Today’s Solutions: September 27, 2021

A cultural mix spawns creativity and abundance.

Marco Visscher | June 2003 issue
The public debate over immigration is dominated by fear. Fear of the loss of one’s own culture, rigid beliefs and anxiety over economic decline. But why, asks journalist Pascal Zachary, did Germany and Japan lose the battle for world economic supremacy during the 1980s to the United States? His response: because they continued to hold on to national ‘purism’, while the American economy increasingly embraced a diversity of social and cultural sources from other countries. This, in short, is the ‘advantage of diversity’. Increasingly, the mixture of races, ethnic groups and nationalities will determine a country’s relative wealth and health.
The blending of cultures is the simple arithmetic of creativity and success, states Zachary in his book, The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy (Westview Press, 2003). Foreigners awaken new perspectives for the simple reason that certain assumptions seem strange to them. Their questioning of such assumptions engenders progress. The more a group consists of people from different backgrounds, the less resistance to innovation from newcomers.
With his postulate, Zachary – an American of Russian and Italian extraction – breaks with the age-old assumption that homogeneity is an economic advantage. Zachary is also aware that it saves time and energy when people working together speak the same language and have the same cultural habits and responses. But he believes that those advantages only apply in times of economic stability or slow growth. Which is probably why Adam Smith failed to mention diversity in The Wealth of Nations. Nor was it discussed by Karl Marx, John Keynes or other influential historians. In the current era of fast change and expeditious economic developments, the role of cultural diversity is of crucial importance.
The advantage of diversity can also be seen in cities, Zachary explains. The most vibrant cities in the world – San Francisco, Paris, London, Tokyo, Bombay, Hong Kong – seem to be islands unto themselves in the country where they are located. Which is why they have taken on another function in recent decades: they have become magnets for unrecognised talent from around the world. It is thanks to these people that such cities have become dazzling metropolises that continually recreate themselves.
A recent study conducted in Africa revealed that newcomers yield economic advantages that go beyond the extra financial support offered by international organisations meant to stimulate relief. The study comes at a time when African countries impose ever-stricter limits on immigration from neighbouring nations. Due to the threat of ethnic conflicts, refugees are herded into camps and are increasingly banned from leaving these compounds. But refugees have skills that are coveted in their ‘guest community’, writes researcher Karen Jacobsen in the Journal of Modern African Studies (winter 2002). As a rule, they bring resources with them, such as cattle, gold or trucks, and thus help stimulate the local economy.
Refugees also often reveal themselves to be entrepreneurs. Jacobsen points to a camp in Ghana where refugees from Liberia have set up small companies to supply local communities with housing, water facilities and telephone cables. And Sudanese refugees in Uganda started small shops in rural areas on the eve of the arrival of the tourist trade and then businesses, in the region.
The advantage of diversity was evident to Zachary when in 1988 he began working on a report about the success of Silicon Valley, the cradle of the Internet revolution. The myriad of foreigners who settled in Silicon Valley brought along innovative ideas that strengthened the creativity of the Americans, and vice versa. Companies in other sectors that stimulate various cultures to work together throughout the organisation are more readily inclined towards innovation than companies whose ranks consist of ‘more of the same’. This conclusion is justified by various studies indicating that a company has a competitive advantage if its workers are better able to anticipate developments in this era of globalisation.
Should fear for the foreigner with his peculiar customs dominate the debate over migration, wonders Kamila Shamsie, a Pakistani writer living in the United States? In a moving conclusion to her argument put forth in Index on Censorship (March/April 2003), she writes: ‘If you lock the doors, you only lock yourself in.’

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