Researching the politics of development



Learning from the past: the South Korean case

3 June 2014
By Kate Pruce.
Hosted by the Brooks World Poverty Institute, in collaboration with UNRISD and the Korean International Cooperation Agency, this event marked the launch of a new book: ‘Learning from South Korean Developmental Success: Effective Development Cooperation and Synergistic Institutions and Policies‘ (2014), edited by Thandika Mkandawire and Ilcheong Yi.

“For the learning process to be a useful exchange of experience, openness to new ideas and creative adaptation is essential” (Mkandawire and Yi, 2014:1)

When learning from the past there are a number of intervening factors to consider, including:

  • Contemporary ideological battles
  • Collective amnesia
  • The structuralist sin of forgetting about ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’
  • Capacities and willingness to share or learn from experiences – attitudes of donors and recipients

From the outset, we are alerted to the dangers of forgetting that even when outcomes are positive, some of the contributing factors may be undesirable, which has implications for adopting apparently successful development models wholesale. In his introduction to the lecture, Professor David Hulme highlighted the mixed effects of learning and transfer, which can lead to poorly performing institutions when models are adopted without consideration of adaptations that may be needed.
Dr Yi also outlined potential biases in policy transfer and explained that the project explicitly aimed to avoid these biases:

  • Bench marking a single policy, institution or strategy (e.g. Bolsa Familia in Brazil)
  • Preoccupation with a single best configuration of institutions
  • Institutional determinism
  • Ignorance of diverse outcomes of the same institution
  • Dichotomous understanding of the state and market

The contributions to the book focus on ‘the institutional mechanisms enabling the implementation of complementary economic and social policies’. The presentation indicated that South Korea had supportive institutions to create space for democracy. However, it also acknowledged that some of the developmental deficits – such as gender inequality – were actually shaped by, rather than merely overlooked by, the state. Therefore the role of actors and the influence of the balance of power in determining institutions and structures also need to be taken into consideration.
The book emphasises social development as the explanatory variable for development, to complement the economic policy-focused understanding of development in South Korea. The majority of the lecture outlined positive examples of social policy, such as successful land reform, rural development and the expansion of contribution-based social insurance. However, during the subsequent discussion, the emerging message was that it is not in fact desirable to replicate the South Korean model. Rather, other countries can be inspired by South Korea’s experiences and adapt the ideas to develop their own policies.
This approach acknowledges that the relevance of lessons for each country will depend on its own history and current condition, and that this necessarily affects policy transfer. The importance of history and ideologies in the shaping of institutions and policies is recognised within the political settlements approach adopted by ESID. The value added by ESID is to incorporate the history of ideas into the political settlements framework, and also to examine the interaction between ideas and interests – do ideas stand alone or are they entwined with interests? Development knowledge, and particularly ‘evidence’, is often presented as being neutral, but the role of interests, agendas and ideologies in shaping this knowledge should not be underestimated.
The mandate of UNRISD is to challenge conventional wisdom and suggest alternative ideas and strategies for development. “Acknowledging that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ prescription, [the authors] focus on what worked for South Korea, rather than what might work for development in general” (Mkandawire and Yi, 2014: 6). The question left unanswered for me by the lecture, which I hope will become clear in the book itself, is what this means in terms of ‘learning from South Korean developmental success’. Perhaps it means that it is not possible (or desirable) to repeat past experiences, but that the value lies in the benefits derived from access to knowledge and lessons (negative as well as positive) that were not available to South Korea during their development process. Therefore it is not necessarily the policy transfer itself, but the quality of the debate that is improved through this kind of learning.
This post is based on a lecture by Dr Ilcheong Yi, chaired by Professor David Hulme, held on 29 May 2014 at The University of Manchester.
For further information see:
Details of the book
Thandika Mkandawire’s UNRISD staff profile
Ilcheong Yi’s UNRISD staff profile