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The grateful Korean gesture
South Korean volunteers helping empower Ethiopians
Art

The grateful Korean gesture

Since 1995, South Korea via KOICA (Korean International Cooperation Agency), has spent millions on aid within Ethiopia, sent hundreds of volunteers to the most rural parts of the nation and has changed the lives of many in the process. To date, it has spent USD 24 million to the development ambitions of Ethiopia and has pledged to continue that support, writes Samuel Getachew.

When Gerd Muller, the German Economic Cooperation and Development Minister visited the Somali region of Ethiopia on a humanitarian odyssey last year; he was asked about his vision for Ethiopia. Hailing from one of the most influential and rich nations in the world and Ethiopia’s partner in aid advocacy and initiatives, he described it something that is similar to the experiences of South Korea.

The Minister had come to visit the refugee camp, in the Somali Regional State of Ethiopia, one of the most impoverished nations whose economy is on a rebound but still dependent on foreign aid. He reflected much on the experience of the South Asian nation describing it exemplary and something developing nations can emulate in their transition from an aid dependent society to that of self-independent and sufficient.

The movement to turn the South Korean economy around started earnest in 1970 by its former president, Park Chung-hee. Like the quiet revolution of Quebec that turned a doomed economy around by constructing an old tried system to something that is practical, efficient and new, the president envisioned a similar revolution at home.

Named Saemaul Undong (New Community Movement, New Village Movement), the idea mixed traditional values coupled with moderation. It wanted to empower the poor by elevating their living standard and building the infrastructure needed to have them become financially independent, not on aid or handouts.

That movement would change the nation forever.

For the long time, it had been dependent on foreign aid from nations such as the United States.  However, in just two decades, it was able to flip its narrative of a broken society with a slew of social challenges and transition from an aid recipient nation to that of an aid provider to some of the most vulnerable nations in the world.

To achieve its goal of accomplished what was done at home, it allocated 41 percent of its development budget to the least developed nations of the world and put Ethiopia on top of its plan to implement its vision and resources in the East African nation.

Ethiopia is one of the rare African nations to contribute thousands of troops during the Korean War in 1951 and supported the side of South Korea. The grateful nation has not forgotten that contribution. Since 1995, the Asian nation via KOICA (Korean International Cooperation Agency), has spent millions on aid within Ethiopia, sent hundreds of volunteers to the most rural parts of the nation and has changed the lives of many in the process. In addition, it has provided technical education to children of war veterans from the Korean War of the 1050s.

In Adwa town, Tigray Regional State, it managed to build secondary schools and committed to build six more complementing the infrastructures it has already built by copying the “model vision of Saemaul Undong”. In other areas of the nation as well, like in Arsi Zone of the Oromia Regional State, it has dispatched a slew of experts on capacity building and knowledge transfer projects.

Other project included in Arsi is where it built an irrigation and rural development project. In Adama it has worked to raise the quality of education at Adama Science and Technology University, Awash, where it built an early warning mechanism to detect disaster mitigation. In Gurage Zone, it helped improve the water supply of the area. Similarly, in the capital, Addis Ababa, it is building a model primary school in Akaki and a vocational capacity building for Korean veterans.

The grateful Korean gesture
A middle-aged man showing his gratitude to the work of KOICA that have helped empower him as a farmer

“In terms of experience sharing, Korea recognizes human resources can play in the process of national development throughout its experience,” Doh Young Ah, Country Director of KOICA Ethiopia said. “That is why KOICA is providing targeted short and long term training programs to partner with countries for the cultivation of quality human resources. In a similar way, it dispatches Korean volunteers to various government organizations in Ethiopia to share Korean experiences and enhancing the people to people relations of the two great nations.”

These volunteers work in the fields of nursing, rural development, education and development. It has also partnered with entrepreneurs and higher institutions to enhance the effectiveness of its development initiatives.

Within Maimekden, a dusty village in the Tigray Regional State, nowhere in Ethiopia is the work of KOICA, the vision of Saemaul Undong is personified, where lessons learned from experience from the struggling years of South Korea than here. The aid rendered her are not just food aid that is almost a custom to other aid organizations, but something different by way of the building of infrastructures to help change the narratives of a village that knew little infrastructures.

The village that started the movement in South Korea is called “gumi” and the idea for the Saemsul Academy is to make Maimekdem village become the home of the Ethiopian version of Saemaul and ultimately help change the village. In addition, through the Saemaul Globalization Foundation, the Saemaul Academy has trained a dozen students this year in cooperation with Mekele University. It has also trained residents about saving, cooperative and business training with its cooperation with the university. 

“Ethiopia not only (is) the first Korean grant aid recipient from Africa as usual but that this volume of support is the second highest globally next to Vietnam,” Doh Young Ah said. “There has been a rising trend in support and recently the cooperation has also been more strategic by partnership trajectory on the basis of the national Growth and Transformation Plan.”

The agency is to inaugurate a grain store next to an open market to complement the productivity of the local farmers. It is also building a women hair dressing cooperative and sewing cooperative to help grow local entrepreneurships.

Some of its highlighted goals for the next three years are to work on health and sanitation, helping improve the quality of health and prevent communicable diseases, support rural infrastructures and help increase productivity, build infrastructures in areas of transportation, electricity generation and invest heavily on education.

To date, it has spent USD 24 million to the development ambitions of Ethiopia.