[Viewpoint] Better to give than receive

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[Viewpoint] Better to give than receive

Some ask me why we need to help needy people in foreign countries when there are still many among us who require care and aid.

When I get such a question, I respond, “Why shouldn’t we help out poor people in other countries?”

We are the people of the world’s 13th largest economy. In November, we will chair a summit of the leading 20 developing and emerging countries. And we have become the 24th member of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, a donor club among developed countries devoted to helping poor countries.

In 2011, our country hosts a senior conference dedicated to debating global aid effectiveness for the first time in the Asian region. We come across many foreign people seeking their own rags-to-riches dream in our very own streets. There are some 1 million foreigners living among us today.

Korea no longer can stand aloof and oblivious to poverty and suffering in other parts of the world.

There were times in the 1960s when parents sold off their sole living income - a cow - and sisters worked in factories to send their brothers off to college.

But long gone are the days when daughters sacrificed to educate sons and when many lived without a decent meal a day.

In those days, our economy was fueled by foreign aid. Since liberalization from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, we received a total of $12.7 billion in free assistance and loans through 1995, when we finally paid off loans from the World Bank.

Korea was one of the poorest countries, with a per capita gross national product of a meager $81. Without foreign aid, we could not have modernized light and heavy industries to drive our economy.

In order to pay back our debt to a global society that helped us during our hard times, we should do the same for impoverished economies struggling with poverty and underdevelopment.

Korea is a rare case in how fast and far it accomplished economic development. Moreover, we have accomplished so much in economics and politics while still faced with a hostile North Korea. Our success story can be an inspiration to many countries strained by war, conflict and hardship.

President Lee Myung-bak has defined Korean aid as “heart-warming aid” and “advanced aid.” He reaffirmed a commitment to overseas assistance in several addresses over the last two years.

The philosophy behind philanthropy in essence is pure altruism, offering aid in proportion to the recipient’s needs. Aid can help boost the country and its corporations’ images, but it should not be motivated by self-service alone.

It should be provided with the receiving country in mind and aimed at helping people in misery regain their rights and dignity.

But our record of aid sometimes raises questions over whether it has been based on a pure philanthropic philosophy and principle.

Until a few years back, South Korea had been raising the amount of free aid while reducing that of loan financing. Yet the planned 2010 aid budget shows that the share of loans has drastically increased.

Few poor countries have morphed into prosperous ones via loans; the obligations pile up, which only leads countries to seek refinancing or free aid in order to pay off their liabilities.

Developing donor countries, therefore, are increasingly offering funds with no strings attached. Recipient countries naturally prefer free aid. Yet we alone are going against the current.

Until not long ago, we kept channels of free grants and loan assistance separate. But a law on public funding of development assistance last year systematized the foreign aid structure.

Yet in reality, officials are still busy debating the pros and cons of grants or loan aid when deciding on the amount and allocation.

We must ask ourselves why we are following the track of the failed aid model and running against the international trend of free donations.

We should stop asking why, but instead contemplate how to develop an aid model that can best capitalize on our successful experience in modernization and generate effective results in those recipient countries. We need to benchmark other developed donors’ aid practices and apply our own development experiences to help more countries emerge from poverty and underdevelopment.

We must be more aggressive in giving and spend taxpayers’ money wisely through a resolute action plan, supervision and assessment.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor at the Ewha Womans University Graduate School of International Studies.

By Kim Eun-mee
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