beliefs in witchcraft
Belief in witchcraft may impede socio-economic development Istock

Belief in witchcraft still permeates many societies across the globe, with a potentially negative impact on social ties and economic development, a researcher has shown. Faith in black magic is said to spread fear among people, leading to high levels of mistrust and reduced cooperation between them.

The research article, published in the Journal of Development Economics, mainly focuses on witchcraft practices in sub-Saharan Africa.

It studies people who claim they believe in "witchcraft" or "that certain people can cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen to someone."

Less trust, less charitable gestures

Author Boris Gershman used survey data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, collected in 19 sub-Saharan African countries.

Local people from these regions were asked about their religious beliefs, including traditional beliefs in witchcraft and evil spirits. They were also asked questions relating to social capital, such as whether they trusted others around them.

Analysing the information, the researcher identified a negative association between beliefs in witchcraft and the level of trust between individuals. He also discovered signs of antisocial traits being passed on to children, as well as reduced levels of charitable giving.

A belief in witchcraft can foster social and economic immobility, because it leads to diminished cooperation, breakdown of mutual assistance networks, avoidance of joint projects, mistrust in community members, and a general decline in social interactions.

Gershman, an economics professor at the American University, told IBTimes UK: "Trust and cooperation are viewed as important drivers of a normal functioning of the economy. Many studies have shown the importance of trust in business transactions and trade. So the implication here is that reduced levels of trust and other metrics of social capital may lead to economic problems".

Around the globe

The problem with witchcraft is that it is a deep-rooted cultural phenomenon, embedded into the fabric of many societies and can be used to facilitate social order. "A belief in witchcraft may be a way to keep order in society, but it's definitely not the best way," explains Boris Gershman. "It forces one to conform to local norms because any deviation may lead to an accusation of witchcraft."

And the phenomenon is not just confined to sub-Saharan Africa. Using additional data from Asia, Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, the scientist finds a clear negative association between belief in witchcraft and generalised trust. The suggestion is that black magic contributes to the creation of a persistent antisocial culture – and ensuing economic problems – no matter where it is practised around the globe.

At a policy level, these findings may have a number of implications. "There is more and more understanding that cultural context is important for making development projects work. If you know witchcraft is a prevalent belief in the region, you should not approach development strategies in the same ways", Gershman concludes.