Lessons from South Korea

Published on 18th October 2010

I am headed to Jeju in South Korea to brainstorm on the puzzle of aid and development. Amazing country it is, with a current GDP growth rate of 6.1%, and GDP Per Capita that rose from $2,300 in the 80s to nearly $30,000 at the moment.  In 2009, South Korea officially ceased to be an aid recipient country (mainly from U.S.A) and joined the donor’s club. Endowed with limited natural resources, the Koreans adopted an outward economic strategy and invested heavily in technology related products such as armaments, ship building, construction and automobile industry among others.

The Korean miracle is hidden in its history and societal values. From the 7th century A.D, the Koreans have had a relatively stable and unified state that is ethnically homogeneous with one language. They were colonized briefly by the Japanese (1910 – 1945) and later by the U.S.A after the World War II (Americans won’t buy this line though!). Besides the narrative of aid; the Koreans (tae kwon do guys) invest heavily in discipline and education. Their government under different leadership has over the years focused on efficient management of public enterprises.

The difference between Korea and Kenya and by extension Africa is that ours is a patchwork of “ethnic nations” with varied societal ambitions. At independence, we inherited a colonial infrastructure that was designed to extract resources and lord it over the citizenry. The resultant effect has been clownish governments that have fed us with high GDP in political comedy for the last 50 years. Each time you flip the TV button for news or purchase a newspaper – political comedy enjoys hectares of space!

The good news for Kenya is in its new constitutional dispensation. Kenyans have Kiswahili as a unifying language; we have modified our institutional infrastructure from the “extractive mentality” to regional development focus. Through the referendum, over 42 ethnic communities technically surrendered their sovereignty to the larger Kenya; we therefore have a shared mission and vision going forward. Political leaders have absolutely no excuse to fail executing their mandate as stated in the constitution. By voting overwhelmingly for change in institutional infrastructure, Kenyans signaled fatigue with political comedy – we must get to work.

For Kenyan efforts to pay off – discipline is the first door to knock at. Public leaders must follow the law if they expect the citizenry to uphold constitutional infrastructure. We cannot attain Korean status if rule of law is thrown out of the window and replaced with rule by emotions. The judiciary, the legislature and the executive must offer leadership; individual citizens must too offer leadership by querying political comedy at each time it shows its head.

The new constitutional dispensation; renewed interest by U.S.A; reformed links with traditional European allies and the impetus created by both emerging and re-emerging economies is a clear indicator that this is Kenya’s moment.  Earlier on Kenya was like a dhow with punctured sails due to corruption and political comedy (governance deficit). Global trade winds have started blowing in this direction through South – South cooperation and through old capital held up in the West keen to hit our sails. Kenya can learn from South Korea on how it took advantage of external interests to provide for the interests of their citizenry.

I am keen to learn the type of incentives Koreans offered their leaders in order to create the legendary “Asian Tigers.” What incentive will be good for Kenya’s and by extension Africa’s political leadership in order to facilitate African development miracle?

By James Shikwati.

The author james@irenkenya.org is Director of Inter Region Economic Network.


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