Development from the bottom | Inquirer Opinion
No Free Lunch

Development from the bottom

In 1965, South Korea was a poorer country than the Philippines. Its per capita GDP (gross domestic product) was $106; ours was $189. Up until 1970, according to one account, 80 percent of Korean rural communities had thatched roofs, and 80 percent of rural households were lit with oil lamps, having no access to electricity. With the economy still largely based on agriculture, frequent floods and drought had nationwide consequences, marked by food shortages and widespread hunger. In 1969, torrential rains caused massive floods that led to wide destruction, and many communities found themselves repairing roofs and roads on their own, with no help from the government. The self-reliance that Koreans demonstrated then was said to have inspired President Park Chung-hee to launch in April 1970 Saemaul Undong, a national movement focused on self-help and empowerment of communities.

The term “saemaul” was coined from a combination of “sae,” which means “progressive renewal based on past experiences,” and “maul,” which refers to “regional and social communities.” Saemaul Undong thus represents a sustained effort toward community renewal and modernization. At the outset, the approach was simple: 335 bags of cement were allotted to each of some 35,000 villages nationwide. Each was given a free hand in using the cement in any way the community saw fit. One man and one woman were elected to lead in planning and implementing projects identified by the community.

The government, meanwhile, issued working guidelines for “10 Projects for Constructing Better Villages,” identifying projects to improve living environments, to increase household income, and to reform attitudes. Under the first category were expanding and improving local roads, building bridges, opening common laundry facilities, improving water systems, and replacing traditional roofs, fences, kitchen facilities and toilets with more durable or modern ones. Projects to increase household income focused on raising farm income by expanding agricultural roads, improving agricultural lands, upgrading seeds, and promoting farm labor sharing. Attitude reform projects aimed to promote a diligent and frugal lifestyle, and foster cooperativism.

In the second year, villages with major improvements were awarded with an additional 500 bags of cement and 1 ton of steel wire, in the spirit of helping villages that show the capacity to help themselves. In the third year, the government decided to divide the 35,000 villages into three categories depending on their level of advancement, with differing amounts of aid provided to the different categories. Again, those who had helped themselves better received more. Meanwhile, separate organizations and support systems were established at the central and local government levels to actively assist Saemaul Undong, and encourage and coordinate implementation of related projects. A Training Institute for Saemaul Leaders was opened to improve local leadership capabilities for development.


As tangible results emerged, people were led to even more active participation. Rural living conditions changed radically, and the physical landscape changed almost beyond recognition. Poverty visibly improved in agricultural communities, and signs of positive attitudinal change among the citizens began to be evident. Most notably, per capita GDP rose sharply from $279 in 1970 to $403 in 1973. As one account put it: “The villages developed with blinding speed. The rural people regained their confidence. Lethargic neighbors were stimulated to develop their own villages. Korea’s rural areas showed signs of urbanization and development.”

The first stage (1970-1973) laid the foundation and groundwork, giving way to the proliferation stage (1974-1976), when the organization and activities saw further expansion. From improving living environments, the focus shifted to income raising and attitude reform projects. Saemaul Undong began expanding to include corporations and factories, and the scope and target of projects gradually enlarged. Accordingly, more people and organizations were engaged in the governmental, regional and corporation units of the campaign, as more financial assistance and loans were also mobilized.

It was in the energetic implementation stage in 1977-1979 when the positive effects of the program were most manifest. Productivity and incomes grew markedly, and per capita GDP more than doubled from $824 in 1976 to $1,747 in 1979. By then, South Korea had left the Philippines far behind, with only $601 per capita GDP, less than a third of its own. Significantly, living conditions visibly improved, and disparities across regions were narrowed. The fourth stage (1980-1989), tagged as the overhauling stage, was when the movement redefined its organizational structure and activities as a private sector movement. The final autonomous growth stage (1990-onward) was characterized by strengthened self-reliance and autonomy.

I have argued before for a new development paradigm where collective outcomes arise not primarily from people pursuing their individual greed (a la Adam Smith), but rather, from communities whose members work collectively for the common good. In empowering, capacitating and mobilizing our communities lies the way to truly inclusive development.


In 2015, South Korea’s estimated per capita GDP was $27,513, now nearly 10 times the Philippines’ $2,951. Income is also more equitably distributed there: The average income of the richest 20 percent (one-fifth) in the Philippines is 8.4 times that of the poorest one-fifth, while it is only 5.6 times in South Korea. What we need is a Saemaul Undong, Philippine style.

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TAGS: Empowerment, Gross Domestic Product, Growth, Productivity, self-help, South Korea

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