By Dr. Martin Lwanga
Something that has always intrigued me is how South East Asian Nations, the famous Asian Tigers like Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea skyrocketed in development, leaving Africa behind though at one stage we were at par. In 1960 South Korea’s GDP was below many sub Saharan African countries, like Uganda. All these nations were also once colonies of global powers, with the majority of their people rural peasants.
Then between 1961- 80 S Korea leaped ahead and became the 11th largest economy in the world. Today her per capita income is roughly $30,000 while in Uganda’s has stagnated at about $1,000.
This week I had a lifetime chance to visit South Korea where I spent a lot of time asking Professors and Consultants that puzzling question: How did you develop so fast and leave Africa behind,The responses I received are revealing.
Lesson 1: Leadership Matters. Having the right leader combined with a set of right circumstances is everything. Under General Park Chung, South Korea had the good fortune of a visionary leader. General Park was clearly determined to catch-up with Japan and others. He was tough as nails. Koreans I talked to have mixed feelings of him. They appreciate where he took them; but don’t miss him for he could be punishing and did not suffer fools.
Lesson 2: Natural Resources are not everything. In Uganda we are obsessed with our minerals and natural resources as a boon to our salvation. South Korea, much like Japan, realized she did not have much of natural resources. According to a theory advanced by the Harvard professor Micheal Porter on how nations can attain competitive advantage without natural resources nations should look to other factors, like developing a skilled workforce. “We invested heavily in education,” one prof shared, “even when we had no idea where it will end!”
Lesson 3: Have a Strategy. South Korea came up with a strategy focused on export oriented industrialization. The country protected her home grown industry ruthlessly protecting her economy from imports of any sort other than scarce raw materials for manufacturing. Korea did not allow in foreign investors and when they came later they had to find a Korean partner. Today South Korea as we know produces major household and industrial goods, with Samsung phones having the number one market share.
Lesson 4: Motivate Entrepreneurs. Micheal Porters theory argues that to industrialize a nation you need to have internal demand too. Most entrepreneurs though are likely to ignore the local market insisting there is no demand. What South Korea did was to offer incentives and subsidies to entrepreneurs as baits. “Once they discover they can make money then you gradually remove the subsidies,” said a professor who was one of those who drew up the nation’s strategy.
Lesson 5. Welcome support. Unlike closed North Korea, South Korea was receptive of not just aid from the West but also technocrat advice. She took advantage of the Cold War and US rivalry with China and received lot of aid ( not loans) comparable to Marshall aid in Europe. Under the watchful eyes of General Park this aid was also used well and not expropriated into foreign accounts.
Lesson 6. Stick to Development plans. South Korea had five year national development plans. These were strictly adhered to with clear targets and milestones. They ensured her economy grew double digits annually for decades.
Lesson 7. Develop Leaders and Managers with vision. South Korea put a lot of emphasis in investing in education to churn out leaders and managers of their government and firms. It is these managers who have ably developed their industries. She is now a high tech economy. When I visited Samsung Biologics I got to understand that South Korea graduates 50,000 scientist every year.
Lesson 8. Culture matters. South Koreans are intensely proud of their culture and language. There are very protective of themselves and quite insular. Bookstores like in most Asian countries carry only titles in their vernacular. General Park expounded the beautiful elements of their culture like discipline, hygiene and a famous work ethic to focus it on development.
If Uganda is to develop it seems quite clear to me that we shall need a special type of leader ready to muscle us through the wilderness to the summit above. We shall not develop here with a laissez faire lax attitude made worse with our democracy where populists and opportunist politicians determine our fate. A nation where there is also no longer fear of the rule of law and has lost discipline just can’t get there.
We will need a new class of technocrats not profiteers eager to amass wealth as the people they serve live in squalor. We will need a kind of public servant we lost a long time ago who are willing to take time to study and draw up development plans and see them through.
At about 50 million people South Korea is roughly the population of Uganda. From a rural agricultural society in 1960 she is now an industrialized and urban society. Don’t get me wrong; life here is not a paradise. Development has come with psycho social challenges and suicide rates are high among alienated youths. South Korea has now one of the lowest birth rates and the population is shrinking and aging.
But then people here can access high quality education and work for blue chip companies like Samsung; they have a first class public health available for all; their industries like Hyundai create jobs unlike us where graduates are ending up being trafficked for maid services in the Middle East.
How do we get there! Or it is a naive dream. The question of our time.