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[Lee Jae-min] A new paradigm for effective aid

Ronald Reagan once quipped that the most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Indeed, well-intended but disorganized, bureaucratic help that does not fully take into account the real needs of a recipient may actually do more harm than good. 
Providing what the recipient badly needs is the key to helping someone in its truest sense. “Knowledge donations” that we are seeing more often in Korea these days, where professionals and experts share their knowledge and experience with children from needy families, is one such way to provide what the recipients actually want and what can actually change them. An international version of this effort has been garnering increasing attention.

The Knowledge Sharing Program is a project initiated by the Korean government in 2004, in response to the increasing demand from developing countries for Korea’s unique experience of economic development in a short timeframe. Developing countries standing at the doorstep of economic development covet the trial and error of Korea in the course of planning and implementing its economic development projects. What they want is some tangible advice that can be adapted to their destitute situations instead of noble preaching on economic development theories. The experience from well-to-do, developed countries, although certainly helpful, may have sounded too remote to them. Since 2004, 25 countries have participated in the KSP projects and the reactions from the recipient countries have been largely positive. Korea’s provision of financial support in official development assistance, or ODA, has also been increasing over the years, expected to reach $3 billion by 2015, but the most popular item in Korea’s ODA list has always been “experience sharing.”

From the perspective of the recipient countries, another area in which they are anxious to see some positive movement is the engagement of private entities in the global ODA architecture. The sets of skills and know-how from the governmental sector of donor countries are no match for those available from the private entities. At the same time, we now live in a world where sometimes multinational corporations exert more influence in the international community than states do. It is against this backdrop that the United Nations has made efforts, since 2000, to engage private entities under the initiative called the “U.N. Global Compact.” In the setting of the ODA, the developing countries look forward to seeing the global private sector scale up its engagement by forming, for instance, public-private partnerships. The remaining question is what incentives should be given to the private entities for their participation.

These are one of the main topics on the agenda of the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, currently taking place at BEXCO in Busan between Nov. 29 and Dec. 1, with the attendance of 2,000 high-level representatives from 160 countries. The HLF-4, as is widely called, succeeds the three previous meetings in Rome (2003), Paris (2005) and Accra, Ghana (2008). In 2010, the global ODA reached a record-setting $129 billion, but it is still questionable whether the ODA is indeed meeting the needs of the developing countries in an effective manner. This is the issue presented to the participants of the HLF-4 in Busan.

Genuine and probably the best ODA may come from ensuring a meaningful opportunity for developing countries to climb up the ladder of economic development. “Kicking away the ladder” by those who are already at the roof (to borrow the title of the book by professor Ha-Joon Chang) would deprive those on the ground of any chance of reaching the top or anywhere near it. Without addressing this problem, merely handing out some charity items to those on the ground would have limited impact only. In the face of continuing economic slowdown, the relatively well-to-do countries would feel persistent temptation to kick away the ladder in the form of protectionism and other selfish measures.

At this juncture, the HLF-4 is a timely global gathering to tap into collective wisdom to adopt a new global paradigm for aid effectiveness. Hopefully, the new Busan paradigm will ensure to push the developing countries up the ladder while those at the top hold the upper end of the ladder for the new climbers. 

By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at the School of Law, Hanyang University, in Seoul. Formerly he practiced law as an associate attorney with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. ― Ed.