Saemaul Undong – The Republic of Korea’s New Village Movement, part 2

Due to the successes the Saemaul Undong (SMU) Movement saw in the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the 1970s, the government of ROK began to expand their practices into Africa, Asia, and Latin America. ROK demonstrated unprecedented growth, introducing what the World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim described as “an economic and social revolution that made one of the world’s poorest countries an OECD member in less than 50 years”.1 The Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) was established in 1991,2 with the intention of fighting global poverty based on the strategy that had seen such success in the past.

KOICA has identified its priority areas as:

  • Global hunger and food security
  • Climate change and humanitarian assistance
  • Overseas volunteerism
  • Public-private partnership promotion
  • Health and education
  • Aid effectiveness

In 2011, the United States and ROK signed a memorandum of understanding on international development cooperation, making ROK the first country to transform from a US aid recipient to a fellow donor.3 The SMU Movement laid the foundation, allowing ROK to achieve modernization and development, thus facilitating them to assist other in-need countries.

Now an Official Development Assistance (ODA) donor, ROK’s volume of international development programs remains relatively small but it has expanded significantly at a time when other countries are scaling back their development budgets.4 ROK has shown a determination to modernize their method of providing assistance and complying with international donor standards, by offering technical training to developing countries so that they may build up their own self-help programs.

Currently, KOICA is receiving requests from more than fifty developing countries to share knowledge about the successes of SMU-style community-led development. It is supported as a strategy either directly or indirectly by Nicaragua, Paraguay, Ecuador, Colombia, Senegal, Ghana, DR Congo, South Africa, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines (see table below). It has been recognized as a legitimate alternative to development by the World Food Programme, the United Nations Development Programme, and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.5 In November 2015, ROK hosted its second annual Global Saemaul Leadership Forum (GSLF). More than 500 delegates attended from 50 countries to learn more about the SMU model. The primary objective of the conference was to spread the knowledge established by the Global Saemaul Undong Training Center in Seoul.6

Ethiopia Capacity building in agricultural irrigation in Dodota District
Ghana Vulnerable community empowerment for Saemaul Zero Hunger through Community Asset Creation
Uganda Enhancing nutrition and increasing household income in Karamoja sub-region through vegetable cultivation and marketing / Establishment of the National Farmer’s Leadership Center
Senegal The Project for capacity building of Agricultural Training Center in CIH / The Project for Improving agricultural Productivity on rice and onion
Bangladesh Korea-WFP Saemaul Zero Hunger Communities in Bangladesh

(Korean International Cooperation Agency.)

SMU as an official ODA model focuses on seven main objectives, identified by the KOICA “Smart SMU Strategy”.

  1. Multi sectoral approach
    • Integrative CLD model – livestock, fishery, social sectors such as education, health, hygiene, gender, technology such as ICT, energy, environment
    • Potential to contribute greatly to achievement of SDGs
  2. Incentive based mechanism promoting competition
    • Those who committed themselves to movement and generated good results received special incentives to do better. This generated a positive and virtuous environment which people compete to benefit their community
  3. Village level development
    • When a larger scale project is required to develop infrastructure, such as roads, rivers, water facilities, regional projects may be implemented
  4. SMU education tailored to the needs of each community
    • Village leaders provide education on SMU who have a better understanding of their communities
    • To improve capacity to deliver education, leaders are given opportunities to learn from each other via Saemaul Undong education center
    • To make education on SMU customized to characteristics and conditions of each village, local experts brought into process of developing textbooks
  5. Partnership
    • With purpose and determination, partnerships will be forged to carry out SMU projects. It is important to work with diverse partners, including international organizations, international NGOs, and businesses to innovate ways to deliver SMU to countries in need
  6. Appropriate Technology
    • SMU aims to drastically raise performance in improving the level of income within a short period of time by identifying and mobilizing helpful technologies
  7. Expanding Value Chain
    • Improving value chain, including production (land, seed, equipment, microfinancing, cultivation, technology), harvest, storage, processing, distribution, marketing and sales is important if income is to be increased on a sustained basis. Thus, it is taken into consideration in planning what activities to carry out to generate incomes (e.g. growing speciality crops)7

In 2014, the ROK government in partnership with UNDP launched the Global Saemaul towards Inclusive and Sustainable New Communities (ISNC) in order to scale up the New Village Movement as a viable development solution. In 2015, UNDP released a report on the Saemaul Initiative Towards Inclusive and Sustainable New Communities: Implementation Guide. Within it, UNDP explains the historical successes of Saemaul, and emphasizes the ISNC model as a new way forward. The hope with the project is to demonstrate “how various development operation modalities, ODA, domestic resource mobilization, and South-South and triangular cooperation can complement one another within one development initiative”.8

UNDP’s contribution will help develop an integrated local development approach, to expand beyond the scope of ROK’s capacity. The project will be defined by a 2-3-5 model of financing: 20% of ODA will be matched by 30% government cost-sharing and 50% in-kind contributions of labor and services mobilized by the communities.9

ISNC differs from the original SMU New Village Movement in its inclusion of sustainability and inclusiveness. Women, youth, and the community’s poorest strata will serve both as participants to the project and as beneficiaries. The original SMU Movement emphasized the inclusion of women, but ISNC will expand this further. The original New Village Movement ensured women played a leadership role in improving the local economies, involving them in rice saving campaigns, raising funds for other women, and running village consumer co-ops and daycare centers. Villages were strongly encouraged to elect a female Saemaul leader, and eventually every village had a woman in a leadership role. This process allowed Korean women to play an elevated role in society. Women were allowed to play different positions, such as banning gambling, creating village credit unions, increasing savings, and increasing the village’s living conditions.10

At the heart of the ISNC project are the three principles of the SMU movement: diligence, self-help, and cooperation. SMU seeks to alter the mindset of the community, so that all members of the village are invested in the improvement of their community. This method focuses on the three pillars of sustainable development:

  1. Economic growth
  2. Social development
  3. Environmental sustainability

The SMU Movement is growing with the help of international organizations such as UNDP, Millennium Promise, the World Food Programme (WFP), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the Global Donor Platform for Rural Development (GDPRD). The Saemaul Undong movement in ROK also includes a strong international volunteer program, facilitating the spread of knowledge by deploying professionals to SMU partner countries. Some have even acquired a Master’s degree in Saemaul, and work to help monitoring and evaluation, local language interpretation, technical support for agriculture and livestock, and facilitation of correct technological usages.11

In these ways, SMU as an ODA model can greatly contribute to the SDGs’ ambitious objectives. SMU has been so successful because it draws off of voluntary participation, and accommodates developing countries’ government’s poor capacity to finance development projects.12 The ROK government has found that people in rural villages have achieved higher levels of happiness by volunteering to be agents of change within their own community. By overcoming obstacles to bring themselves out of poverty they are working towards a solution to make their own lives better in a sustainable way.


  1. Korean International Cooperation Agency. Saemaul Undong Rural Development. Republic of Korea, 2015. print.
  2. “Mission & Vision.” Korea International Cooperation Agency. http://www.koica.go.kr/english/koica/mission_vision/index.html.
  3. Snyder, Scott A., and Seukhoon Paul Choi. “From Aid to Development Partnership: Strengthening U.S.-Republic of Korea Cooperation in International Development.” Council on Foreign Relations. 2012. http://www.cfr.org/content/publications/attachments/CFR_WorkingPaper10_Snyder_Choi.pdf.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Korean International Cooperation Agency.
  6. Sawyers, Dennis. “South Korea’s New Village Movement.” The Borgen Project. December 20, 2015. http://borgenproject.org/category/south-korea/.
  7. Korean International Cooperation Agency.
  8. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 2015: “Saemaul Initiative Towards Inclusive and Sustainable New Communities: Implementation Guide.” Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, pg 22. n.d.: http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/development-impact/saemaul-initiative-towards-inclusive-and-sustainable-new-communi.html.
  9. UNDP, 23.
  10. UNDP, 18.
  11. Korean International Cooperation Agency.
  12. Ibid.

Saemaul Undong – the Republic of Korea’s New Village Movement, part 1

Before 1960 the Republic of Korea (ROK) was a war-torn nation with a GDP per capita of $70 – equivalent to that of Ghana.1 The government was weak, and did not have the financial capabilities to invest in large-scale rural development projects.2 With this in mind, South Korean President Park Chung-Hee implemented the Saemaul Undong (SMU) program, or “New Village” Movement in the 1970s.3 The government realized that by providing some support, the people could improve their own living conditions by cooperating with each other.4 With the help of United States foreign aid, this initiative was completely centered around community-led development.5

Between the years of 1970 and 1971, the government of ROK provided 33,267 villages with 335 bags of cement. Based on the SMU process, villagers collaborated to determine what aspects of the community should be addressed with the resource provided. In this first step of SMU the community was mobilized through general meetings, government-led training exercises, and exposure visits. This nation-wide training was required for politicians, government officials, village leaders and farmers in order to appropriately build up capacity and enthusiasm for the SMU spirit.6 Village leaders played a large role, mobilizing their communities to facilitate a change in mindset.

By 1972, 16,600 villages (approximately half of those provided with the cement) were deemed successful by the South Korean government. These villages were sent another 500 bags of cement and one ton of steel rods. Again, the community was responsible for determining how these resources should be allocated. This was important, because the South Koreans are self-proclaimed as extremely competitive. The government’s policy incentivized other villages to compete well, and to even mobilize their own resources in order to improve the status of their community. As a result, the Korean government received a sevenfold return by instilling a self-help mentality.7

Within four years, rural income surpassed urban income for the first time.8 Within nine years, rural income sextupled from 225,800 won to 1,531,800 won.9 Rural poverty decreased from 27.9 percent in 1970 to 10.8 percent in 1978, and women were given a significant role to play.10 Thanks to a major land redistribution movement between 1948 and 1951, communal land formerly belonging to Japanese landlords during colonization was allocated in an egalitarian manner, so that there were many small-farm owners and few landless homes.11 Across the country, thatched huts transformed into sturdy tiled houses.12

By 1974, foreign aid and grants had dropped from 60% to 20% of all investments in ROK. Eventually, the United States phased out their aid program in ROK altogether.13 The SMU Movement adopted the slogan diligence, self-help and cooperation, as active participation and successes grew.14 From this first project, communities were pulled together to be decision-makers of their own community-led development. This process gradually rebuilt both ROK’s infrastructure and national identity.15

The New Village Movement grew into a success based on six separate phases, which the country collectively passed through chronologically.

  1. Foundation and groundwork (1970-1973)
    • Living environments were gradually improved as roads and villages were expanded. Laundry facilities, roofs, kitchens and fences were improved. Income increased as roads provided more agricultural opportunities, and seeds and the division of labor were improved. Attitudes within the community shifted towards a mindset of diligence, frugality, and cooperation.
    • During this phase the campaign was introduced and implemented. The government initiated activities, with a top priority in improving living conditions.
    • GDP per capita (in USD) increased from 257 in 1970 to 375 1973.
  2. Proliferation (1974-1976)
    • Income increased further, with the proliferation of rice field ridges, creeks, and a mentality encouraging combined farming and common workplaces. Non-agricultural income sources were explored more than ever before. Attitudes shifted further with the help of the Saemaul education programs and due to public relations activities. Living conditions continued to improve, with an improvement in housing and water systems. Village centres spread.
    • The program’s scope and functionality grew, increasing incomes and further changing the attitudes within the communities. This kindled an atmosphere of understanding and consensus.
    • GDP per capita grew from 402 in 1974 to 765 in 1976.
  3. Energetic Implementation (1977-1979)
    • Rural areas saw the construction of modern houses, which encouraged growth, especially of industrial facilities, agriculture and manufacturing. In urban areas, alleys were paved and order was improved and reinforced.
    • This progression allowed for linkages between villages, economies of scale, and an emergence of district unit characteristics
    • GDP per capita (in USD) increased from 966 in 1977 to 1,394 in 1979.
  4. Overhaul (1980-1989)
    • Throughout the country the social atmosphere improved – kindness, order, selfishness and cooperation were reinforced. Economic development soared, especially with farming. Resources were better allocated, and credit unions proliferated. The environment was taken into consideration, with parks and roads improved and established.
    • The private-sector was revitalized, and there was a more enhanced designation between the government and the private sector. This assisted with inactivity and overlap.
    • GDP per capita improved from 1,507 in 1980 to 4,934 in 1989.
  5. Autonomous Growth (1990-1998)
    • With the establishment of a sound atmosphere, ROK improved traditional culture with an emphasis on hard work and stable lifestyles. The people experienced economic recovery then economic stability, particularly with the help of urban-rural direct trade. Autonomous lifestyles became more popular and possible.
    • Self-reliance was established, allowing the growth of liberalization and localization. The economic crisis became seen as surmountable, and GDP per capita increased significantly.
    • GDP per capita increased from 5,503 in 1990 to 10,548 in 1996.16

The New Village Movement’s successes can be most clearly seen as a “learning cycle of stimulus, reflection, resolution and practice”.17 Upon introducing the program, the ROK government educated the people then allowed the communities to build up their own development. The government used incentive systems that they knew would be successful, playing off of the competitive nature of the Korean people. Farmers were seen as the center of the movement, promoting the spirit of the Saemaul Movement. Eventually, the program was implemented both in rural and urban areas and at all different levels of society: village, town, county, and provincial.18 This good practices led to the six steps of the SMU virtuous cycle.

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 3.33.18 PM(UNDP, 19.)

Due to these successes, ROK has now begun implementing SMU’s New Village Movement across Africa, Asia and Latin America.


 

  1. Sawyers, Dennis. “South Korea’s New Village Movement.” The Borgen Project. December 20, 2015. http://borgenproject.org/category/south-korea/.
  2. Korean International Cooperation Agency. Saemaul Undong Rural Development. Republic of Korea, 2015. Print.
  3. Sawyers, Dennis.
  4. Korean International Cooperation Agency.
  5. Sawyers, Dennis.
  6. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 2015: “Saemaul Initiative Towards Inclusive and Sustainable New Communities: Implementation Guide.” Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, pg 13. n.d.: http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/development-impact/saemaul-initiative-towards-inclusive-and-sustainable-new-communi.html.
  7. UNDP, 13.
  8. “The Saemaul, New Village, Movement Was Mindset Change.” Hyun Jin Moon. http://www.hyunjinmoon.com/saemaul-new-village-movement-change-mindset/.
  9. Sawyers, Dennis.
  10. UNDP, 11.
  11. UNDP, 12.
  12. Sawyers, Dennis.
  13. Hyun Jin Moon.
  14. UNDP, 12.
  15. Hyun Jin Moon.
  16. UNDP, 14-15.
  17. UNDP, 16.
  18. UNDP, 17.