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[Viewpoint] We must be wise philanthropists

The virtues of modesty, generosity and compassion our ancestors upheld in many tough times must serve as the backbone of our endeavors.

Dec 08,2009
South Korea’s name and role is being recognized on the world stage because of its economic and political accomplishments.

Hosting the Olympic Games in 1988 and the World Cup in 2002 shed a spotlight on our progress in industrialization and democracy. Chairing the G-20 summit talks in Seoul next November accentuates the country’s rising political and economic status.

In the latest tip of the hat to Korea, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee in Paris a few weeks ago extended its 24th membership to South Korea in official recognition of its eligibility to join international campaigns to help poorer countries. That move marks significant progress for a country that a half-century ago was one of the top recipients of international aid.

South Korea was welcomed unanimously into the wealthy donor club in view of its “great progress, as a nation, as an economy and a provider of aid to the world’s poorest nations.”

Yet amid the fanfare, we cannot shake off nagging anxiety over our new national status. That’s not because we don’t believe in our potential and desire to become an even more advanced society. It’s only because we know in our hearts that we must contain ourselves from getting overexcited or, worse, overconfident. And we must remember that assistance to economies a few steps behind us in development can be misconstrued and even, at times, resented.

Charity, whether it be on the giving or receiving end, is as hard among nations as it is among people.

Imagine that a neighbor - who in harder days was impoverished but has since pulled himself up by the bootstraps and is no longer in rags - now finds himself on the giving end of philanthropy. If that person returns to his old community on an arrogant high horse, his generosity, no matter how great, is unlikely to be well-received.

Korea is still the smallest contributor among the DAC members and is still relatively new to philanthropy. We therefore must reflect upon our philosophy, attitude, goals, strategy and structure that we use to support our contributions to world aid programs.

A few days ago, a veteran Nepali diplomat dropped a frank and insightful word of advice in his keynote speech during a forum held in Seoul debating the challenges of development cooperation.

Kul Chandra Gautam served as assistant secretary general of the United Nations and deputy executive of Unicef, the UN children’s fund, and has helped to formulate and nurture global efforts to improve the conditions of women and children in impoverished nations.

He emphasized that Korea is watched by its weaker peers with great interest because it is the first country to lift itself out of the status of a beneficiary nation to that of a donor nation.

They would expect from Korea an aid model entirely different in manner and essence from that of traditional donors who in the past beset their lands with imperialistic ambitions.

They would desire empathy from someone who has been there, rather than phony sympathy and condescension from a country that has always been well-off.

So what dos and don’ts should Korea follow in order to meet their expectations?

We above all must guard ourselves against exhibitionism by using aid programs to demonstrate national might. We must draw a clear line between formal development aid and superfluous handouts. Our offer of assistance should not stir suspicion that it is given as a pretense to increase exports or capitalize on resources in relatively unexploited markets.

We must also prioritize the aid target list based on a solid philosophy and strategy to avoid piecemeal and wasteful commitments.

Our aid must contribute to laying the foundation for a country’s development through consistent and concerted efforts. We can pass on our rags-to-riches experience of benefiting from our investment in education and apply that development model to our assistance packages.

Development commitments can reflect the caliber of a country. As in all charities, we must be modest in giving and contemplate first whether our offer will prove useful to the recipient.

The virtues of modesty, generosity and compassion our ancestors had upheld in many tough times should serve as the backbone of our endeavors in helping to create a global community.

The international community has passed beyond the competitive stage in development cooperation and now closely coordinates among the donors as well as with aid beneficiaries in implementing and prioritizing support programs.

Our role is to serve as a bridge between advanced and developing communities.

We should employ the DAC and G-20 platforms to publicize our functional role and philosophy.


*The writer is former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Lee Hong-koo



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