Bernardo M. Villegas
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Korean Way to Help Farmers

           Thanks to a recent publication of the Asian Development Bank, Philippine society can have a most effective agenda for addressing rural poverty in the next ten years.  Entitled "The Saemaul Undong Movement in the Republic of Korea (Sharing Knowledge on Community-Driven Development),"  the report was authored by  Dr. Djun Kil Kim, who has been a Visiting Professor in Korean Studies  at  the University of Asia and the Pacific for the last three years.  I have had many occasions to discuss with him the topic of rural development even before the report was published.

          Sad to say, millions of Filipino farmers today are still wallowing in poverty in the same way that Korean farmers were in the 1970s, forty years ago.  It is well known that some 75 percent of the close to 20 million Filipinos surviving on less than $1.5 per person per day are in the rural areas.  Philippine poverty is mainly rural poverty.  This tragic situation can be attributed to a total neglect of rural infrastructures, both hardware and software, as successive Philippine governments were fixated on inward-looking, import-substitution, protectionist and capital-intensive industrialization.  Rural and agricultural development received mostly lip service.

          Under Park Chung Hee, rural development was never sacrificed on the altar of industrialization.  Under his inspiration and supervision, the Saemaul Undong (SU), the New Village Movement as it is often referred to, was a community-driven development (CDD) program pursued during the 1970s.  Ultimately, this was the key program in the country's long-term economic development implemented during the later half of the 20th century.  It was the very foundation of the poverty eradication program that has catapulted South Korea to a First World country today, one of the few developing countries in the last century that escaped from the middle-income trap in which the Philippines--together with numerous middle-income countries today--are still ensnared.

          The major aim of the SU movement was to overcome what at the time appeared to be endemic rural poverty in the Republic of Korea.  In the early 1970s, 33,267 mauls (traditional villages) participated in the SU movement.  In each maul, male and female Saemaul leaders were democratically elected at a village general meeting. The outward achievements of the movement, with both the national and local governments working in tandem with nongovernmental organizations, focused on the rehabilitation of village infrastructure, improvement in the overall rural living environment, and a significant increase in household income.  Its implementation took place in three successive stages that included basic infrastructure (Stage I); development (Stage II); and dissemination (Stage III), the last targeted at widening  the acceptance by the populace of the principles  that were key to the success of the movement in both the medium and long term.

          Through the provision of farm to market roads, irrigation systems, post-harvest facilities, and high-yielding hybrid rice varieties, by the end of Stage I, rural household incomes had reached parity with those of urban industrial households.  During Stage II, village life was improved through modernization of rural dwellings with changes such as replacement of thatched roofs with tin, and slate roof coverings; electrification; and introduction of telecommunications on a mass basis in the rural villages.  By the end of the 1970s, despite very limited agricultural lands, South Korea had overcome its chronic shortfall in the domestic supply of food.

          The most important game changer introduced by the Saemaul movement, however, was in the behavioral transformation among the Korean farmers who were very different from our present image of the hard-working, highly driven and strongly motivated Koreans of today.  The Korean farmers were then often criticized as laid back and superstitious.  The greatest accomplishment of the SU movement was the sweeping change in the mentality of the people.  The SU movement built a national confidence infused with a "can-do" spirit that transformed a former national mentality of chronic defeatism into new hope, a long-term shared vision of a better life for all, and an infectious enthusiasm sustained by volunteerism at the community level.  What the SU movement built was social capital through community networking that took place in Saemaul halls, in village forums, and at village general meetings (VGMs). During the period 1972-1980, more than 37,000 community halls were built, this total number translating into nearly one community hall per village.  So great was the SU movement's impact on community empowerment that the decision-making power of the nongovernment VGMs ultimately exceeded that of the semi-governmental village development committees, which in part comprised local government administrative officials. Those interested in replicating the SU model in their respective localities may download the publication from the website adbpub@adb.   The Korea Embassy in Manila may be asked to arrange actual tours and even total immersion in the Saemaul villages still existing in South Korea.  In fact, there is a Christian community that has put up the equivalent of a Saemaul village in the province of Zambales. For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.