‘Getting fundamentals right’…Korean development aid

0096I have just finished a couple of months designing, carrying out and writing up a Baseline Study for Korea’s pilot Saemaul Undong programme in the country where I work, as a sort of side project. The survey component was huge- 5 villages, 1100 households surveyed with a questionnaire that still makes my head boggle. It was in many ways a great introduction to how KOICA (Korea’s aid agency) does business (not to mention the wonders it has done for my confidence in quantitative analysis!)

The introduction to how KOICA goes about its work, however, leaves me a little less than impressed, and wondering if KOICA shouldn’t take a leaf from the old World Bank report praising Korea (among others) for ‘getting fundamentals right’.

The phrase ‘getting fundamentals right’ of course was first used in reference to macroeconomic fundamentals, but here I’m speaking about ‘development fundamentals’.  I found out through my long nights working with the KOICA team that, for instance, the Saemaul Undong programme has no results framework, no strategic framework, no logframes, no indicators, no monitoring mechanisms, no project activity design process to speak of, etc.

Not that logframes are or should be the end-all, be-all of development programmes. Not that these specific frameworks or mechanisms must be present for any success to be registered. No, the problem is more fundamental, really: there is no conception of planning. No one knows what results should look like, or who should be benefitted. There is no real logic in who is targeted. There is no idea of what should be measured, of what information should be gleaned out of activities. By extension, there is only a vague idea of what is actually successful, of what fails, and why.

The Saemaul programme is led by volunteers (think Peace Corps), who come over from Korea, live in the village in which they work and each take on (or share) one or more projects for the village in collaboration with the community.banner_koica

The programme is in its third year of pilot. As far as I can tell, the inception and design of a project goes something like this:

-“The villagers want to produce [crop]”

-“Really? Okay, sounds good. How much money should we put in it?”

-“How about [amount]?”

-“Great, when do we start?”

I am of course caricaturing, but the caricature is not that far removed from reality. This is to say that there is no systematic approach to projects- that as they come in, volunteers are asked what kinds of projects they would be interested in doing in the villages. Projects are documented by the volunteers, who send weekly reports and who conduct themselves, along with a KOICA officer in the national office, the evaluations.

So this baseline study will be the first of its kind for KOICA in this country- the first time that a rural development project incorporates baseline statistics and statistical analysis in decision-making on future projects.

A small step, maybe, but still one that could be built on at a faster rate. The Saemaul programme is just the tip of the iceberg…

So yes, fundamentals are important.

Incidentally the main critique of the famous 1993 World Bank report The East Asian Miracle was that it in great part overlooked the more state-driven factors in the economic success of the Asian ‘Tigers’ in favor of a more market-based, orthodox view of how the Bank thought development happened back then. So maybe in that same vein one could think that the ‘fundamentals’ that I mention here are also just the tenets of orthodox development practice, held up as truth. This would be the case if it weren’t so clear that no one has any idea where the programme I mention here is going. The solution, again, may be in logframes and it may not. But goodness, a little direction would not go amiss.

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Chris Blattman

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