A new model for aid work

We hear a lot about how difficult it is to achieve consensus at G20 summits, much less the near-impossibility of witnessing action as a result.

We hear a lot about how difficult it is to achieve consensus at G20 summits, much less the near-impossibility of witnessing action as a result.

But if the world’s top economies can’t all agree on the way their various currencies should be valued, or whether trade barriers increase anyone’s prosperity in the long run, they have agreed on a new approach to assisting developing economies.

Since they’d been meeting in Seoul, let’s call this the Korean model for economic development. In the baldest of terms, they’re going to privatize it.

The two Koreas are the world’s most blatant examples of how to achieve (or not achieve) prosperity in a national economy. From the same essential starting point, South Korea has launched itself out of poverty and destruction into becoming a donor of international aid. North Korea, meanwhile, has not been able to feed itself for generations. There’s a book (or more) in drawing comparisons.

The (South) Korean model started with a rock-solid buy-in on the importance of education, and technological and social progress.

There are a good number of Red Deer residents who have in the past or currently live in South Korea, who can lecture you on the absolute rigour and attentiveness of the South Korean student. For a new visiting teacher, used to Western classroom standards, it can be unnerving.

These kids are focused. For some, their educational prospects were formed in the womb, when mothers were sent abroad to establish U.S. residency, so that their foreign-born children could have dual citizenship — to aid the child’s registration at Harvard. Wealthy Korean parents worry about exam grades in pre-nursery.

We’re not here to endorse that system; we’re not even sure that it really works. But we can agree that South Korea has become an economic success in large measure because families had the chance to invest in themselves to acquire the skills needed for success.

The Korean model also calls for investments in infrastructure, via international development banks, custom-built trade plans and encouraging private investment, with an emphasis on small and medium-sized business (which includes empowering women in business in countries where this is currently not possible).

None of these ideas is new but they have never been adopted into the long-range plans of a group like the G20 before.

Viewed from here, it looks like a global endorsement of the program and ethic of non-profit agencies like Lacombe’s A Better World.

Start small, start local. Every aid project must eventually run on its own, without outside aid. Schools matter as much as water and irrigation systems. People need to own their future prospects and believe a better world is possible for their children.

Some large NGOs, commenting on the Korean consensus on aid, have wondered aloud where the money will come from. Not one dime was raised from the group to enable this plan, said John Kirton, co-director of the G20 research group at the University of Toronto. Agreements and announcements don’t create opportunities in developing countries.

That’s a point well made. But we’re spending billions in top-down aid, sometimes with questionable results.

If the Korean model gains wide acceptance (G20 approval ought to be a pretty good start) international aid ought to become a more personal process. The success of one small business in a needy community breeds other possibilities. If a decent road exists to link buyers and sellers, trade goods will move. Governments in poor countries will need to move past colonial-style tax regimes.

The world’s NGOs and development banks can work out the numbers. The agreement in Seoul marks a decision to change style and emphasis.

Not bad for a G20 summit.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.

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