A Conversation with KOICA President Kim Young-mok
In Asia 
Interview
June 17, 2015
 
South Korea, a once-impoverished and war-torn nation that has grown to become an economic powerhouse and a provider of international assistance, is one of Asia’s great success stories, and The Asia Foundation has been a partner in that remarkable transformation since 1954. This week, in an official signing ceremony in Seoul, President Kim Young-mok of the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) signed a landmark memorandum of understanding with Asia Foundation President David D. Arnold to extend their growing strategic partnership in the Asia-Pacific. President Kim granted an interview with In Asia. With Korea increasingly in the global spotlight, we asked him first about KOICA’s goals as a provider of international development assistance.

The main objectives of KOICA, as of many other donors, are to help developing countries eradicate poverty and to build capacity for their own sustainable development. Even though there has been remarkable progress in reducing extreme poverty, one fourth of the world population still remains either in extreme poverty or in a fragile condition. On top of that, as inequality has risen in most developing countries, development organizations, including KOICA, have become more concerned with inequality. In this regard, helping people at the bottom of the pyramid with innovative methodologies is equally important to achieving our goals.

In addition, as the international community is experiencing a huge shortfall in financial resources, aid organizations like KOICA must find ways to cooperate with the private sector. As Korea’s leading governmental organization specializing in grant aid, KOICA is strengthening partnerships with the private sector to maximize our collective capacity – both financial and non-financial – to help developing countries achieve goals of sustainable development.

Simply put, KOICA would like to be a key player by making good on promoting the post-2015 agenda.

Is there a South Korean model of development? What can Asia’s developing nations learn from Korea’s remarkable success?

I believe that Korea could share with many others our experience of transformation from an impoverished country to an exemplary industrialized nation and democracy. One of the most representative examples of the Korean experience, Saemaul Undong, or SMU – the Smart Village Movement – could be applied or adapted to many other countries to reduce the gap between urban and rural areas and bring a larger population into the value chain of growth.

What we call “smart SMU” not only promotes ownership and behavior change, which were the core values of the original SMU, but also encourages the application of technologies and know-how to increase effectiveness and keep those effects sustainable. SMU focuses on education, training, ownership formation, and women’s empowerment. We believe it has many applications, not only for rural development programs, but also for overall national development strategy.

Korea’s earliest initiatives in development assistance emphasized technical assistance and cooperation. How has your approach to development assistance grown, and what are KOICA’s core competencies today?

KOICA believes that developing human resources and institutions is critical to achieving sustainability. That’s why KOICA has concentrated resources in sectors such as education, health, public administration, rural development, and ICT-based industrialization.

As our budget grows and, consequently, the expectations for Korea and KOICA grow, our programs are expanding across sectors and countries. In the process, we are trying to focus more on infrastructure and technology-based projects so that socio-economic impact can be created and felt. We are looking more into projects of appropriate scale and priority for partner countries – particularly those dealing with water, energy development, and the environment, which are all key areas for climate-change resilience. Infrastructure assistance is where technical cooperation and investment meet, and we would like to help our partners’ projects become “bankable” through intense consulting and upgraded capacity building.

Helping partners in the area of governance – effective and accountable governance – is also a priority, because it is essential not only to making external assistance results-oriented, but also to achieving stability and social integration, which countries need for long-term and sustainable growth.

Your partnership with The Asia Foundation in Sri Lanka was your first initiative to focus on governance, an area of great interest to the Foundation. What do you bring to the table in the area of governance, and what have you learned from that collaboration in Sri Lanka?

Recognizing the importance of healthy governance, KOICA has allocated about 15 percent of its total budget – $75 million in 2013 – to that sector. KOICA also formulated the KOICA Mid-Term Public Administration Strategy (2013-2015) to provide various aid programs in a more strategic and coherent manner.

Our collaboration with The Asia Foundation in Sri Lanka was in the Eastern Province, where the decades-long internal conflict had severely damaged the capacity for local governance. The Asia Foundation has close partnerships with national partners due to its longstanding presence in many developing countries, including Sri Lanka, and a good understanding of local contexts, and I think this is one of the key attributes required to lead governance projects to success. I would like to commend The Asia Foundation, particularly those on the ground, for making our undertaking most effective through commitment and earned trust.

On June 15, KOICA and The Asia Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding for future collaborations. What is the significance of this MoU for KOICA?

Through our own experience, we became convinced that furthering our tasks would not be possible without an open partnership with both domestic and international players. In 2014, KOICA launched an ambitious new partnership program called the KOICA Development Action Program, which aims to promote innovative partnerships with various domestic and international organizations by utilizing their expertise, technology, and creative ideas.

The Asia Foundation is one of the most reliable and committed partners. The MoU with the Foundation is a symbol of these efforts by KOICA. Through this program, KOICA expects to play a role as an open platform for domestic and international organizations.

The Asia Foundation has been proud to be one of KOICA’s first NGO partners. Why did you choose to work with The Asia Foundation?

The Asia Foundation is committed to improving lives in developing Asia, and we ourselves have benefitted from its programs. The Foundation assisted Korea from 1954 to 2010, providing roughly $45 million for training and education of young people and leaders. It can be considered extremely meaningful and symbolic that a country once one of the largest aid recipients is now working with the Foundation to help others.

More important is that The Asia Foundation has extensive expertise and networks in many Asian countries. KOICA regards The Asia Foundation as one the most reliable and significant partners to work with, and that is why KOICA has chosen The Asia Foundation as one of our primary partners.