Village_South_Korea_DevelopmentWhen people think of South Korea, they may imagine an export powerhouse replete with skyscrapers, neon lights and a booming economy. Few remember the South Korea of yesteryear, a war-torn nation with a GDP per capita of $70 in 1957, equivalent to Ghana. Even fewer recall the New Village Movement. To teach the world about this program that eliminated its extreme rural poverty, South Korea held its second annual Global Saemaul Leadership Forum (GSLF) from Nov. 24 to Nov. 27, 2015.

The New Village Movement is called “Saemaul Undong” in Korean.  Begun by President Park Chung-Hee, South Korea’s dictator from 1961 to 1979, it is based on a simple idea: community-led development. Park provided each of the nation’s 33,267 villages with 335 bags of cement, a half ton of iron rods and a plan.

The plan consisted of four steps that began with selecting community leaders and gathering seed money. Step 2 featured small meetings with villagers to persuade everyone to join. Step 3 was the main phase of the project, and involved modernizing homes, establishing cultural facilities and launching cooperative ventures. Lastly, villages would create their own newspapers, build city halls and partner with neighboring towns.

Within 9 years, rural income nearly sextupled from a household average of 225,800 won to 1,531,800 won. Thatched huts gave way to tiled houses across the country. Rural poverty decreased from 27.9 percent before the program to 10.8 percent after, and women gained a more prominent place in the local economy.New_Village_Movement

Due to the success of the New Village Movement, the United Nations recognized the program as a model for rural development. At the November GSLF conference in Daegu, more than 500 delegates from 50 countries gathered to learn more about the model. Countries with representatives included Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Myanmar, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Honduras and Azerbaijan.

The primary aim of the conference was education for New Village Movement leaders in countries outside of South Korea. Leaders are trained at the Global Saemaul Undong Training Center in Seoul, but the conference provides a unique opportunity for them to learn from each other as well as their Korean mentors.

South Korea has made considerable progress in getting other countries to adopt its model. According to a press release in September 2015, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in partnership with the Korean government, created an updated New Village Movement called “Saemaul toward Inclusive and Sustainable New Communities” (ISNC). ISNC is being implemented in Bolivia, Vietnam, Uganda, Myanmar, Laos and Rwanda .

Whether the New Village Movement will flourish in other countries remains to be seen, but there is reason to hope. Sri Lanka has already implemented seven New Village Movement projects in its country. By following the Korean model, villages now have concrete roads, a city hall and electricity. One village has already seen its income quadruple through the addition of powered pottery wheels. This had the added benefit that local women could become potters.

People often dismiss efforts to eradicate poverty, but in truth, it has already been done. South Korea lifted millions of impoverished villagers out of poverty while entwining them in the larger fabric of the national community. As the New Village Movement spreads around the globe, millions more are sure to benefit.

Dennis Sawyers

Sources: Asia Foundation, Modern Ghana, Saemaul Undong, The Sunday Times, UNDP
Photo: Flickr1, Flickr

South Korea’s Saemaul Undong, or New Community, movement of the 1970s is lauded as one of the most successful economic development programs in modern Asia. This week the South Korean government announced its plans to use the experience and knowledge gained through this initiative to help the new government of Myanmar spur development in the Southeast Asian country.

The announcement came as the finance ministers of the two countries met to discuss future expansion of bilateral economic cooperation between the countries. The South Korean model is a community-based rural development program credited with modernizing the country’s economy and greatly reducing domestic poverty. The approach could offer effective strategies and guidelines for the future development of Myanmar as the emphasis is on enacting measures appropriate to the given political, economic, and social contexts  and is not about catch-all international theories.

As the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia and located in a prime position between the major global economies of India and China, Myanmar has great development potential. South Korea understands the unique opportunities that an investment in the economic expansion of Myanmar could potentially offer. In addition to an ad hoc advisory role at the policy level, South Korea is also pledging assistance to build a “Korea-Myanmar friendship bridge” over the Yangon River.

The bridge would allow more disconnected, rural communities new and expanded growth opportunities. South Korea also acknowledges that the assistance would have a public relations element, with the aid garnering the country a favorable opinion from the people of Myanmar. Such positive public opinion would definitely be helpful when South Korean companies begin to venture into Myanmar’s economy. Such an entrance will more than likely initially center around a planned industrial complex on the southern part of the Yangon River. The complex is set to involve South Korean investment.

Despite the promising investments from abroad, Myanmar faces significant challenges to its development. The country’s transition from an authoritarian regime with a tightly controlled economy to a democracy with free markets is certainly daunting. With over a quarter of its population living in poverty, Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in East Asia.

This poverty carries population challenges, like the high rate of 32% for children under the age of five suffering from malnutrition. While such a statistic holds concerns for the future and quality of social and economic development within Myanmar, other issues have more direct and immediate effects on development. Chief among these issues is the lack of modern infrastructure. Most notably, 75% of the population does not have access to electricity. With electricity consumption stuck at 20 times below the world average, the country faces huge barriers to entering the global market.

Fostering real, sustainable development in a country with such limited availability of basic, modern infrastructure capabilities will be a difficult challenge. These unique challenges, though, are potentially well-suited to the model of the South Korean Saemaul Undong. Through the empowerment of the rural communities and major investment, both domestic and foreign, in infrastructure, Myanmar could be well on its way to becoming the new Asian success story.

– Lauren Brown

Source: Asia-Pacific Development Journal, World Bank, Global Post
Photo: Donga News