South Korea spreads gospel of ‘new village movement’
DAEGU CITY, South Korea—In a small office in Manila in 1985, Korean missionary Chang Young Chung got the shock of his life.
“I visited my brothers and sisters there and they cried to me. How do we do what Korea did? How do we get support? We have no power,” he said, mimicking how the Filipinos sobbed before him.
Manila was one of several stops for Chung. A leadership trainer, he toured Asia at the time, spreading the word about Saemaul Undong, South Korea’s rural development model. Before this group pleading for help, he was taken aback. Just more than six decades earlier, the Philippines helped Korea fight a communist invasion.
“It shocked my heart,” Chung said in an interview on the sidelines of the second Global Saemaul Leadership Forum here last week.
“How can this happen in the Philippines, another important country in the region, a brethren country for Korea?” he said. “It sent 7,000 soldiers to Korea, sent many doctors. Korea was very, very poor at the time. The Philippines even helped us build infrastructure.”
The seeds of Korea’s much-celebrated “new village movement” were planted in the Philippines. But local commitment was then tentative.
The movement, credited with pulling South Korea out of poverty in the 1970s through mobilizing the communities themselves, has gained traction since in the wake of the devastation of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) in November 2013.
It followed four years after groundwork was laid in Iloilo province through close ties between Gov. Arthur Defensor Sr. and the Korea International Cooperation Agency.
Korea hosted a group of local officials for Saemaul training in 2009, but urgent official affairs had stalled the full implementation of the program, said Mario Millos, provincial planning officer who later became the president of the movement’s chapter in the Philippines.
“When Yolanda struck, actually, Saemaul Undong Korea wanted to help. But they wanted to formalize through an organization that would disburse the funding. What we did was to recall all trainees before,” Millos told the Inquirer.
This led to the creation of Saemaul Undong Philippines, a group closely linked with Chung’s Global Mission Institute Center, which was helping implement Saemaul initiatives in the towns of Bingawan and San Dionisio.
Chung built his mission center in Iloilo after a local official donated a 10-hectare lot. The center doubled as the Korea Training Center Foundation, where Chung, now 82, introduced the principles of Saemaul Undong.
“In January 2014, we formalized it. As soon as we organized and had it registered, we invited Korean officers to meet with us in Iloilo. We hosted them and then we brought them to the Yolanda-affected areas,” Millos said.
The Koreans donated P6.5 million to build 62 houses in the two hard-hit villages. With fresh momentum, the local Saemaul group proceeded with the real work: introducing what the rural development movement is all about.
“Saemaul Undong is basically about livelihood… The character of Saemaul Undong is, they have the universal principles of self-help, cooperation and diligence,” said
Millos, who was invited back to South Korea to undergo further training last month.
“But their recommendation is to localize it. Though they have the framework, [the application] should be peculiar from country to country, to the community. The values, customs and traditions of people in the communities,” Millos said.
As postwar South Korea grappled with poverty, then President Park Chung-hee, father of the current leader Park Geun-hye, launched Saemaul Undong in April 1970, focusing on the expansion of access roads, replacement of roofs and fences, development of community wells and washing places, construction of small bridges, and stream maintenance. The use of new hybrid rice seeds, compost use and cooperative pest control enabled Korea’s rural farmers to increase their agricultural yield within the same decade, leading to higher income in rural households.
The Korean government signed in September 2013 an agreement with the UN Development Program for a “global initiative to scale up” best Saemaul Undong practices. It aims to “promote sustainable development, eradication of poverty, advancement of women, crisis prevention and recovery, good governance and the rule of law.”
The program’s principles are a good fit for the Philippines, Millos said. “Their framework of self-help, cooperation and diligence, if you look at it, is also within our values. I think it suits us. It just really needs government support.”
At the just concluded Global Saemaul Leadership Forum, some 200 village leaders, local government officials, ministers and vice ministers from 50 developing nations gathered for three days to gain a deeper learning of Saemaul Undong, and how it could be adopted in their home countries.
At the forum, Millos was struck by how nations, whether in Africa, Asia or Latin America, shared the same challenges and aspirations.
“In the global community, everybody wanted to be uplifted in terms of their poverty, economic and social life. We have common aspirations, wherever you are—in Uganda or Tanzania… Everybody wants to get out of poverty, just like us in the Philippines,” he said.
He recalled his first Saemaul Undong training in 2009: “Everybody was talking about corruption in government, everybody was talking about poverty, everybody was talking about poor infrastructure. It turned out that those problems are everybody’s concern.”
In his keynote speech, renowned Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, a special adviser to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, cited how Saemaul Undong could help nations achieve the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the checklist of 17 goals the world hopes to achieve from 2016 to 2030.
The SDGs are a set of goals that target three core objectives: economic development, which also entails poverty eradication, social inclusion, such as fairness, gender equality and respect for human rights, and environmental sustainability.
“Saemaul Undong is a powerful part for the solution to SDGs. It is especially oriented to villages, and is about community effort, which is a very important part of its success,” said Sachs.
He cited how South Korea set clear objectives and a timeline, with nearly all target villages achieving self-sufficiency within a decade.
“I should say it (Saemaul Undong) is not the only part of success. It fits within an even larger picture… A crucial component of what needs to be done by governments is the need to think holistically. That’s the hallmark of Korea’s success: it was not focused on only one thing,” Sachs said.
In a video message during the program, President Park cited how Saemaul Undong had spread to 120 villages around the world, with a total of 5,000 village leaders and local officials trained in Korea.
In Iloilo, ongoing Saemaul programs include native-chicken growing and coconut shell gathering, with the private sector funding the initiatives. Millos said the goal was to target jobless rural villagers, given that poverty incidence in the province was still high at 26.2 percent.
Attending this year’s forum inspired Millos to recalibrate the Philippine nongovernment organizations’ (NGOs) strategies to ensure results, keeping in mind that the program fell short of expectations in its first two decades or so in the Philippines.
To ensure sustainability, Millos said the NGO would engage other sectors in the province, including the business community, government, civil society and the grassroots.
The organization is also sending a new group of trainees to Korea next year. “My dream is to strengthen the community, to make it really a viable and sustainable community on the one hand, and on the other hand, spread it beyond Iloilo,” Millos said.
Quirino Gov. Junie Cua also took part in the global forum last week, returning to Korea about a month after visiting the Global Saemaul Undong Center. He is keen on starting the program in his province.
“Now, the new generation has a responsibility. Maybe, in the first generation 25 years ago, it did not work. Now, our vision is that in the next three years, we will have training all around the nation,” Chung said.
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