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South Korea: a true development success story

It was my great pleasure to be invited to South Korea by the World Bank and the Korea Development Institute (KDI) for a two-day workshop. Part of a partnership between eight African governments and the Republic of Korea, the event allowed attendees to share ideas for Korea-Africa cooperation, and to learn from Korea’s astonishing development experience.

Although it’s been widely discussed, Korea made an incredible transformation from aid-recipient to donor country in a mere 50 years. It’s worth emphasising that this development success story has been underpinned by strong investments in science, technology and innovation, and extensive state intervention. In the 1980s, the Korean state established a number of specialised research centres, and laid the groundwork for the Daedeok Science Town, intended as a dedicated industrial science park. Daedeok is now home to 242 research organisations with 24,000 employees, and is divided into four sectors: IT, biotech, nuclear technology, and nanotech. It is acknowledged as a hub for cutting-edge science and tech in Korea, and is cited as a model for scientific towns around the world. What’s more, President Park Geun-hye has made the ‘creative economy’ a central part of her agenda, and is making great efforts to create an ecosystem that will allow start-ups to flourish. Policies include tax incentives to encourage equity rather than debt investment in new tech businesses, giving South Korean entrepreneurs the financial resources that they need to create innovative products. In this way, these forward thinking policies are helping to foster technological innovation in the country, and boosting South Korea’s growing status as a knowledge economy. Small wonder why Seoul is increasingly recognised as Silicon Valley’s closest rival.

I was also astounded by South Korea’s huge, well-built cities, which are key drivers for economic growth, and offer a great model to urban planners around the world. A particularly good example is Songdo, a new city that harnesses the latest technologies for sustainable living. For example, the city is connected by an underground system of pipes that suck garbage directly from people’s apartments into the “Third Zone Automated Waste Collection Planet”, where it is automatically processed. In addition, a whopping 40 percent of the city will be park space, which is one of the highest percentages in the world. Furthermore, South Korea’s saemaul or new village movement, which modernised the countryside, is held up as a development model for other developing countries. This is because it mobilised rural communities to build towns, significantly reducing rural poverty in the process.

Finally, what really impresses me is Korea’s open and proactive approach to forging partnerships with the Global South, especially Africa. In 2006, former President, Roo Moo-hyun, announced the ‘Korea Initiative on Africa’s Development’, an action plan that aimed to support the continent’s socioeconomic transformation through collaboration in infrastructure, human resources development, information and communication technology as well as knowledge sharing. As part of this programme, the World Bank and the KDI are partnering to support eight African countries in policy development, capacity building and financing skills development in priority economic sectors. As discussed earlier, the conference I attended in Korea provided an opportunity for representatives from Senegal, Rwanda and Ethiopia to learn from Korea’s highly successful science and technology policy first hand, and explore how to build skills in the applied sciences and technology. This is a particularly worthy initiative as it allows African countries to learn best practices from Korea’s experience and adjust them to their own national contexts. At the same time, it promotes the development of knowledge hubs, and helps build rich connections between policymakers, practitioners and other stakeholders.

In short, I would encourage developing countries besides Africa to look to Korea for inspiration in fostering cutting-edge science and technological innovation, and improving the livelihoods of rural communities. I also applaud Korea for its commendable efforts to foster development cooperation between countries of the global South.

The entire delegation poses for a photo

The entire delegation poses for a photo

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Pohang University of Science and Technology, one of Korea’s leading science and technology institutions

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