Now Is Time for Korea to Help Out
Chief of Aid Agency Singles Out Three Nations for Special Consideration
By Kang Hyun-kyung
The Philippines, Ethiopia and Colombia have been selected as countries for special consideration by the nation's aid agency.
The three have two things in common. When the fledgling democracy in South Korea was endangered following the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-53), they dispatched troops to the South to fight the communist North Koreans.
Out of the 21 nations that helped South Korea by either sending troops or providing the nation with medical units, those three remain in asking for international help.
"We deeply appreciate them. And I think now is the time for us to pay them back as we can afford to help them out," Park Dae-won, president of the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), said in an interview with The Korea Times at his office in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, last Thursday.
"When lending a hand to those nations, I prefer not to use the term of aid, though. I encourage my people at KOICA to use development assistance, instead of aid."
Park, 62, said Korea helped those in plight not because the nation expects certain returns afterwards, but because that's what Korea is supposed to do as a nation that used to depend largely on international assistance.
His remark came weeks after the nation joined the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD, a club of donors.
The former career diplomat, who assumed the leadership post at the aid agency a year and half ago, noted that there are four principles to KOICA's global aid programs under his leadership.
Korea Owes the World
"We will remember the help we received from other countries in the past. We will help Asian countries, as well as the countries suffering from poverty in spite of being endowed with rich natural resources.
"We will also take care of the countries with which we have special relations, such as Vietnam where Korea sent troops during the civil war in the 1960s," he said.
As part of our development assistance, the aid agency set up a cutting-edge rice processing complex (RPC) in the Philippines years ago. The facility helped lower the amount of losses in paddy and rice by 20 percent.
Before the RPC, the Filipino rice farmers put paddy out on the road for drying. The rice on the street was targeted by wildlife and some was also lost due to vehicles. As a result, about 30 percent of field products disappeared during the post-harvest operations.
After the brand-new equipment was installed, where all rice processing was done automatically, the local farmers were able to save 20 out of the 30 percent of losses in paddy.
"This indicates that KOICA helped those Southeast Asian people increase their rice harvest by 20 percent," said Park.
Having witnessed the effect on paddy losses after setting the RPC in place, the Philippines has requested KOICA to build five more in the nation, a request which was approved by the aid agency.
In Colombia, some Korean War veterans, mostly in their seventies, were ailing because of their efforts in the war. To help those suffering veterans, KOICA built a rehabilitation center.
Unique Challenge Facing Third World
The former career diplomat noted that his agency first explores each underdeveloped nation to find what it needs most before coming up with a proper development assistance strategy fitting each unique challenge.
Park said that underdeveloped countries wanted to learn the secrets of how Korea achieved high growth and democracy during a relatively short time period.
"For example, Algeria is eager to achieve the dual goal. Policymakers there, however, are faced with a tough challenge where militant labor unions cause setbacks to economic growth and democracy," said the president of KOICA.
Park admitted that giving effective consultancy to the unique problem facing the African nation was truly challenging to the aid agency. "As of now we have no existing policy therapy to help them get out of trouble."
KOICA plans to outsource a tailored development assistance strategy to an international development consultancy in the near future.
Laos: Education Is Key to Growth
All Laotian middle and high school students study with textbooks of which back covers carry the two national flags of Laos and Korea, and words of gratitude.
The acknowledgement reads tentatively in English that "this textbook was published with the support of the Korean government in collaboration with KOICA."
"Before the textbook project, many Laotian students had recycled old textbooks that were used by senior students or their siblings. Some didn't even have the old copies. Now each student has his or her own textbook," said Park.
In Peru, KOICA established a pottery school in a small village near Machu Picchu. A KOICA volunteer with expertise in pottery skills has taught local youths how to make sturdy pottery. Peruvian pottery was easily broken and water tended to leak out.
After mastering pottery skills and by selling their products to tourists, those trainees earned ten times more than they made before.
With the fortune they made, some got married, and some sponsored their sick family members' hospital bills. Some skilled workers renovated their abodes and bought Korean goods that are considered very expensive there.
"These two cases illustrate that education is key to help those who are in need through self-help. And that's what we do to make a difference in the under-developed world," said Park.
Africa: Yearning for Better Lives
In addition to prosperity and democracy, Park said, there is another asset that Korea can pass on to underdeveloped nations. That is the agricultural and fishery sectors' great makeover from poverty-stricken to livable areas during the industrialization period under the Saemaul (New Community) movement.
"There is no doubt that farmers' and fishermen's yearning for better lives and their determination were two major driving forces of the miracle," Park observed.
Through its projects in Tanzania and Uganda where KOICA committed to build two Korea Millennium Villages, the nation's aid agency doesn't want these African countries to miss the core message.
Under the current scheme, there are two arms carrying out the nation's international aid programs.
The Ministry of Strategy and Finance handles loan programs that need to be repaid, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs deals with the primary goal of reducing poverty in the third world. KOICA is affiliated with the foreign ministry.
The former announced earlier that it would help underdeveloped nations achieve growth with Korea's successful experience in ending poverty through a so-called export-led economic growth.
The finance ministry has worked closely with Vietnam to pass on Korea's experience.
Park said there was a unique role that only South Korea could play in the DAC, given it is the only donor that has transformed from a recipient which used to rely heavily on international aid, especially following the end of the Korean War.
"There are guidelines on poverty reduction in the committee. Advanced countries that made the rules would have little sense of what poverty means to people as they have not gone through it," he said.
With the remark, the KOICA chief indicated that there could be a deep discrepancy between the lofty goals set by those donors and the harsh reality facing underdeveloped nations.
"As the only recipient-turned-donor, we can play a bridge role between the two worlds," he said.
To keep up with its role in the DAC, Park said the nation needed to be more generous when it came to contributions to the international community.
"Given that the average Korean's monthly income is about 2 million won ($1,700), each of us pays approximately 1,000 won (86 cents) per month for international assistance. I think this is stingy, and we can give more back to the international community," he said.