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UNDP and Korea: A Partnership Going More Than 50 Years Back- and Also Looking Ahead

사진It is no secret that the Republic of Korea underwent a remarkable transition from one of the poorest aid-recipient countries devastated by war to becoming one of the most developed nations of the world and a donor country. Korea’s membership of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) in 2010 officially marked this transition.

During the transition, Korea received substantial support from the international community, something we are often reminded when Korean officials speak of “giving back” in reference to Korea’s official development assistance including its contributions to international organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Many UN organizations played important roles in Korea’s development process. In some cases more visibly – like the food aid from the World Food Programme, schoolbooks from UNESCO, or UNICEF’s support for children. Other agencies, like UNDP, played less visible but equally important roles in supporting Korea’s development efforts through support for building the underlying skills and capacities that made the rapid development possible.

Software and skills development

Software and skills development is maybe the best way to summarize UNDP’s work in Korea, which took off in 1963, three years before the organization as we know it today, was established in 1966. With UNDP’s 50th Anniversary around the corner and with the increased interest we, at the UNDP Seoul Policy Centre, are experiencing from developing countries in learning about experiences in Korea, it is maybe time to take a look at how the earlier UNDP-Korea partnership played out.

Over a period of 46 years, UNDP delivered more than 270 programmes with a total budget of $ 107 million through the pre-Country Programme (1963-71) and seven Country Programmes (1972-2009). The programmes were developed in close collaboration with the Korean Government and left finger and foot prints in areas such as soil quality, land use, fisheries, forest management, regional planning, economic planning and SMEs, shipbuilding, research and technology, vocational and skills training, environmental monitoring, policies for the disabled, gender issues and international cooperation. One of the notable aspects of UNDP’s work in Korea was the support for the establishment of research and technology institutes. Here UNDP’s investments in human capital at the early stage of development contributed to laying a foundation for the country’s development as these institutes played critical roles in boosting Korea’s economic growth, development, policy making and key industries.

Salient examples of this are the Deep Sea Fishing Training Centre (1964), the Central Vocational Training Institute (1972), Korea Scientific Technological Information Centre (1972), Korea Electro Technology & Telecom Research Institute (1975), and the Korea Institute of Technology (1977). The then Ministry of Science and Technology cooperated closely with UNDP. A notable example was a programme designed to assess the skills of engineers and technicians. Based on this, UNDP developed technology classification guidelines for the Korean Government to establish the Technical Qualification Testing Agency under the Ministry.

Many of UNDP’s other programmes were focused on strengthening Korea’s technological capability including through training, policy advice, and economic and industrial planning. Promotion of Technology (1972), Shipbuilding Industry Technical Services (1972), Assistance in Development Planning (1975), Technical Assistance Needs Assessment (1986), and Study on Economic and Industrial Planning (1987) were some examples of the cooperation.

In 2000s, partnering with the Science and Technology Policy Institute, UNDP shared Korea’s development experiences with Vietnam and Tunisia by providing technical assistance for planning and policy making in the area of science and technology.
Along with UNDP’s support for human capital and technology development, UNDP, from early on promoted capacity building in environmental monitoring, a necessary prerequisite for actually setting environmental standards.
Environmental Improvement Fellowships were launched in 1974 along with a programme on Air Pollution Monitoring followed in 1982 by the Programme on Development and Training of Manpower for Environmental Pollution Control. In 1993, more support for environmental monitoring followed with support for the Environmental Toxicological Risk Assessment System and the Korea Environmental Information Network System. This network later formed the cornerstone for building the environmental network in East Asia, again through support from UNDP.

Any lesson learned from Korea’s development?

There are important lessons to learn from how Korea used ODA effectively and diversified the financing sources for the country’s development. The Korean government took leadership in using foreign aid combined with non-ODA sources, to support clear national priorities, cross-sectorial coordination, systematic planning, and monitoring of the implementation. Another lesson is the investments in social and human capital development that Korea made early and at a low level of GDP. UNDP’s 2014 Human Development Report highlights these efforts along with those of the Nordic countries and Costa Rica. A third lesson is maybe that Korea, like everyone else, developed first and cleaned up later. The Ministry for the Environment was established in 1994, more than 20 years after the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972.

The UNDP Seoul Policy Centre, its role and work

In many ways, UNDP’s presence and work in Korea mirrors Korea’s development, e.g. the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society in need of specialized skills, planning, research and technology, and also increasingly facing environmental and social challenges, and then again the transition from a recipient to a donor.

From the early 1990s and onwards, Korea gradually assumed a financial role in the partnership and from 2005 to 2009, the UNDP Country Programme was entirely financed by the Korean Government.

From 1997 the partnership opened to international cooperation with UNDP and Korea working together in third countries while Korea built its capacity to provide development cooperation, preparing for membership of OECD/DAC. In 2009, UNDP closed its Country Office in Korea.

The present phase of the UNDP-Korea partnership was marked by the opening in 2011 of the UNDP Seoul Policy Centre for Global Development Partnerships. Our mandate is to represent UNDP in Korea, to work with Korea on international issues, and to share development experiences with other countries. We promote policy analysis, policy dialogue, and development of products and services for UNDP’s work globally.

We do this through the so-called Development Solutions Partnerships (DSPs) which is a new approach for the Policy Centre as a knowledge broker and facilitator to connect Korea with the wider UNDP network and enhance the Korea-UNDP partnership on strategic development issues. One area being explored is access to green energy, another one is anti-corruption.
The Policy Centre is but one part of a much bigger partnership between UNDP and Korea playing out in many parts of the world, including under the so-called Millennium Development Goal Trust Fund.

Today, UNDP is present in more than 140 countries and works in over 170 countries and territories. UNDP’s vision is to help countries achieve the simultaneous eradication of poverty and significant reduction of inequality and exclusion. Our work plays out at the interface of sustainable development pathways, effective and democratic governance, and resilience.

Like Korea, we are no longer who we were in the 1960s. Today’s global landscape is very different. The number of actors has grown exponentially, and we are in the era of a hyper globalized economy, leaving some developing countries to only dream of the policy space that Korea created for itself. But that is another story.
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