A Two Way Road

03 Oct, 2016 | Eduardo Baptista

Social issues and Culture

Illustration: Mauricio Wilde

A Korean Organization’s Growing Relationship with La Paz

It is no secret that, by definitions set by the United Nations, Bolivia is one of the most ‘underdeveloped’ countries in South America. A recent UN Human Development Report ranked it 119th out of 188 countries, behind all of its neighbors. The improvement of its Human Development Index is technically in the hands of the Bolivian government, but as with most countries in the Global South, foreign aid in Bolivia has always been of great value.

Disease prevention, improved medical training and increased access to computer skills are but some of the development gaps that the Korean International Cooperation Agency, or KOICA, aims to close in the country. The agency’s overall mission is to enhance ‘prosperity through inclusive and sustainable growth’.

KOICA was founded in 1991 and has since spread to 44 countries around the globe. In Bolivia it aims to promote agriculture, health, transport and energy. KOICA has designated it a ‘priority’ country in 2010 and opened its first office in La Paz.

The organization carries out its aims mainly through two channels: projects advised by South Korean specialists and a volunteer program that receives and trains around 55 Korean men and women per year. In alliance with Bolivian firms and government branches, the advisory projects employ around 100 paid professionals per year.

On the other hand, the volunteer program focuses on providing young Koreans with the necessary skills and resources to have a meaningful impact in the country. Every volunteer is given a two-year “mission” that tackles a specific issue related to one of the four KOICA target sectors.

After interviewing KOICA members in La Paz, it is clear that the organization is working to provide the city with small injections of vitality. But the personal stories of its paid and unpaid workers show that their stay in Bolivia is providing a good dose of vitality for themselves.

Speaking to Kwak Byeong Gon, an experienced doctor who advises local hospitals, and Song Min Chol, a volunteer IT teacher, it is clear that both of the agency’s channels are geared around local needs. Dr. Kwak shares his valuable expertise with health centers in El Alto and runs crucial training courses for Bolivian doctors. Min Chol focuses on improving the IT skills and the access to computers of a low-income community in the south side of La Paz.

Before volunteers such as Min Chol can begin their mission, they undergo an intense two-month training programme in Bolivia. The training includes eight hours of Spanish lessons a day and useful crash courses, such as an explanation of ‘la hora boliviana’, which Min Chol admits is a concept that can be difficult to handle.

Why face all this adversity thousands of miles from home for no material remuneration? Bo Shin Sang, a 26-year old volunteer, has some answers to this question. It is a sociological fact that young Korean males like Shin Sang are subject to highly palpable social pressures in their native country. There is a well-drawn path that Korean males are expected to follow, an expectation enforced by parents and the country’s results-driven education system: do nothing but study in high school so you can go to a prestigious university. Repeat this process in order to land the best job.

Min Chol’s description of Korean society confirms this picture. ‘What’s the value of social life or hobbies,’ he asks, ‘when following this well-trodden path is all you need to be “successful”?’ Under such restrictions, Shin Sang admits to have been plagued by a feeling of powerlessness in Korea. ‘It’s my life,’ he says, and volunteering in Bolivia has allowed him to regain some control.

The convention-breaking aspect of Shin Sang and Min Chol’s decision may be hard to grasp, given that volunteering is not uncommon in European and North American nations. In Korea, however, volunteering is an activity that receives little to no societal praise. Whilst American colleges and English universities view humanitarian work experience in a positive light, Korean universities base their admissions solely on exam scores. This narrow-minded approach creates an ultra-competitive and ultimately selfish mentality amongst many young Koreans. This could explain why the number of KOICA volunteers in Bolivia has remained stagnant since its first year.

The rejection of this culture of individualism is also what motivates KOICA’s hired experts, who make professional sacrifices to work in other counties. Although Dr. Kwak runs a private clinic in Seoul, his desire to ‘spread happiness and plant hope’ first led him to work with KOICA in 2007, for a significantly smaller wage.

On a personal level, Dr. Kwak’s family has also had to make some sacrifices. His three boys, for example, struggle to communicate with their Bolivian classmates. His widowered father, who stayed in Korea, misses Dr. Kwak very dearly. Not being able to take care of his elderly father has been emotionally burdensome for the doctor, as he worries about upholding his duty as a son according to Confucian values.

Dr. Kwak admits that it is difficult to accept the many peculiarities of Bolivian society, be it the reckless driving, endless bureaucracy or the heavy local gastronomy. Amidst these cultural shocks, ‘bravery’, he says, is what holds the family together.

He has harsh words for Korean doctors, describing some of them as ‘money-making machines’. Raised by a father who frequently volunteered for his community, Dr. Kwak is a city doctor who places ethics ahead of profits. Only this can explain why he is here in Bolivia rather than in Seoul, competing with his colleagues over who can run through the largest number of patients per day. As Dr. Kwak summarized, it is important to remind doctors, be it in El Alto or in Seoul, that there is no such thing as a ‘hospital for doctors’, only a ‘hospital for patients’.

Dr. Kwak’s energetic disposition feeds off the close patient-doctor relationships he has formed abroad. In Korea, he says,‘patients can often be rude or stressed-out’. In Bolivia, Dr. Kwak has found that patients are more grateful. Perhaps this has something to do with what Shin Sang has learned as a volunteer: Bolivia is ‘lento, lento, lento.’ Korea is ‘rápido, rápido, rápido.

These three Koreans are not only trying to push forward the development of Bolivia’s political capital. They are also developing daily relationships with paceños that allow them to experience what they find lacking back home, or perhaps escape what they find discomforting. In the process of doing so, their sacrifices are remunerated with happiness, a much more valuable good than money.

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