to civilization, from lawlessness to a just society, and so on. We too, we can! Yes, since the ruling party doesn’t support the kind of transformation we’re talking about here, the road to achieve such a transformation is going to take longer. Regardless, change agents should begin the journey small scale and wherever you are. You shouldn’t wait until you take governing power. As a change agent, you don’t need to convince the whole country about your change schemes. If you could sway enough people to carryout the cultural reform by increasing the self-awareness of your people (first, your followers and fans), the change agendas you put in place may get implemented with relative ease. Make sure not to appear dismissive. Recognize those golden cultural aspects of our country and demonstrate your commitment to uphold and respect them. All cultures including ours have many golden attributes. Our culture has great attributes we must maintain by all means. You should identify those cultural attributes that have been hindering us from progressing in the right direction. There’re also some values in our culture that are missing that could have empowered us to become a prosperous, harmonious, and stable nation. What is more? You can’t just implement large-scale cultural change without having a plan, and also adopting appropriate models, and approaches that worked somewhere. You shouldn’t copy and paste. You could modify and customize them to fit our situation. By all means, don’t reinvent the wheel.

In conclusion, every culture has some rooms to be reformed, and our culture is not exceptional. Civilization comes through continuous cultural reforms and we should go for Cultural Revolution if our desire is to transform our country and overcome those centuries old challenges that prevented us from advancing. Many of the socio-economic and political issues that we want to address cannot be fixed without the necessary corresponding cultural reforms. That is why, so far, one government replaces another but the conditions we desperately want to change are not changing. The sensational singer Teddy Afro in his classic song entitled “Yasteseryal” beautifully portrayed the paradox: “Gulecha Bilewawet, Wet Ayatafetm”. He said in that song, among other things, what we have been experiencing is “The reign of a new king without any meaningful change.” This trend must change now. ‘If not now, when?’ This generation must reverse this trend. If not this generation which one? This task shouldn’t be left for our leaders alone. You should also play your role too. ‘If not you, who?’ In my upcoming articles, I’ll select a few cultural attributes we need to change, just to initiate conversation and put forward some pointers you may consider in your effort to play your share in transforming our communi

  1. Lessons to learn
    | #1

    Government budget is supported by foreign countries. The donor countries demand, encourage, and support Woyane to displace people from their land and open the market to them. Woyane is trained, funded, armed and given publicity and recognition in return for opening the resources and markets to them. Donor development programs do not support democracy in the country.
    So please do not accuse the victims as it is their fault to be in this situations. Your analysis did not take into considerations these factors.
    You ignored the roles of these powerful actors who support ethnic-apartheid in Ethiopia.

  2. Dawi
    | #2

    Dr. Asseged,

    Keeping in mind of all the draw backs you mentioned back home and abroad by the “ethnic divisions” that are brought in the open by the current political environment [experiment] in Ethiopia as pointed out in your prior article, we can not ignore the positive aspect of the experiment because it is not hard for all to see.

    Investments in infrastructure, especially grand infrastructure projects create far more than monetary profits; they create a huge stage for a renaissance in culture and economy far reaching in changing back word ethnic & otherwise behaviors of individuals. Don’t you agree?

    If we borrow from “socialist” traditions, working people produces the surplus value appropriated by the capitalists owners. The capitalists then use that surplus to control politics and thereby sustain a social system that serves them primarily. They pay experts “facilitators on topics such as diversity…. consult organizations in configuring (reconfiguring) their corporate culture and aligning their people and processes along side their corporate shared values.” Isn’t that what they do?

    How do you aim to work in changing the direction of such division of a system quickly like China did which lifted 500 million of its citizens out of poverty over the last 30 years?

    Meles opted for State directing the surplus value by a “developmental state” scheme. That has brought & reduced poverty by 1/3 over the last decade. Life expectancy improved from 40 to 61 years. With all the systems draw back we should back the “developmental” aspect by all means looking at it as a good start.

  3. Melaku Kebede Biru from San F, Calif. USA
    | #3

    Many prominent members of the Ethiopian Community in the diaspora happen to MAKE IT A CULTURE of practicing predator-ism that abuse the new members of the community younger generation of Ethiopia in anyway they can unless they find some personal gain from the new members.

    These culture of being predators of the new members within the old timers Ethiopian community members had bee the main reason the diaspora communities had remained weak unable to fully engage in human rights ,since many Ethiopian diasporas make it their right to abuse the new members.Abusing verbally in all occasions is becoming a common culture, people tend to do it out in open publicly all the time. Those that try to talk about other younger Ethiopians negatively in public do more physical and sexual abuse behind doors.They want to check test how much one is willing to stand up for themselves for their rights in public then if they find out the person is weak they try to do more physical and sexual abuse behind doors which is hurting the unity of Ethiopian diasporas all staying behind closed doors eating alone with no outsider around.

  4. አለቃ ብሩ
    | #4

    አቶ አሰግድ በል እንግዲህ የባህል ለውጡ ከራስህ ይጀምር:: ኢትዮጵያ ተወልደህ አድገህ አሜሪካዊ ለመምሰል የምትፍጨረጨረውን አሳፋሪ ተግባር አቁም:: ለሰፊው የኢትዮጵያ ሕዝብ የሚጠቅም ነገር አለኝ የምትል ከሆነም የኢትዮጵያ ሕዝብ በሚገባው ቋንቋ ለመናገርና ለመጻፍ ሞክር:: በተውገረገር እንግሊዝኛ ተናግረህና ጽፈህ ስንት ሰው የሚያነብልህ ይመስልሃል?

  5. Dawi
    | #5

    አለቃ said:

    [[.. አሜሪካዊ ለመምሰል የምትፍጨረጨረውን አሳፋሪ ተግባር አቁም..]]

    This is further from the truth. You should be ashamed of yourself for writing the above. We all make a living in the US; English is the common language for business and may not have unlimited time like you.

    The Dr, is sharing his knowledge with us by taking some core points straight out of the pages of his already prepared “consulting” brochure for a US audience adding it to the piece he wrote here.

    We should commend him for sharing that with us instead.

  6. Lessons to learn
    | #6

    Dawi በፍሬ ነገሮች ላይ ትኩረት እንስጥ ከተባል አለቃ ያለውኮ በአማርኛ ቢጽፍ ይበልጥ ብዙዎችን ያሳትፋል ነውና ምንም አክራካሪ አይሆንም ብዬ አስባለሁ
    አንተ አሁን አሜሪካ መኖርህን ልትነግር ካልሆነ ውይይቱን የሚያዳብር ነጥብ አልጨመርክም
    የትስ ሆኖ ቢጽፍ አላማው ብዙዋች አንብበው ተሳታፊ እንዲሆኑ ማድረግ አይደልም እንዴ?
    አሁን አንተን የምጠይቅህ ጸሃፊው ሐሳቡን በአማርኛ ቢያክፍል ብዙ አንባቢ አያገኝም ነው የምትለ?
    ወይስ በእንግሊዝኛ ማቅረብ ሀሳቡን ክብደት ይሰጠዋል? ወይስ ጸሀፊው አማርኛ ማቅረብ ያስቸግረዋል? ነው የምትለው
    ሁልጊዜም አስተያየት ሰጪ በመሆንህ እያመሰገንኩ ለጥያቄዎቼ ብትመልስኝ ደስ ይለኛል

  7. Lessons to learn
    | #7

    I disagree about your suggested solutions to the problems we facing on two main grounds: you are accusing the victims and failed to see international actors and dimension of the problem.

    For example the state-sponsored corruption is a force/weapon/system imposed on Africans by rich countries to extract African resources by force through their agents -so called ”strong visionary leaders”. State-sponsored corruption is being practiced in Uganda, Rowanda, Nigeria, … other African countries.
    secondly,state-sponsored corruption has international actors -multinational or international organisations that support it.

    But they portray African images as if corruption is only an African problems through their powerful corrupted media. we should not forget that all these stolen money goes to their banks but their media keep quiet about it.

    So the problem is not unique to Ethiopians.

    My question to you is:
    Have you done some comparative study ( reading literature on the issues) of other African countries who experiencing similar situations?
    if not how can you say it is Ethiopian problem. For example, if you take the leaders of Uganda, Rowanda, and Ethiopia are supported and protected by UK and USA. secondly, aid and loan is given to these agents secretly without parliament being informed leave alone debated about it.
    There is no accountability.

    Thank you for sharing your ideas.

  8. AleQa Biru
    | #8

    አይ ዳዊ!!!
    “We all make a living in the US” አልክ? የአቶ አሰግድ መልእክት አሜሪክ ለምትኖሩት ብቻ ከኖነ ልክ ነህ:: ግን አሜሪካ የሚኖሩት ኢትዮጵያዊያን የአቶ አሰግድን የተውገረገረ እንግሊዝኛ ማንበብም ሆነ መስማት ሳያስፈልጋቸው እራሱ አቶ አሰግድ ከተማረበት ከዋናው ምንጭ ቁምነገሩን መማር ይችሉ የለ? በሚገባቸው ቋንቋ ተርጉሞ አቅርቦላቸው ቢሆን ኖሮ ተጨማሪ እሴት ፈጠር ማለት እንችል ነበር::

    እኔ የሰጠሁት አስተያየት ግን የሰውየው መልእክት የኢትዮጵያን ህዝብ (ኢትዮጵያ ውስጥ የሚኖረውን) የሚመለከት ስለመሰለኝ ነው:: አሜሪካዊ ለመምሰል እንዴት እንደሚፍጨረጨር የተገነዘብኩት ግን በዚህኛው ጽሑፍ አይደለም:: ኢሳት ላይ “The Show” የሚባል ፕሮግራም አለው (ነበረው):: እዚያ ፕሮግራም ላይ አክሰንቱን የአሜሪካ ለማስመሰል የሚያደርገውን ያልተሳካ ሙከራ መመልከት ትችላለህ:: እዚያው ኢሳት ላይ በአማርኛ የሚካሄድ ውይይት ላይ ቀርቦ ሲናገር በአብዛኛው አማርኛ ሳይሆን እንግሊዝኛ እያስገባ ነው የሚንተባተበው:: እራሱ ሲናገር እንደሰማሁት (ወይም እንዳነበብኩት) አሜሪካ ከመጣ ብዙ ጊዜው አይደለም:: አሜሪካ የተወለደ ወይም በልጅነቱ ጊዜ መጥቶ ቢሆንና የአሜሪካ አክሰንት ቢኖረው ችግር የለውም:: ኢትዮጵያ ውስጥ የፖለቲካ ድርጅት አባል መሆን እስከሚችል ድረስ አማርኛ ሲናገር የኖረ ሰው በድንገት አሜሪካ ስለሄደ ብቻ አክሰንቱን ልቀይር ብሎ ሲፍጨረጨር እና ሲሰቃይ ማየት ግን ያሳዝናል እንዲሁም ያሳፍራል!!

  9. Dawi
    | #9

    AleQa & Lessons,

    [[..ኢትዮጵያ ውስጥ የፖለቲካ ድርጅት አባል መሆን እስከሚችል ድረስ አማርኛ ሲናገር የኖረ ሰው በድንገት አሜሪካ ስለሄደ ብቻ አክሰንቱን ልቀይር ብሎ ሲፍጨረጨር እና ሲሰቃይ ማየት ግን ያሳዝናል እንዲሁም ያሳፍራል!!...]]

    The above comment reminds me of an “Ethiopian comedy” Diasporaw by Deregeje, I saw sometimes ago; it is hilarious.

    Nevertheless, Dr. Asseged being an accomplished man by earning his degrees in medicine and otherwise, can not be fake. He may have been advised (maybe wrongly) and taken crush courses to improve his accent. There are organisations that do that to new comers; is a short cut way to get a job or something. That being his business however, I have to agree with you I didn’t care of the couple of shows I saw on ESAT either but, mostly his political views. As I mentioned before if he switches to a “developmental state” capitalist instead of a neo-liberal one, will have a bigger market for his expertise in the subjects he is consulting. Not just opposition but, HD/EPRDF can benefit from his services as well. We all need it.

  10. Dawi
    | #10

    Dr. Aseged said:

    Monkey see, monkey do!

    [[..There were five monkeys in this experiment, and bananas on top of the ladder. The starved monkeys ran toward the ladder to reach the bananas as soon as they entered the lab. When they touched the ladder, all of them were sprayed with brutal cold ice water. The water was so cold that they immediately descended without grabbing the bananas. After a couple of trials with the same brutal cold ice water spray on all of the monkeys, they developed ‘group thinking’ and stopped trying so as to avoid the cruel cold-water spray. Soon after, the spray was discontinued. ..]]

    Here is an intersting interview with Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, that tells what tactic they used to stop the [monkey] from urinating in a public housing elevators. :-)

  11. ደራሲ
    | #11

    @AleQa Biru

    “ግን አሜሪካ የሚኖሩት ኢትዮጵያዊያን የአቶ አሰግድን የተውገረገረ እንግሊዝኛ ማንበብም ሆነ መስማት ሳያስፈልጋቸው እራሱ አቶ አሰግድ ከተማረበት ከዋናው ምንጭ ቁምነገሩን መማር ይችሉ የለ?” ላሉት መልስ

    ከስንት አንዱን አስተምረው የኦፖርቱኒቲ ባለኢድል ሃገር ይባልልናል:: ኢንኮአን ዶክተር መማር በመንገድ መራመድ በፖሊስ ሆነ በሊባ የሚያስገድልበት ሃገር ነው አመሪካን:: ቡናማ ትኩር ኮዳ ያለው ሰው ከአንድ ሚሊየን እድል ለአንድ ሰው ነው ለመማር እድል ያለው:: ትምህርት ጀምሮ በአመቱ ያለአግባብ የሚባረረው ኢትዮፕያዊ 99% ነው በአመሪካ :: ስራ ቦታም ቢሆን 99% ይባረራል ታክሲ ወይም ፓርኪንግ ካልሆነ በከር:: አመሪካ ከአምስት ልጆች አንድ ልጅ የሚበላው የለውም ::እና ሁሉንም ማስተማር ከርቶ ማብላት አልቻሉም::

    | #12

    Why are some people from Enderta and AdiGrat using the name
    Tigray while they really are not Tigrians in the first place.
    These originally non Tigrian but converts from the local Galla
    and Afar peoples of the area assimilated into Tigray and Tigray
    culture at the time of king Amdetsion and who found out to be
    Tigrians only when the TPLF lead woyane was heading to Addis and
    recruiting them as foot soldiers in great numbers were wrongly
    thinking they were one of the original Tigrian peoples while they
    They have just used all the history of TIGRAY PEOPLE & CULTURE for
    photo ops to wearing it like gowns to look original Tigray’s ?
    They are shameless who bark for any ruling regime like a dog to get
    a little attention and little to throw at them !
    All the current localities of E.Tigray and Qohaito escarpments were
    only part of the Galla & Afar region ( called AUSSA)recently incorporated
    and assimilated into Tigray by the Hamasien king Amdetsion.
    So let’s see and read history in the right perspective and not use
    the woyane/revolution or the chaos come along with it to confuse or
    steal or misrepresent people’s history and historical facts.
    I know that it is Seye and Gebru Asrat that misplaced and distorted
    Tigrian peoples history of Ethiopiawinet to suit their land acquisition
    from neighboring provinces to create or enlarge their hometowm woredas
    and to undermine the authority & power center of Meles Zenawi’s hometown
    province of ADWA when they were delegated to Mekelle & Tigray KILLIL
    in 1993 during the decentralization process of Ethiopia into preliminary
    Federal Administration as opposing, frustrating and undermining of his
    political and personal achievements and plans AND also as a show of
    contempt to the other neighboring states, killils and provinces like
    Eritrea, Afar and Amhara regions and regional governments.

  13. phinix
    | #13

    የ አፍሪ አንድ ፓስ ሊሰት ነው እባካችሁ መጀመሪአ ለኒ ደቡበ አፍሪ ኪፍት የ ሰራ ቦታ ካለ ኪኪኪኪኪ
    first of mejemeria alasfelagi new mejemeri emigbabut hageroch eski yitekmubet caos after caos dar lay kuch belo mesak,
    eski mejemeria somalia kilele,gambela kilil, benshagu kilil,enzi especial case new endelebachew behageritu menor,invest, memar,be idol musica enkuan yaltesatefu nachew,yihen chance seyagegnu…new and step meramed yemichalew.

    yednkurenachew yetnesa ,,paasu enkuan,english,french,swahili,portugis,
    memjemeria ye geize medreg nebrebet africa unity lemasayet,

    tabo mbic men ale adwa dil 120 tenante mandelan yasleten hizbe be konchera sikoret neber,

    migerm new africa hizbe gena europe medivel time practice miyareguten yetyayaze yizbe new, bechirash eko ende ethiopia hizb weyim fetarin mifera aydelem

    beken be trara stehai lante ged yelelew AU Hall sigebu ade yemimeslu nachew
    be tegbar semaina mider new ,500 amte buhala minalbat,yale visa minalbat.

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