Korea’s Africa Engagement: Avoiding Past Pitfalls :: 2007.07.24 14:42

Korea’s Africa Engagement: Avoiding Past Pitfalls By Elijah N. Munyi As South Korea’s international clout in international development grows so does the need to define its strategic or humanitarian objectives as a donor nation as well as the intended outcomes of its development engagements in the recipient country. In expanding it’s international development networks, especially in Africa, the question most developing countries will be asking is: How is Korea different as a development partner? How will South Korea define the objectives of its development programs? What will be Korea’s style in aid administration? Will Korea have benchmarks for success or failure of its development programs? Since the 1980s a department or agency of development cooperation such as the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) have become ubiquitous among developed nations. The concept of development assistance has been beleaguered by two general shortcomings, the first being the failure to define the rightful balance between their strategic and humanitarian objectives. This is seen as major apprehension toward China’s bashful inchoate development cooperation. Secondly, until the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) appeared, measurable benchmarks for success or failure of the development policy remained vague. The key challenge for Korea’s development strategy is to find an agreeable balance between its strategic and the humanitarian objectives. With the guidance of hindsight, Korea’s development strategy should also avoid the pitfalls of the Western model of development assistance. What have these pitfalls been? Western development models were largely social-sector focused rather than productive-sector focused. Rather than seeking to develop the economic capabilities of countries and individuals, Western donors concentrated on non-productive sectors such as gender equality, water provision and democratic reforms. For many years, Economics 101 was shoved aside. Sustainable standards of living are first and foremost dependent on what countries produce and sell. The question of primacy therefore in long-term development and poverty alleviation must be how to beef up the productive capabilities of poorer states. Important as they are, healthcare, gender equality, human rights, primary education or democratic reforms all ought to be handled as building blocks rather than means to an end. In the absence of stable, productive and transformative economies, these social developments indicators cannot be sustained. It is an enhanced economic development that begets and supports enhanced social development. Secondly, Western models of development in Africa have at most times favored project funding rather than program or budget funding. In program support, donors partner with recipient countries on joint programs with one strategy. In project funding, the donor organization works with other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) _ usually from the donor country _ to conduct a numerous different projects. Sweden, one of the highest donor nations for instance, spends up to 75 percent of its development cooperation funds on project funding. However, examples of how East Asian aid propelled growth, such as Korea’s, shows that program or budget support aid works better. The reason is that program support goes into buttressing financing for an integrated national development program. Project support in Africa on the other hand goes to buttressing a myriad differentiated community projects that may or may not be in line with a long-term national development policy. Program support, especially in Africa becomes important not only in improving government capabilities but also in engendering a sense national development consensus. Moreover, while program support aid can be or is usually implemented by and through the government human resources, project funding in Africa is implemented by NGOs. Over-reliance on foreign and domestic NGOs has two downsides. One, NGOs spend a substantial amount of donor support on so-called ``administrative costs’’ _ cars, offices, consultancy, and salaries of NGO executives. In Africa the NGO world is a mammoth industry unto itself. The problem with poverty focused NGOs is that over time, they become wrapped up in a success paradox. A success in their business (poverty elimination) would obviate their existence. NGOs are therefore not necessarily as passionate about development as their project proposals may sound. If passionate, the passion may not be so much in their business but in their own survival. Finally Western donors have been too ideologically fixated as to turn a blind eye to the tradeoffs in the development process. To them democracy and liberal economies were thought of as inseparable ends in themselves. The economic history of the 20th century demonstrates that in developing mature, rule of law, civil societies, economic preconditions need be met first. This meant that in African countries making considerable strides in economic development, government capabilities ought to have been supported rather than undermined. Africa’s economic poverty can only exacerbate the travails of its democratic pubescence. In addition the Washington Consensus was billed as the panacea to development even when its programs were detrimental to living standards. As East Asian development has demonstrated, economic development is a long process often demanding political tradeoffs, economic unorthodoxies and situational flexibilities in policy. Western fixation with ideology often worked to stymie development rather than support it. China has bashfully entered the fray of international development by providing a different model of engagement from that of Western donors, especially with Africa. Its strategies are controversial as they are seen as unpretentiously strategic. Whatever model suits Africa’s engagement best, Korea should chart its path with the pitfalls in mind. menyaga2000@yahoo.com Elijah N. Munyi is a graduate of Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in International Political Economy. He is from Kenya. He is presently a researcher at the Korea Institute of Development Strategy (KDS).

-from Korea Times