Thursday, 16 February 2012

Saemul Undong - Korea's Receipe for Rural Development

 ‘Unless the residents have a desire of self-help for the change of their life, even if they wait for 5000 years, there will be no change. If the village residents try to change their life now, even with little support of government, they will be able to change their life in 2-3 years’. Park Chung-Hee

Korea was ruined by Japanese colonization and inter-Korean war. In 1950s, the plight of Koreans was miserable  and the nation was extremely poor, with very little food to survive. Harsh winters added to their miseries and ‘food n shelter’ was first priority for all Koreans. Per capita income was $79 in 1960, while that of Pakistan was $91 during the same Year.  Koreans studied Pakistani 5-year plan system and adopted it in 1962. They started seeing the results in shape of industrial growth and development of cities, but the rural areas were still lagging far behind.

Koreans soon realized that sustainable growth cannot be achieved without rural development. The standard of life in the villages was very low, with only 20% of the villages having electricity and only 20 % houses having roof.  Roads, infrastructure, tools and equipment for farming were missing altogether.  The only positive thing was that literacy rate was good and mandatory military service for all men above 18 produced a disciplined workforce.

In 1970, Saemul Undong (New Village Movement) was launched, aiming at improving the life of villagers. The idea was to pave the gap between rural and urban life, improving the living standard in rural areas and increasing the opportunities for the villagers to earn more. 

 The idea was to stop migration to cities. ‘A better village to live in’ was the goal of the movement.  The underlying spirit was to work with diligence, as the ‘early bird catches the worm’, there is no freebie in the world, so make an effort to achieve what you want.  The spirit of cooperation was also very important, as one cannot wash their face with one finger.

Government started with SMU in a unique way. They asked the villagers to participate in the program on self-help basis.  Three principles of ‘diligence, self help and cooperation’ were decided to be the basis of the movement. When the movement started, government was not in a very good financial situation, so they asked for the cooperation of residents of villages.  It provided 335 packs of cement to each of 33,267 villages in the country. Government suggested ten projects such as making roads, reforming roofs of homes, constructing public wells, making small water reservoirs and small bridges etc .Villagers had to decide one of the projects and then implement it.  They had to arrange the material such as sand and pebbles themselves, and had to work together to execute the project.  They had to select Seamaul leaders for themselves, who were volunteers, and would play the role of coordinators and arbitrators.

After one year of evaluation, the success ratio was about 50% .The performance of 16,600 villages was good, and they had completed their first task.  It was a turning point, the government decided to generate competition. They gave 500 sacks of cement and one ton steel to only these 16,600 villages, which were able to complete their first task, while remaining villages were told to do something with self-help and then government will decide accordingly.

This produced amazing results; a lot of villages improved very quickly, and more and more were joining the movement actively.  Based on this, government classified the villages into three categories according to their progress, and supported the outstanding villages more, which generated high competition.
The government established central council for the movement, to analyze and evaluate the performance. A training center was instituted to train the leaders elected by villagers. This helped in development of leadership at grass root level.  Women and youth were given equal participation, each village selecting a a leader, woman leader and young leader for the project. These voluntary leaders helped the government to plan, cooridnate and carry out the projects in a proper manner.

New projects were considered on the basis of their benefits to the entire community. The government did not interfere directly into the selection of projects. It was just overseeing the technical aspects and providing help with which the villagers couldn’t do themselves.

Soon they realized that without improving the income of villagers, their life could not be improved, so the next step was to improve the income level of villagers and eliminate poverty. Projects were focused to improve roads to the farms so that tractors and other machinery could be used in farming. Farmers were provided with basic tools and were trained for the better productivity. Irrigation system was improved and small water reservoirs were built to preserve water. Also green houses were developed to do farming in winters.  Investments were done in live-stocks and villagers were encouraged to grow live-stock for better income.
Agricultural complexes were made for profitable products such as mushrooms and tobacco, which helped to increase over all income.  Greenhouses allowed farmers to harvest during harsh winter season. Fishing villages changed their production methods from fishing to breeding fish. All of this improved the income level of villagers. As a result, agriculture household income was more than that of city workers. After only four years, the rural community household income was $674, more than that of urban household income of $644. This economic growth led to subjugate poverty and brought revolution in the mindset of people.

Residents were given the sense of ownership and they were the direct beneficiaries.  During initial stage, the focus was on improvement of thatched houses, heating system inside homes and agriculture roads. Then the focus shifted to more infra-structure reforms.  Electricity and water supply, agriculture machinery, irrigation system, all were aimed to improve the life of villagers with their involvement. The concepts of hard-work and self-help were embedded in this whole movement.

Due to proper evaluation system, government soon realized the mistakes of the movement.  Villagers lacked technical skills to build bridges and roads.  So government provided technical support and training required for the projects.

Grass root level leadership evolved as a reason of this movement, which lead to the development of Korea on many fronts. Corruption wasn’t a problem in this project, as population was involved in it, and the residents carried out the projects themselves. They also contributed financially to the extent they were able to do. The collective participation brought in transparency and better utilization of resources. The change went from rural to urban areas of Korea, whereas it is usually the other way around.

Korea today has become one of the top growing economies in the world, with national income of $ 20,014 per capita, (remember in 1960, Korea was at $79, and Pakistan was $91).  This is despite the fact that Korea has no natural resources, and it relies only on its human resource.  It is now one of the most advanced countries in internet usage, banking system and industrialized nation.

About ten Pakistani students (Masters/PhD researchers) attended this workshop. All of us had a consensus that this model cannot be copied directly considering our culture and traditions.  Our villages are usually big, and we lack consensus on leadership and projects. We are heavily divided and our women don’t work usually as labour workforce in building the bridges and widening the roads. So we need to make certain changes in this model and in our society too, for our growth and development.

In Pakistan, ‘actions must speak louder than words’, so the projects must be aimed at ‘doing more-talking less’ spirit.  The basic element in these projects should be consistency and continuity, learning from past experiences and improving with time. We can learn from these experiences as we are a resource rich country. We don’t have the problem of poverty similar to that of Koreans, our infra structure is not very up to the mark, but we do have something to build upon, so we don’t have to start from zero.

All we need is to participate on community basis, helping ourselves, and taking bold initiatives. When this movement started in Korea, a lot of people criticized it, but government continued persuading villagers to take part in the development process, and it yielded results. The evaluation of projects was step-wise and better performing villages were rewarded on the basis of merit. This helped a great deal in raising awareness and competition level.

Saemaul Movement members hold a briefing session with locals in Tanzania, to explain the concept and meaning of the Saemaul Undong

Korea has started to implement this project in African countries. While other countries prefer to perform charity work, Koreans are trying to engage villagers by asking them to contribute equally.  For instance, the project of establishing a goat bank is very good idea. Villagers are given goats, to raise, and when they breed more goats, the original ones are returned, thus establishing a live-stock bank.

Most important notion to learn is the reforms of the mind-set, to ‘we can do it’. Starting by simple, small projects, doing something tangible, will lead to something better and bigger eventually. We think of big projects first, but sometimes we need to think ‘small’ and ‘in the box’.  Making  roofs for homes, kitchens in houses, toilets, small water reservoirs, improving sanitary conditions,  building small bridges, improving water supply and sewerage systems- eventually the change will be getting bigger and visible which will help in improving the living standards.

Another point to focus is to increase the income of villagers, to stop urbanization. We believe in giving alms and charity,  but instead we should focus more on trying to make poor people earn more money. Increasing their income will change their mentality. As I mentioned earlier, Saemaul Undong wasn’t focusing on education and public health in the start, because people were mostly concerned about food and shelter, but as the movement went on to bring the change, people started thinking about education, health, learning opportunities and community life. Koreans did that successfully and now their rural life has almost all the facilities of their urban life so more and more people are preferring rural life.

In short, collaborative efforts will bring change, and rural development is the key to sustainable development even in the industrialized nations. Following are the words of President Park Chung Hee,
‘Unless the residents have a desire of self-help for the change of their life, even if they wait for 5000 years, there will be no change. If the village residents try to change their life now, even with little support of government, they will be able to change their life in 2-3 years’.
These simple words underline the spirit of the movement. No one will bring change for you, if you don’t want it yourself. And small consistent changes, will lead to a big and visible transformation. More importantly, ‘ do more, talk less’.

Courtesy Muhammad Saad Khan 


  1. Based on the purchasing power(PPP), Korea($31,753) was already ahead of Italia($30,165), Spain($30,622)
    in 2011 according to IMF. Korea($31,753) was higher than EU average($31,548) in 2011.

    PPP ranking 2011 according to IMF
    22.UK $35,974
    23.France $35,048
    24.Japan $34,362
    25.Korea $31,548
    28.Spain $30,622
    29.Italia $30,165
    30.Slovenia $29,179
    36.Czech $25,933
    42.Portugal $23,204
    46.Poland $20,136
    47.Hungary $19,647
    48.Croatia $18,338
    52.Russia $16,687
    67.Bulgaria $13,562
    72.Romania $12,358

    Korea has the biggest under-ground economy among the developed countries. It amounts to 30% of Korean GDP. So when you take it into account, Korean GDP(PPP) is more than $40,000.

  2. When you look at the export volume of Korea, you can have the clear understanding of Korean success and economic power.

    2011 exports ranking according to the US government statistics.
    4.Japan $800.8 billion
    5.France $578.4
    6.Netherlands $576.9
    7.Korea $558.8
    8.Italia $508.9
    9.Russia $498.6
    10.UK $495.4

    About 55% of Netherlands exports are the other countries' products.
    Netherlands is just trading them in the middle. So actually Korea is the world ranking 6 in the export volume. Korea is expected to catch up with France within 3 years in the export volume.

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  4. Thanks for all the data. Korean economy is also strong because it is rather dynamic. If you compare it to Japan when SMEs almost don't exist and all you have there are big businesses or chained franchise enterprises you will see that what adds up to Korean success is this amazing 45% SME sector, as of 2010 45% of jobs were in SMEs. Also what makes it so successful is that they do what the rest of the world had forgotten: they do real work, create real product,sell it for real cash, invest it into real new enterprises. Their stock exchange virtual world of non-existent cash is very small, that is why they have easily dealt with financial crisis in 1997. Also because they did not entirely listen to IMF. IMF said to free the market, they freed the market but also subsidised some vital sectors and enterprises. Anyway with one we agree, Korea will rise and it's time is coming soon.


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