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Korea Examines Development Role in South Asia

December 9, 2009

At a time when the Korean government is discussing plans to deploy more civilian aid workers and security troops to Afghanistan early next year, development progress in the entire South Asia region is high on the minds of Korean policymakers and aid organizations.

On November 25, South Korea further solidified its commitment to international development and aid by becoming an official member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC). The DAC is an international forum that brings together donor governments and multi-lateral organizations to discuss and set standards for effective aid to developing countries.

From the South Korean point of view, DAC membership is particularly meaningful, because South Korea has itself experienced a remarkable shift from being an aid recipient to becoming a major donor country in only a few decades.

South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak has pledged that by 2015 Korea will increase its Official Development Assistance (ODA) to a quarter percent of the country’s gross national income, up from the current 0.09 percent, tripling aid levels. A substantial part of that aid will be shared with countries in South Asia, a region that has long attracted the attention of the international community but has been largely bypassed by Korean organizations.

The Asia Foundation’s Korea Office conducted a timely and important international conference in Seoul late last month on “Development Challenges and International Cooperation: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.” The conference on November 24 and 25 was planned with the cooperation of the Foundation’s offices in South Asia, with support from the Korean Development Institute’s (KDI) School of Public Policy and Management.

Through frank and intense dialogue between senior government officials and development specialists from the three countries and Korea, the conference laid out some of the key development challenges these countries face.

Kul Chandra Gautam, former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, gave a sharp analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Korea’s aid strategy in a surprisingly frank but gentle manner.

Kul Chandra Gautam, former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, delivers a presentation at The Asia Foundation's conference on Korea’s aid strategy.

Kul Chandra Gautam, former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, delivers a presentation at The Asia Foundation's conference on Korea’s aid strategy.

His presentation “Making Korea an Exemplary Donor” was hard-hitting, proposing a “12-point agenda” for Korea to position itself as a trusted partner of developing countries.

“It is relatively easy and attractive to construct and equip buildings,” Mr. Gautam said, referring to Korea’s focus on the construction of hospitals, schools, and other infrastructure projects that make up a large portion of the country’s ODA program. “But the ‘software’ part of the training, such as helping to change behavior or implementing capacity-building for sustainable progress, is harder and messier, yet absolutely vital. One would like to see the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) and the Economic Development Cooperation Fund more clearly articulating how their support is intended to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals.”

Mr. Gautam added that such support needs to be well-coordinated with the recipient government’s educational sector plans, rather than schools being given as gifts to select communities; otherwise, the goal of developing more sustainable communities will fail in the long-run.

A delegation from Afghanistan, composed of senior directors of major government programs, advisors to the President and key ministers, and a member of the National Assembly, described the country’s development problems and progress in detail, and proposed areas where Korea might provide assistance.

Abdul Wassay Arian, Afghanistan’s senior advisor at the Ministry of Education, suggested “technical and vocational education” to be among the highest priorities to the country’s development: “Korean ODA can facilitate mutual cooperation,” he said. “Afghanistan is a potential market for investment, and it is a bridge between Central, South, and Southeast Asia.”

Kim Kwang-young, KOICA’s managing director of Economic Development, gave an overview of the agency’s completed projects and program plans in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. KOICA’s assistance to Afghanistan has increased markedly in 2009 and is expected to rise further next year, while aid to Pakistan and Bangladesh remains modest.

Yu Ji-eun, vice president of KOICA, joined the last session to discuss effective aid strategies. Mr. Yu explained that KOICA plans to concentrate its aid on fewer projects in each country in order to increase impact. He also said that Korea would increase the level of untied aid (which allows recipient countries to freely buy goods and services from all countries, rather than exclusively from the donor countries), from 25 percent to 75 percent by 2015.

“I think targeting your assistance is important,” said Shafqat Mahmood, a former senator from Pakistan. “And when you are considering a target, it is important to do an analysis of the [recipient] country’s political economy, because what has worked in Korea might not work in other places.”

Shahnaz Kapadia Rahat, Chief Executive Officer and Senior Partner-Director of Empowerment Thru Creative Integration from Pakistan, speaks at the conference.

Shahnaz Kapadia Rahat, Chief Executive Officer and Senior Partner-Director of Empowerment Thru Creative Integration from Pakistan, speaks at the conference.

Shamsul Huda, chief election commissioner in Bangladesh, noted that “small donors can really make an impact if they concentrate their aid on the areas where they have special expertise and comparative advantage.” He gave the example of Holland, which has spent 90 percent of its aid on water resource management, matching its area of expertise with an area of critical need in Bangladesh.

Ershad Ahamadi, advisor to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, shared his experience with aid agencies in Afghanistan. “In Afghanistan, there are more than 76 donor nations and international organizations involved, but the reality is that donors continue to pursue their own programs that reflect little understanding of Afghan realities and therefore are not sustainable over time.” He stressed that: “The international community must provide aid in a way that promotes local procurement and capacity-building, focusing on state-building efforts and avoiding parallel structures.”

Read coverage of the conference in JoongAng Daily and Korea Times.

Soo-mee Park is The Asia Foundation’s Public Affairs Officer in Korea and Edward Reed is the Foundation’s Country Representative in Korea. They can be reached at smpark@asiafound.org and ereed@asiafound.org, respectively.

View all posts by Edward Reed

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