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February 21, 2019

Systems crucial to society conduct

Behaviour change
Behaviour change

The behaviour of the Japanese at last month's Fifa World Cup in Russia drew much praise around the world. Following their games, and even after the heartbreakingly close defeat to Belgium, which dumped them out of the tournament, they would stay behind to pick up the trash left by others in the stadium and players would also leave their dressing room spotlessly clean. And it was not the first time this was being observed.

In truth, the Japanese have been cleaning up from as far back as 1998, when the country made its first-ever World Cup appearance. This year, though, another country also got in on the act. The Senegalese contingent also stayed behind to clean up their section of the stands. "In my country we do this every time. Every time we have matches in the stadium, when we finish...the supporters clean up too," one fan said.

This has left many both amazed and scrambling for explanations. A common resort has been to national and cultural stereotypes. “The Japanese, in short, have a horror of filth,” declared The Economist in 1997. It said historians since the third century had made a note of the penchant for personal cleanliness and attributed it, at least partly, to religion. Others say it is evidence of the civic virtue inherent in Japanese culture.

Interestingly, there does not appear to have been many attempts made to explain why the Senegalese were engaged in the same behaviour, although it may be difficult to propose a similar stereotypical explanation. One description suggests “plastic bags and trash litter the neighbourhoods surrounding Senegal’s capital Dakar and garbage piles lay untouched for weeks, growing at an impressive rate.”

As South Korean economist Dr Ha Joon Chang warns in his book, Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, using cultural stereotypes as explanation is quite problematic, not least because “culture” is itself notoriously difficult to define. Further, he also demonstrates the pitfalls of taking such stereotypes as determinants of either behaviour or future economic prospects.

He observes: “A century ago, the Japanese were [considered to be] lazy rather than hardworking; excessively independent-minded (even for a British socialist!) rather than loyal ‘worker ants’; emotional rather than inscrutable; light-hearted rather than serious; living for today instead of considering the future...A century and half ago, the Germans were indolent rather than efficient; individualistic rather than co-operative; emotional rather than rational; stupid rather than clever; dishonest and thieving rather than law-abiding; easy-going rather than disciplined.”

So what does explain the behaviour of the Senegalese and Japanese fans? While there are doubtless many factors at play, I think an important one is the reason offered by the Senegalese fan quoted above - Assane Dieng, who is studying for a master's degree in Russia. He credits an official campaign to improve fan behaviour at stadiums. The actions of governing authorities and the conditions they create play a big role in determining the behaviour citizens will come to accept as normal.

By this, I do not mean just exhortations to better behaviour. As Dr Chang writes, “Ideological persuasion is important but not, by itself, enough in changing culture. It has to be accompanied by changes in policies and institutions that can sustain the desired forms of behaviour over an extended period of time so that that they turn into ‘cultural’ traits”. Thus governments have got to go beyond the merely superficial and to actually examine, understand and address the root causes of societal behavior.

This has great implications for how societies like Kenya address vices ranging from corruption to littering. Rather than see these as cultural failings - Kenyans are dishonest and dirty - to be resolved by simply teaching everyone to behave differently, understanding their systemic roots would lead to much more effective interventions.

Governor Mike Sonko, for example, is trying to replicate the Rwandese system of Umuganda - where citizens are compelled to engage in community activities such as cleaning up neighbourhoods and streets at least once a month - as an example of how Kenyan cities can involve their citizenry in taking care of public spaces. However, getting residents to clean up Nairobi once a month can only be a beginning. Without the support of a social, political and institutional framework this cannot be sustained in the long term.

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