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(Yonhap Interview) KOICA to promote democracy, rights, gender equality in overseas development projects

2017/12/15 10:24

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By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, Dec. 15 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's aid agency will place more emphasis on sharing the country's half century of experience of advancing democracy and promoting human rights in its engagement in overseas development assistance, its new chief said.

Lee Mi-kyung, president of the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), also pledged efforts to help empower women in developing countries, where their potentially significant roles in economic growth and social betterment remain largely untapped.

"There has been much emphasis placed on our experience in achieving fast economic growth. The advances that we have made in democracy and human rights are also something that we should be proud of," Lee told Yonhap News Agency in an interview on Thursday in her office in Seongnam, south of Seoul.

"There seems to be a demand for Korea's experience in such aspects affecting developing countries. We also would like to emphasize it."

   The former five-term lawmaker and human rights activist took the helm of the state-run agency in charge of official development assistance (ODA) in late November for a three-year term.

Lee Mi-kyung, president of the Korea International Cooperation Agency (Yonhap) Lee Mi-kyung, president of the Korea International Cooperation Agency (Yonhap)

She said the agency will strive to boost its contribution to progress in gender equality and women's rights in developing countries as one of its key priorities.

"Many cases have proven that women's participation results in higher efficiency and greater transparency," she said.

"KOICA should take the initiative in gender equality and in women's human rights as well, which are a matter of growing concern around the globe."

   But she faces a range of daunting challenges in reforming the agency, which is mired in a personnel controversy and faces criticism about its operational efficiency, transparency and independence.

Her post was vacant for months after her predecessor stepped down early this year amid allegations he was recommended by Choi Soon-sil, the woman at the center of a corruption scandal that saw former President Park Geun-hye removed from office. Choi and her cohorts are suspected of influencing KOICA's assistance projects for personal gain.

In her inauguration speech Nov. 30, Lee said that the agency faces multiple worst-ever crises and its reputation has been seriously harmed by recent back-to-back scandals involving some of its projects.

She echoed this sense of urgency in dealing with "systemic" problems underlying the organization's crises -- the lack of "unwavering principle and philosophy" to stay independent from political influence.

In a related move, KOICA earlier launched an "innovation committee" of civilian experts to come up with measures to enhance its transparency and repair its tarnished reputation.

"KOICA didn't have clear principles and philosophy, which made room for powerful figures like the president to affect its business," she said. "It should have had a clear way to guarantee transparency and responsibility. The current crises stem from the fact it was not in place in a systematic manner."

   "What is most important is to go back to basics and turn these crises into an opportunity to make a leap forward," she said. "That means that we should seek out development projects aimed at tackling poverty, ensuring gender equality ... and promoting peace based on humanitarianism."

   Lee said that KOICA should be the nation's key platform for ODA projects, saying that the overlapping and fragmented functions distributed among dozens of government agencies harm efficiency, cause confusion in recipient countries and even give rise to loopholes for those massive scandals that recently hit the agency.

Currently, 42 government agencies are involved in 1,200 assistance projects under way around the world. KOICA accounts for 54 percent of government spending in the area.

"They could have more expertise than KOICA in some sectors, but ODA should be provided in a comprehensive way considering all such factors as diplomatic relations, history, economy, trade and other countries' ODA situations," she said.

"That's the reason why we push to serve as a platform for ODA projects. We want to be a channel through which the ODA is pursued in an efficient, transparent and systematic manner," she added.

Meanwhile, with regard to a growing number of multicultural families, mostly Southeast Asian, in the nation, Lee hopes their children will learn their mother tongue so that they could be trained and recruited for KOICA's global cooperation projects.

"My idea is to teach them the languages of their mother's countries and give them a chance to work in (the ODA) field if they are interested in the global cooperation area in the future," she said.