[OUTLOOK]How to pull up the provincesPresident Roh Moo-hyun’s “participatory government” has named decentralization and equal regional development as one of its 12 national administrative tasks. Finally, the concept has made it past the stage of a campaign promise and become a national project.
In its hectic economic growth, Korea has become a one-city society centered on Seoul, a city similar to Hong Kong or Singapore. But Koreans have had to pay a high social cost for such an imbalanced system. The transportation, environment, housing conditions and prices of commodities in Seoul have reached dangerous levels. It is almost too late to talk about pleasant living conditions when we discuss the quality of life in Seoul. It is very important to promote regional development for the future of Korea.
But the policy discussion is not that simple. The policies that the government has been promoting are not all justified by the provincial development rationale. Regional development is more than just throwing money at places that have been at an economic disadvantage until now.
The government has been trying to set up regional development policies that use budget reallocations, deregulation and the elimination of interference from the central government. For example, the home affairs minister, Kim Doo-gwan, has canceled the central government’s inspection of local governments, and the education ministry is considering giving provincial colleges priority in government support. The Ministry of Science and Technology has also announced that it would put priority on professors at provincial universities in its allocation of research funds.
Such short-term prescriptions are often not based on a comprehensive analysis of the present conditions or the future direction of development. Using easy methods and policies could even make matters worse in the long run. Local governments might complain that being subjected to an evaluation by the central government is interference, but without monitoring, the local governments can hardly be expected to push the policies that the central government has assigned to them. Issues such as the environment ― look at the indiscriminate construction of apartments in Gyeonggi province ― and the designated quota for women in government posts would probably be ignored if they were left to the discretion of local governments.
We must also consider the pleas of private provincial colleges for financial support from the government in a different light. Doling out funds to colleges without students and with inferior facilities would only be propping up uncompetitive schools and would lower, not raise, provincial standards.
Regional development depends on solving problems at a level deeper than simple budget support. First, one must consider the efficiency of the local autonomous government’s budget management before discussing the size of the budget. Living outside Seoul, one becomes sorrowfully aware of all the useless construction projects and unnecessary farm equipment that is being deployed in the name of “agricultural support.”
In order to make provincial spending more efficient and keep construction firms from crowding up to the money trough at local governments, we must first install checks and balances. Giving additional financial assistance without more controls would be like pouring water into a leaky jug, as was the case with the farm household debt relief program.
One way to ensure more efficiency in local government budget management would be to encourage Seoul-based civic groups to expand or transfer their activities to other regions. Another measure would be to give more selective support based on ability rather than equality. Research grants to able provincial academics is an example.
The central government must not throw money away on projects that the market can handle better. For instance, the government should not repeat its folly of supporting small private universities and colleges outside Seoul that were more interested in making profits than in educating students. And finally, regional development must be approached systematically; results could take years to be seen. Long-term projects such as the transfer of the capital city in a bid to disperse the functions of Seoul are more desirable than short-term support that does little to change the existing state of affairs.
Administrators often fall into the trap of underestimating the complexity of the social problems they face. Society is an intricate web of diverse people and organizations and it has an organic personality, almost as complex as that of a life form, deriving from its historical and developmental growth. Promoting regional development will need more than a mindless reallocation of budget money.
* The writer is a professor of public administration at Korea University.
by Yeom Jae-ho