22 May 2007
by Kang Hyun-kyung
A volunteer expert said that South Korea's overseas volunteer program creates a triple-win situation for volunteer participants, donor and recipient governments.
"And all of these actors benefit from the technical cooperation program," said Kim Dong-ho, director of the overseas volunteers planning team of the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), offering details of his observations.
Those who experienced overseas volunteer programs tend to have more chances for the "it job'' of regional expert after they finished their mission.
Demands for regional experts have increased as the Korean economy gets integrated into that of the world.
KOICA's global program has trained numerous young people to become regional experts in foreign languages and have a deep understanding of local culture, Kim said in an interview with The Korea Times last Thursday.
The donor and recipient governments will be better off as a result of the program in that improved bilateral relations through these civilian diplomats are likely to help increase trade in the long-run, he said. ``This is how the triple-win situation works." Motive for overseas volunteer
Experienced volunteers said his observation makes sense to some extent.
Shin Jong-hyon, 35, works as a volunteer coordinator at KOICA's Dominican Republic office. She manages the agency's overseas volunteer program and supervises development projects in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. She was formerly an overseas volunteer dispatched to the country in 1996.
During her two-year mission, she assisted community handcraft development and water projects in Yamasa, Monte Plata.
"I read a news article about Samuel Koo who was then a high-ranking official at the United Nations headquarters in New York. I was deeply touched by his story and decided to pursue a U.N. career since then,'' said Shin.
She called Koo at his New York office, after she read the article and asked him to help her attain the lofty goal.
Koo told her the three core elements to join the U.N. staff _ overseas volunteer experience, foreign language skills and an advanced degree in a relevant field.
Shin has faithfully followed the guidelines since then.
After earning a master's degree in tropical agro-forestry from the Tropical Agriculture Center for Research and Higher Education in Costa Rica, Shin applied for KOICA's overseas volunteer program in the Dominican Republic in 1996. ``I chose the country mainly because I wanted to improve my Spanish language skill.''
After the mission, she worked as a United Nations volunteer in Guyana. Her past experience paved the way for her current job at KOICA.
Another KOICA volunteer described being part of the KOICA's program as a life-changing experience.
Lee Hee-kyung, 45, joined the senior volunteer program in 2006 and was dispatched to the Dominican Republic.
She is carrying out "Think Globally, Act Locally'' in person there by monitoring a wide variety of gender-related projects undertaken by the local government.
"I used to be a follower, not a leader until I happened be assigned to this program. Before, I thought it was other people's job to set trends and taking the initiative in projects. Everything changed, however, after I entered this world of global volunteer programs,'' Lee said.
Lee first joined the global volunteer program in 1997 after she quit her job. Since then she has worked with KOICA for 10 years doing several long- and short-term projects in foreign countries.
"My first duty location was Indonesia and the country was in turbulence in 1997. The Asian financial crisis hit the nation in late 1997 and rising insurgents' attacks and the economic malaise caused an unstable political and economic situation,'' she recalled.
"Ironically, the memory caused me to love the country because I was so touched by dedicated local government officials who made every effort to make the foreign volunteers stay trouble free during the chaotic situation.'' The life-long volunteer is a certified social worker and holds a teacher's license. She is trilingual, speaking Korean, Spanish, and German. Lee said some of her colleagues at her duty location said they were considering taking courses at a college in South Korea. ``Whenever I hear that kind of story, I think I have to work better to make my home country seem a better place for these local people. We are civilian diplomats,'' she said. Lack of supportive legislation Since 1990, South Korea has sent a total of 3,776 volunteers. As of May 2007, 1,140 Korean volunteers have been dispatched across the globe.Many of them are involved in the educational sector, teaching the Korean language, computer education and developing curricula for schools. The average volunteer in the youth program is a 28-year old college graduate with three to four years of working experience after graduation. According to KOICA, South Korea is one of top five nations sending mostly government-sponsored volunteers, alongside the U.S., Japan and Britain. The number of volunteers has sharply increased since 2004. That year saw them more than triple from the previous year. The agency explained two factors behind the big jump _ the government's increased interest in overseas development projects and rising youth unemployment. The legislation and social atmosphere, however, seem not to be supportive.Few institutions and businesses give incentives to those who participate in global volunteer programs. Kim Dong-ho said, "KOICA is still working on this part so that the agency can help these dedicated young people in job-seeking activities.''