Economic growth the priority for Korea in Laos

Even for those familiar with the world of development aid, Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) – the Korean government overseas aid organisation – may be a bit of an unknown entity. Arguably lacking the stature of a USAID or the pedigree of a DfID, KOICA has had to build its reputation from scratch in recent years.

Growing out of various government-sponsored aid programmes in the mid-eighties, KOICA was established in 1991 under the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Utilising Korea’s rich human resources, projects focus on expertise transfer and cooperation in fields such as engineering, IT, education and healthcare to support sustainable development projects worldwide.

Jay Lee
Jay Lee

Beginning with just a handful of volunteers, Korea has now become a world leader in international volunteerism and KOICA has now sent over 7,000 around the world on missions to support its projects. There are 1,300 currently active, with government plans to expand this to 4,000 by 2013 with the help of the newly formed World Friends Korea, its VSO-style volunteer programme.

Korean Overseas Volunteers (KOV) have a diversity of backgrounds, from students and recent graduates, to healthcare professionals and retired engineers. The importing of skills and expertise that characterised Korean post-war development has led to her youth answering the call of global service in unprecedented numbers; impressive for the one-time Hermit Kingdom.

The call of volunteerism are many, from professional development and global service, to missionary zeal and adventurism, while others are merely seeking respite from the pressures of twenty-first century living. As opposed to stereotypes of Korean-ness defined by insularity and nationalism, this growth projects an open, engaged, and self-confident image of Korean youth to the world.

One such young Korean who embodies such positivity is one-time volunteer Jay Lee, now Volunteer Manager in the Laos Overseas Office. Reflecting back on his young life from a sultry Vientiane beer garden, it is easy to see why he is now thankful for his lot. The erstwhile KOV, sipping a cold Beer Lao – “much better than Hite,” he claims – is grateful the frenetic pace of the Seoul conurbation seems a million miles away.

“In Korea we are pushed so hard by the pressure to compete with each other that we can’t appreciate what we have. Korea is like a factory for producing a skilled workforce. I tried to disengage myself from that as much as I could and even in high school I preferred to work part-time rather than going to study rooms until midnight,” he said.

Upon graduating from university Jay began to look at ways of experiencing the world. As is increasingly true of many young Koreans, Jay saw himself as a global citizen as much as a Korean and with military service fast approaching fate dealt him a fortune hand.

“I was one of just 100 selected to be a KOV for KOICA in 2004 in substitution for military service. As a Taekwondo Master I served in Savannakhet in the south of Laos for two years. Of course, my friends were extremely jealous,” he said.

Jay Lee

After becoming a KOV Jay quickly picked up the language and dedicated himself to becoming a specialist in his field. Now, a few years later, Jay finds himself in a management position in the Vientiane office – clearly he didn’t leave his Korean competitiveness in the Incheon departure hall. Jay sees his work as a form of repayment for the support Korea received in the post-war period.

“In the 1960s Korea had a similar situation to that in Laos now; we had weak development and the country was reliant on donor aid. Many of our KOV are aware of this and want to give back to the global community. A good example is that of the Philippines, who actually gave donor aid to Korea as late as the 1980s and are now recipients of KOICA’s second-largest aid package,” said Jay.

It was only last year that Korea graduated to the Donor Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD and thus became the only member country to have progressed from an official recipient to donor within the OECD. This is on the back of over 50 years of post-civil-war economic growth and democratic struggle. It would be easy for an outsider to assume there must be some secret to Korea’s rapid success.

“In my opinion there are a couple of main reasons for Korea’s rapid development; one is our ‘balli balli’ culture. We have a thirst for development and always want the latest of what is available, as soon as possible. Another factor was the effort of our grandparents – they built their own success. The real strength in Korea is the ajumma!”

Clearly, other countries can’t be expected to produce a demographic as formidable as the ajumma – literally a woman of marrying age, but better translated as a ‘battle axe’– but perhaps there are other lessons that can be heeded. In the absence of an ajumma class, how could development best serve the Lao people?

“The thirst for development is important, but we lost an opportunity to protect our traditions. We have lost so much. When I look at Thailand I am a little envious, as they have preserved much of their tradition, even though they might be called less developed than Korea. They have a good balance between being modern and Thai. This is the challenge for all developing nations and Laos is no different,” he said.


The expansion of the hydropower and mining sectors, roundly criticised by environmentalists and human rights activists, seem to indicate that any advice against ‘development at any cost’ seems to be going unheeded. Yet, the question remains whether other countries, such as Korea, have any right to dictate a nation’s path of economic development.

“This is what we have to be aware of when doing development work in other countries. It is not appropriate to enter a country and tell them how they should develop. We may have misgivings in terms of governance or even human rights, but these are matters for the Laotian people to change themselves. We have to let Laotian people make that decision and through improved education they will be better informed to do that,” he said.

This ‘softly softly’ approach is likely informed by Korea’s own experience of democratisation, yet it is controversial, particularly for Western official development organisations who more actively push for human rights reforms in this Communist state. The Party lip service paid to these concerns has often failed the litmus test, particularly for rural and ethnic minority communities.

Whether the Lao people are best served by social or economic empowerment is an ongoing debate, but it is clear that in this sleepy capital on the banks of the Mekong, despite KOICA et al prompting, the Lao people are resisting the rapid upheavals so characteristic of twentieth-century Asian industrialisation. However, reflecting on a balmy evening in a Mekong restaurant terrace, I don’t think many people are wishing for that just yet.

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