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International aid makes world safer: NGO chief

Good Neighbors help North Korea, other countries suffering from war, poverty, disasters

International aid not only helps people in need, but also keeps the world safer from threats stemming from poverty and inequality, according to Lee Il-hwa, chairman of Good Neighbors, Korea’s leading nongovernmental organization. 

“We should share some of our economic prosperity with other countries not only for a humanitarian reason but also to prevent the chaos that would be started by poverty, diseases and war,” he said.

Born to a devout Christian family, Lee, 65, always thought he would live for others and change the world through sacrifice.

His mother’s grandfather founded a church in Buyeo, South Chungcheong Province, almost 120 years ago.

“In the 1950s churches were where foreign relief goods first arrived. I was pleased to give out the goods to my friends,” he said.
Lee Il-hwa, chairman of Good Neighbors. (Kim Myung-sup/The Korea Herald)
Lee Il-hwa, chairman of Good Neighbors. (Kim Myung-sup/The Korea Herald)

Lee, who lost two fingers on his right hand while fighting as a marine in 1969 in Vietnam, has not lost his faith since he began leading the organization.

Lee worked at World Vision Korea, an international relief group, for 18 years before founding Good Neighbors with six others in 1991.

Good Neighbors reaches out to help countries struck by famine, natural disasters and war.

The organization’s aid efforts have included helping poverty-stricken towns in Bangladesh in 1992, which was its first aid mission to a foreign nation, sending dairy cows to North Korea in the late 1990s and building a fertilizer factory there in 2006, and sending relief goods to people affected by a typhoon in the Philippines and by floods in India, both this year.

The organization also works to protect children’s rights in and out of Korea.

It runs more than 10 groups homes and a dozen welfare facilities to care for abused and abandoned children.

The most unforgettable memory for Lee was when he first saw the refugees from the Rwandan civil war in 1994.

“I first thought ‘What could we do other than watch the news about the war unfolding on the opposite side of the world?’” said Lee.

When the war continued to be heard from news reports over and over again, one of the cofounders of the organization suggested going to the region to give help.

Lee organized a team of eight people including a doctor, a nurse and an administrator and flew over to the neighboring city of Goma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where many of the Rwandan refugees were staying.

“What we saw was a hell, a living hell. A 20-kilometer street was packed with tents in the city with a population of just 100,000. One million people took refuge there,” Lee said.

Around 5,000 people died per day. Lorries carried the piles of corpses laid on the roads and dumped them in pits made by napalm bombs.

“Survivors of the civil war had to fight to survive again with lack of food and spreading diseases. They had to lie down on the ground all day to save energy. Diseases were spreading since people drank water from a river where corpses were dumped,” he said.

People exchanged shoes, blankets whatever they had with anything they needed at markets in the tent towns.

He saw similar scenes in North Korea when he first visited in 1997.

“On my first visit to North Korea in 1997 I saw similar scenes at a market. The situation was not much better than the one I saw in Rwanda,” Lee said.

He has made 120 visits to the reclusive nation to give aid, such as bread and dairy cows, and manage and monitor the business projects the organization runs in the nation.

However, the organization faced financial difficulties since the business projects in North Korea were stopped due to the freeze in relations since 2008.

He was able to stay above water with help from donors and private firms who were willing to give some help, but he regrets that relations between the two nations have deteriorated.

“In order to thaw the strained relation between the South and the North, he says, the two should trust each other first,” Lee said.

The organization already has a plan to help North Korean people after a possible unification of the Korean Peninsula by setting up social cooperatives, as it has done and will do in other nations.

The organization in 2010 built a factory in Mongolia to produce an energy efficient heater, the G-saver. The business provides job opportunities in Mongolia, and reduces the amount of coal used for heating. Air pollutants from burning coal are a major cause of respiratory disease there.

Good Neighbors will conduct such social business projects as it sees them as a promising way to help others and save lives, Lee said.

He also said the organization will put more focus on promoting children’s rights by setting up around six welfare facilities in Korea to help child victims of school violence, and domestic abuse.

By Kim Young-won (