Before I can explain why it is time for Ruhi to “show us the money” (by which, I mean results), allow me a slight digression into the fields of anthropology and sociology. With your indulgence the connection to Ruhi will be shortly obvious.
A few years before Arbab began to work on Ruhi and FUNDAEC, a Dutch gentleman by the name of Geert Hofstede, was working on a large project for IBM. Within the human resource department of IBM, Hofstede’s main task was to travel the world and to gather information on how the different branches of IBM in different countries worked in order to glean lessons of best practices. While engaged in this work, he stumbled onto a framework for assessing culture. In essence, the data staring back at him started to form itself into patterns. Very soon, what the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was to individual personalities, Hofstede’s Dimensions were to collective personalities – otherwise called, culture.
Technically there are 5 axes but for our purposes we need only explore 3 of them. If you would like to find out more, you can check out Hofstede’s own website, wikipedia or your friendly, neighborhood sociologist or anthropologist. In any case, the three axes or dimensions relevant to our discussion are:
- Power Distance Index (PDI) that is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power be distributed unequally. Low power distance (e.g. New Zealand) expect and accept power relations that are more consultative or democratic. People relate to one another more as equals regardless of formal positions. Subordinates are more comfortable with and demand the right to contribute to and critique the decision making of those in power. In High power distance countries (e.g. Malaysia), less powerful accept power relations that are more autocratic and paternalistic. Subordinates acknowledge the power of others simply based on where they are situated in certain formal, hierarchical positions. As such, the Power Distance Index Hofstede defines does not reflect an objective difference in power distribution, but rather the way people perceive power differences.
- Individualism (IDV) on the one side versus its opposite, collectivism, that is the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. On the individualist side we find societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.
- Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity; it ultimately refers to man’s search for Truth. It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, different from usual. Uncertainty avoiding cultures try to minimize the possibility of such situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures, and on the philosophical and religious level by a belief in absolute Truth; ‘there can only be one Truth and we have it’. People in uncertainty avoiding countries are also more emotional, and motivated by inner nervous energy. The opposite type, uncertainty accepting cultures, are more tolerant of opinions different from what they are used to; they try to have as few rules as possible, and on the philosophical and religious level they are relativist and allow many currents to flow side by side. People within these cultures are more phlegmatic and contemplative, and not expected by their environment to express emotions.
Now, let us assess the culture of Colombia, the country that Arbab found himself in, half-way around the world from Hofstede, as he was busy putting the finishing touches on his soon to be famous framework. The highest Hofstede Dimension for Colombia is Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI) at 80. This means that as a society, Colombia has a very low level of tolerance for uncertainty. It is a culture where people strongly prefer to have things spelled out clearly. They are comfortable and seek out absolutes and recoil from unstructured situations or “grey” areas, whether that is from a philosophical, religious or practical stand point. Their ultimate aim is to control life and to eliminate or avoid the unexpected. Colombians know exactly what they believe and they have little tolerance for other ideas or theories.
According to Hofstede, Colombians have a rather high tolerance for power inequality. Their PDI score is 67 – this means not that there is inequality, but that people are comfortable with the idea of stratification in society. Those with higher rank are used to perks and people with lower rank know their place. This is a culture where there is a strong sense of hierarchy and formality.
Finally, Colombia has a very low Individualism (IDV) score: 13. This is not the lowest in the world but there are only 4 other countries (out of the 56 in the Hofstede database) with lower IDV scores; and they are all Latin American countries as well. This score means that the country prefers collectivism compared to individualism. Colombians identify themselves as members of a group, family, extended family, etc. They are loyal as this quality over-rides the majority of other societal values. This society functions by the unwritten rule that through strong relationships, people take care of each other.
By now gears will have been turning in your head as you put the pieces together. Whether Arbab realized it or not, the Ruhi course is perfectly molded to fit the cultural norms of Colombia! They prefer to have things in black and white; so filling in the blank with only one possible answer is ideal. They are comfortable with hierarchy and rank, so having a tutor lead the class through a sequence of courses makes perfect sense. And joining a group study circle (rather than individual study) again fits perfectly because culturally, they identify with groups and are happy to conform and subjugate their individuality.
Obviously by now you are aware of the criticisms leveled at Ruhi. For now, let us ignore the well deserved critiques which point to the vast number of errors within the course. Let’s simply compare the culture of Colombia and the USA to see if it can explain why Baha’is in the US are chaffing at the pressure to take Ruhi courses.
Even a cursory glance tells us what we intuitively knew. These are vastly different cultures! If we tried, we could find two that were less alike but what would be the point? The culture of the US is very individualistic with a IDV score of 90. People are self-reliant, automonous; they want to be “their own man” (or woman).
The PDI for the US is low at 40 (the world average is 55). This means that Americans do not like authority, they prefer to live on equal footing with others; their ideal is a consultative or democratic society with few hierarchies or rank. And finally, the UAI score is low at 46. This means that US citizens are comfortable and prefer few rules. In contrast to Colombians, they are perfectly at ease in a situation where the outcome is unknown or unexpected. They thrive in the “grey” areas of life. There are only 6 other countries (out of 56) which have a lower UAI score. Culturally, Americans are tolerant of a variety of beliefs and ideas and do not feel the need to impose their own views on others.
Now, I have to inject a caveat. This is a scientific model to describe cultures. It should not be mistaken as being deterministic. There are always individuals within cultures that do not adhere to the norms (just ask George W. Bush about imposing his views on others) but the purpose of such broad strokes is to generalize accurately about the overall character of a specific culture.
This framework explains what we’ve already seen across the world-wide Baha’i community as Latin American Baha’is love Ruhi, while North American and European Baha’is are largely ignoring it. It is no wonder then, that the Ruhi course was so successful as it grew from the small Cauca valley north of Cali to nearby villages, then surrounding cities, and finally whole new regions of Colombia.
Or, was it?
I’ll explore that in Part II