Friday, April 20, 2018
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MAPping the Future

Rural development: Lessons from South Korea

I was elated to know that P-Noy is going to South Korea for a visit.

In an article I wrote and published on July 2 last year in this same newspaper entitled “Attacking Rural Poverty,” I suggested that P-Noy should visit South Korea to learn from them on how they did it. Thus for this visit, I strongly suggest to Malacañang staff coordinating this visit to make time for P-Noy to learn more about the Saemaul Undong Movement.

In the 1960s, South Korea was one of the basket cases in Asia (the Philippines then was considered one of the most advanced, second only to Japan). Today, South Korea is one of the highly developed economies in the world while the Philippines is still trying to get its rightful place as an emerging economy out of the list of less-developed economies.


What did South Korea do to get to where it is today? Obviously, a lot of factors spelled the difference for them but let me single out one of the reasons for its success. While South Korea gave a lot of focus on developing its industrial sector that led to its export-led growth, it also put equal passion to develop its rural and agricultural sector at the same time.

Thus, with the development of its agricultural and industrial sectors, these paved the way for its solid foundation for a robust and sustained economic growth for decades starting from the 1970s. Today, South Koreans, both in the urban and rural areas, enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Asia.

What’s their reason for success especially in developing the rural areas? The Saemaul Undong Movement.  It literally means “New Community” Movement. The movement started on April 22, 1970, as a rural development campaign. Later on, it spread like wildfire throughout South Korea. It was set in motion by President Park Chung-hee. “I am convinced that if we care for our communities with our own hands in a spirit of self-reliance and independence, doing our work by our own sweat, then soon our living standards will improve and we can remodel our communities into neat, attractive places to live.”

I think that if P-Noy adapts this model now, he is in the best position to do so at the right time. When the Movement was launched, South Korea started its take-off economically and there was no looking back from then on. The Philippines today is also said to be on its take-off but it needs a solid grounding and support by developing the rural areas. I’m afraid that if P-Noy does not give focus on developing these sectors, this initial take-off might just end up as crash landing again, like what happened in previous administrations.

Much of the economic growth that we are seeing these days are very much city-based and rural areas have been left out. Poverty is still very much a rural reality. Statistics show us that while poverty in urban areas is just about 10 percent of its population, in the rural areas, this can go as high as 50 percent or more.

South Korea experienced the same problem in the 1970s. Thus, the Saemaul Undong was conceived to solve this problem. It sought to do away once and for all with the poverty of the past, to close the gap between the city and the rural areas, industry and agriculture. Professor Kim Yu-hyok of Dankuk University writes: “The Saemaul Movement is a drive for self-support based upon the principles of diligence, self-reliance and cooperation. It reaches into every area of life to foster progress that derives spontaneously from the strength of self-reliant spirit. It stands in the vanguard of growth in Korea and is founded ultimately upon the expressions of self-awareness as, ‘We can do it.’”

It would be of interest and instructive to understand how the Movement took shape at the start. We can point three distinct stages. In the first stage when the foundation was being laid, 1971 to 1973, emphasis was placed on improving village conditions, road improvement, irrigation and water supply, and overall upkeep of surroundings. This was made possible by providing 355 bags of cement to each of the 33,267 villages in 1971. The villagers were given free hand on what to do with the cement they received. They built roads, repaired stream embankments, and other agriculture infrastructure. Voluntary labor, by the way, was their “equity” in these projects.

The second phase, 1974 to 1976, saw the growth of self-reliance. Education and training are the impetus behind the Saemaul projects. The training instills the spirit of the movement into the minds of the villagers and instructs them in ways to raise their income and upgrade skills and craftsmanship. Farming schools, in particular, offer courses on spiritual enlightenment, modern farming technologies, and how to operate and maintain farm equipment. During this time too, the Movement went beyond the rural areas to cities and factories.


The third stage, from 1977 onwards, the Movement has attained full development with exemplary success stories of cooperatives in villages and towns, together with a nationwide movement for social reform.

Here are some hard facts that prove the early gains of the Movement. By 1979, per capita income increased 7 times over 1970 figure, and some 20 times over 1960. Exports had grown 17 times over 1970. From a country categorized as undeveloped in 1960, by this time South Korea set herself firmly among the ranks of the developing nations.

Today, South Korea is classified as a highly developed economy. As the author H. Edward Kim said, “Indeed, the Saemaul Movement could be said to have provided the spirit which has motivated Korea’s remarkable economic growth and social progress.”

I do hope and pray that we Filipinos depend less on government to solve our problems. Each one doing his bit of share in providing solutions to the poverty problem, which is our biggest challenge we face today, will come out to something big when put together. But let us not forget, that poverty in the Philippines has a face and a name. He or she is that farmer, fisherman, or kainginero having to eke a living out of the land or water resources. Thus, let us focus our resources in helping them.

But if our current administration takes up the challenge of developing our rural and agricultural areas, I think the dream of a progressive Philippines is just around the corner. Like the South Koreans, they saw their lives transformed for the better in a decade. “Yes, we can do it.”

This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is a member of the MAP Agribusiness and Countryside Development Committee, and dean of the MFI Farm Business School. Feedback at For previous articles, visit


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TAGS: economy, Philippines, Poverty, rural development, Saemaul Undong Movement, South Korea
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