Korean Aid: from ‘Development Experience’ to ‘experience development’

I have recently changed jobs, leaving the ‘scary D.C. organization’ I was at for the more moral-hazard-free (haha) shores of the United Nations here in East Africa. I am working on implementing a project funded by KOICA, the Korean aid agency. The past few weeks have been a time of adjustment (to the new country, to work) and my first discovery of how Korean aid operates on the ground. It is too early to come to any conclusions, but safe to say that there are many interesting questions and doubts to follow up on. I look forward to doing this as I move along in my writing here.

So, the ‘new’ donors. Or the ‘once alienated, slowly being brought into the fold’ donors. Japan. Korea. Brazil. South Africa….others.

There is something fascinating about countries that have paid their dues to the World Banks and IMFs and then turned around to become worldwide donors, regional powerhouses, or even to add a brick or two to the mosaic of countries and agencies with their own little niche in the world of international cooperation.

The most fascinating element is probably how these countries use the knowledge and lessons, the know-how gained throughout their history in their development programmes. Some countries are more high-profile about it than others. Some countries prefer sticking to policy advising, others like very technical advice, others still prefer direct, on-the-ground action. But there is one thing in common with all ‘development experience’-related programmes from new donors: they are all new.

Take a country like Korea. I will spare you the story behind Korea’s economic development. But it was just in 2010 that Korea joined the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, and it was just two years ago that its Knowledge Sharing Program got off the ground. Everything is still in planning. Here and there, scattered in Southeast Asia and Africa, one can find Korean-aid funded ‘pilot projects’ with grand visions of scaling-up once they get the ‘Korean development model’ down pat (good luck).

Because all of these initiatives are new (yes, you can also find older initiatives as well, the best example of which is Brazil’s social protection/school feeding know-how being exported), and because the road ahead is not paved, there is often a lack of clarity in how one gets from the experience of development to the packaging of an aid/development programme.

I used to be a big fan of discourse analysis, so if we order things by ‘frame’, we get something like this:

  1. The development itself. This is the string of policies, the events, people and decisions that drove economic growth and that produced whatever result we see. Needless to say, this is an ephemeral concept, and not really analyzable in and of itself, if not to make a simple statement: Korea’s GDP went from X to Y in A years.
  2. The perception of the development experience. How do countries order and understand the course of their economic and social, political and cultural history? How do they perceive the ‘success’ and ‘failures’ of policies after the fact?  To what do they attribute it? We can add to this one more dimension, that of ‘who’? Who perceives a policy as a success? The state? Civil society? Scholars within the country? This is in my mind one of the key points that will inform what road new donors’ aid (and especially Korean aid) goes down over the next decades.
  3. How these countries’ different actors make the leap between their understanding of how their country developed and their ‘aid philosophy’. To what are development successes attributed, and do related policies form part of the plan when the higher-ups decide where the money goes? Are there countries that retain one discourse about their own development and employ greatly differing or non-sequitur aid allocation strategies?  (The short answer, from what I know of Korean aid, is yes)
  4. The packaging of the development experience. That is, how aid-related ideas are perceived to travel in space and time. What is seen to travel well and what is not. There may also be an interesting variation by region (ie. Different policy advice, different programs etc. depending on the region the recipient country is in, and not depending so much on similarities in economic, political or social structure).
  5. The actuation of the development experience. The concrete policies and programs that come out of the ‘packaged development experience’ and their effects. The idea, when one hears talk about a ‘model’ (the ‘Korean model’, and so forth) is that repeating the same experiment will lead to fundamentally similar results. To my knowledge there has been very little literature looking closely at this question. (Should you know of any though, I would be happy to hear about it!)

Helping people or helping to help people?

In which the author discovers sustainable development

One of the things I hear quite a bit from people who are interested in (or indeed, who work in) the nebulous ‘international development’ is about their desire to help people. This has always vaguely bothered me, and while I am still not entirely sure why, I think that I have put my hand on one of the reasons.

Putting people at the center of development is nothing new, but it is a concept that I believe has proven its worth both in policy and in terms of actual effect. This holds across areas, from environmental considerations to industrial policy to security. Besides, if the goal of a country in developing is not the betterment of its people we may as well give up right now.


The problem for me comes when it is framed as a question of ‘me’, the individual, helping people (usually in other, poorer countries). People and organizations that put forward this idea a little too strongly are perhaps not entirely self-aware as to the development work they do. But if you look at it from a societal level, aid organizations, development programs, people in beige jackets and SUVs are not natural. I’m not at all convinced that they are part of the natural topography of a society. They are tacked on, informed by foreign aid dollars, by policy decided at USAID, at DfID, by global visions for a world without poverty, for xyz development goal, and more. Not that these things can’t be good, not that they can’t be effective; they’re just not natural.

What is natural then? It isn’t as though organizations and systems to help people and solve problems in a society are all unnatural- the state is usually accepted as natural, legitimate. Associations of people in society are natural. Different types of media are natural. These things come out of the natural development of a society and out of a locally-assessed need.

OK, a compromise is needed. We don’t live in the 19th Century where societies can be easily shut off from one another and where identity is a simple question of geography. What moves and contributes to the natural development of a society is not only that which is intrinsic to that society. But it certainly still means a local interpretation of things. That which moves and shapes a society is the collection of people, institutions, ideas and common places whose existence and behavior (on the aggregate) is not predicated on next year’s funding. It seems to me that the state and civil society, but also local organizations, community groups, music bands and others are deeply invested in their society as a whole, and not on whatever development the society may have. They will be around even after a society becomes ‘developed’ enough to see the international aid agencies leave.


Because they make up the society, they are necessary to it. Shouldn’t efforts by those interested in the development of societies be more focused on these sorts of social components? Shouldn’t the help be to make sure that the state, that local government, civil society and businesses be able to effectively deliver better goods and services to the society’s people and guarantee a minimum standard of living? Isn’t this better than coming in and attaching an unnatural extra temporary support beam to the structure?

This is about basic sustainability. Sustainability of development, when it comes from outside the society in question, doesn’t really sound all that sustainable.

‘Inside’ vs. ‘outside’ a society isn’t a distinction between foreign and domestic aid per se, or even one between centrally planned or ‘liberal’ aid- I think this debate comes before Sachs and Easterly. In other words, if the road for developing some dimension of a society is effective with market-oriented, ‘outward-looking’ action, then why not? As long as those in control are the same who make up the society (this would get too long if I got into inequality within a society, so I will leave it at that for now).

Helping Societies help People

Every aid program should contribute to turning the keys of the development they work on over to the people for whom they are working. Of course new ideas can come from people overseas, from people from somewhere else, from people who are just passing through. But I think that they should mold these new ideas into the society they wish to help, through participation, joint brainstorming, ownership and understanding of the implications of their work at all levels.

Sustainable development is not about how best to continue a specific project, and not about how to ensure any one organization’s continued effectiveness. It’s first about how to make sure that the projects that will be worked on are worthy of being continued, and it’s then about asking if society can continue them.

Helping societies to help people seems to me a much more freeing and rewarding goal.

Chris Blattman

International development, economics, politics, and policy


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