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Wrong attitude will not take Uganda anywhere, says South Korean Ambassador

By Ronald Musoke

Park Jong-Dae, South Korea’s Charge d’Affaires shares his views on his country’s rapid economic development with The Independent’s Ronald Musoke.

How did South Korea (officially the Republic of Korea) emerge from the depths of despair of the 1940s to its current industrialised status?

Korea’s feat in its economic development is so remarkable that it is often called a miracle—the Miracle on the Han River. No other developing country in post-World War II realised such ‘compressed development’ like Korea’s.


As unique as it may seem, Korea’s experience however is proof that it is all possible and can be emulated by other developing countries. To sum it up, it was the strong leadership of the government to lead the country forward, the determination and sacrifice of the people to build a better tomorrow. In other words, Koreans were able to turn adversity into opportunity.

How did this economic miracle unfold?

Korea was one the poorest countries in the world in 1948 when the government was first established after independence. The government quickly identified four cornerstones of Korea’s economic development in the early 1950s and 1960s [and these] revolved around four innovations; land reform, empowering the Korean people, revolution in education and government reforms.

Based on these cornerstones, the Saemaul Undong (the new village movement), a community cooperation movement was also adopted by the government to [simultaneously] develop the rural country.

What exactly is the Saemaul Undong movement and how can Uganda learn and benefit from it?

The Saemaul Undong or the new village movement is a cooperation movement aimed at developing rural areas through self-help of rural folk with government’s incentive tied to the performance of villages.

With diligence, self-reliance, cooperation as its motto, the movement successfully motivated the rural populace to transform their communities with the can-do spirit that can lead to a better life and become wealthier through hard work. Saemaul Undong rapidly spread to urban areas as well, and it became a pan national movement.

I believe the Saemaul Undong is very much relevant and applicable to Uganda because Uganda also has the tradition of ‘bulungibwansi’ and the cooperative movement. The Saemaul Undong Centre of Koerea is already conducting programmes in Uganda. There are now two pilot project villages practicing Saemaul Undong in Uganda, with one in Mpigi District.

What can Uganda leaders learn from your country?

Having clear national goals or vision is important. At the time of independence and reconstructing the country in the aftermath of the Korean War, we had virtually nothing to build on. Desperation to get out of poverty was the uniting factor. The leadership of our country took the right path early on in putting all their energy to modernizing our economy, and people complied with hard work.

It is said that your country’s development was internally generated and driven with clearly defined national interests; many countries like Uganda want this but fail due to pressures from outside. How did Korea manage to do this?

Korea was heavily dependent on foreign aid. At one point it accounted for over 70% of our national budget. Going through the times of independence in 1945 and the Korean War (1950 – 1953), Korea had to rely on outside assistance.

However, aid was having very negative impacts on the people, making them less motivated and wanting virtually everything for free. The government strongly felt that the nation had to take the initiative in development and the people complied. From then on, while we needed foreign aid, we developed a mindset that we ourselves have to find out the best means to move forward.

How were you able to rapidly industrialize by the 1990s?

Thanks to our policy to empower the people, we had an abundant labour force that was skilful and dedicated. Scarcity in natural resources made us rely on human resources. We produced goods for export in the light industry and re-invested the capital earned in expanding the manufacturing sector.

Our five year economic development plans(1962-1986) were crucial. We embarked on building heavy and chemical industries in 1973, which turned out to be a great success. Our trade volume made leaps and bounds then on.

Government leadership was crucial. The president of Korea himself chaired monthly trade promotion meetings that gathered all the relevant ministers, bankers, government agencies, and of course businesses. Government picked winners based on their performance and financial and various support were provided to enhance exports.

Also the government gave a badge of honour to those companies that performed well. Competition and emulation in businesses and industries, not to mention great emphasis placed on cultivating a skilled workforce and education in general, fueled by the government incentives brought about rapid economic growth of Korea.

There were times when donors opposed South Korea going for huge development projects like the Steel industry; but the nation went ahead and implemented the projects. There is similarity with our president, Yoweri Museveni, insisting that Uganda builds her oil refinery and other large infrastructural projects with or without donor money. But what else can Uganda’s government do better if they are to learn from the stance your country took 50 years ago?

Korea’s experience suggests that developing countries should take stock of their situation and try to figure out what is the best approach for their development based on methodological self-assessment, rather than just following advice or policy subscribed by the international community or institutions.

Once you have come up with well-thought plans, you should execute them energetically. Focus, responsibility, adaptability to shortcomings or unexpected outcomes and longterm goal oriented mind-set; consistency, are crucial. Outside pressures will come if you fail to meet your targeted goals. Korea was able to withstand a number of opposition from big donor countries and the international financial institutions because we were able to find alternative means and producing positive outcomes.

The case of promoting export driven growth instead of building import-substitution industries, constructing national highways, embarking on heavy and chemical industries are good examples.

South Korea and Uganda share historical similarities of colonisation, civil war, donor dependency,rural populations, and youth unemployment. How did Korea’s leaders turn these challenges around?

A strong sense of nation, national objectives and patriotism is the starting point and basis for development. Developing countries need to take a hard look at the reality and focus on the fundamentals. The human factor is the most important and determination and will of the government and people can make a difference.

It is also a matter of long term planning, looking at what can be attained tomorrow rather than what I can get right now. The ‘what is it in for me’ syndrome is very negative. Expediency, cutting corners, always finding an easy way out can be habitual practice, but with such habits, there is never going to be development or transformation.

While sharing South Korea’s success story at a recent lecture at Makerere University, you noted that for Uganda to emulate South Korea, she will have to adopt national ethics, revive cooperatives, and enhance accountability and strong government leadership. What else does Uganda require to take off in the next 20-30 years?

Vocational skill training of youth is also essential. Once the majority of the workforce is skilled enough to be popular with even foreign companies, Uganda will be in a good position to take off.

You also noted that Uganda’s youth should not be looked at as a problem but rather as an asset. How exactly should the country’s leadership go about this challenge?

A large segment of the male population in Korea also lacked motivation and were idle, resorting to drinking and gambling while women did all the laborious work. The government’s policy of empowering the people and movements like Saemaul Undong started to turn things around.

Our traditional Confucian social value system emphasizing education, success in career, family honour may have had positive effects as well. Uganda’s large youth population can be an asset. It can be turned into an abundant skilled labour force.

How do Ugandans need to change?

Uganda has a most favourable natural endowment and possesses virtually all the conditions required for economic development. What is needed is a mindset change, concrete action or implementation to take advantage of these conditions.

South Korea’s rapid rise shows that reward comes with hardships, dedication and investing for tomorrow. Get out of your daily comfort zones. That is why subsistence farming, a common way of life in Africa needs to be changed.

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