How South Korea is doing development differently

The South Korean flag. The Asian country’s approach just might be the one needed to help developing countries achieve universal health coverage. Photo by: Jonathan O’Donnell / CC BY-NC-SA

This past December, I spoke at the Korea Foundation for International Healthcare’s 2014 International Forum on Universal Health Coverage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I also had the opportunity to deliver a keynote speech at KOFIH’s seventh anniversary celebration in Seoul, South Korea, in 2013. I spend a lot of time at various international conferences and knowledge sharing events, but I was particularly inspired to witness the interactions between South Korean health systems practitioners and their counterparts across Asia and Africa.

The South Korean approach is different in the way it brings people together to exchange information and the way it tackles development. This synergized well with my observations about what is needed to help countries achieve universal health coverage.

In my speech in Addis Ababa, I spoke of the evolution of health financing in low and middle-income countries. I discussed how international partners, mostly from Europe and North America, drew from their own experiences to support this evolution in its early stages. They introduced concepts found in Bismarck, Beveridge and market-driven models of health systems.

But the growing global chorus to achieve UHC has created the impetus for countries to develop unique health systems models tailored to the LMIC context. And these models look very different from the traditional models from upper-income countries — just look at the mixed models in Rwanda, Ghana and the Philippines.

So who is best suited to support LMICs as they continue their journey toward UHC?

I believe that it’s LMICs themselves. Rooted in practicality, their thinking goes beyond the standard models and transcends conventional wisdom. And, with over 55 countries having introduced or planning to introduce insurance and 50 having introduced or planning to introduce results-based financing, the pool of health systems practitioners from LMICs is growing every day.

KOFIH seems to have embraced this reality into its approach, while at the same time offering lessons from its own bumpy journey toward UHC.

The South Koreans’ approach to foreign assistance is undoubtedly influenced by their own remarkable transformation — from a country devastated by the Korean War in the 1950s to becoming the 12th largest economy in the world today.

Since the end of the war until the late 1990s, South Korea received $12 billion in foreign assistance. Now, Seoul provides $1.7 billion in foreign assistance annually as a Development Assistance Committee member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

At the same time, it projects an unbiased and agnostic approach to assistance.

In examining KOFIH’s work, it is clear that it does not push particular models, methodologies or agendas. Its role is largely informative and facilitative — bringing peer countries together to share knowledge, exchange experiences and generate solutions.

It pairs South Korea’s innovative health agencies, such as Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service and National Health Insurance Service, with budding counterpart agencies in LMICs. It understands that development is a process and, naturally, every process is unique. Most importantly, it does not expect any individual country’s development to look like South Korea’s.

The Koreans are still finding their feet on how to best engage in foreign assistance. Their strategies will surely evolve as they continue to learn about the dynamics in LMICs, narrow their focus, and harmonize their various foreign assistance agencies.

But they are on to something. And it is a refreshing message for LMICs — one I believe should be emulated by other providers of foreign assistance.

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About the author

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    Yogesh Rajkotia

    Yogesh Rajkotia is the founder and CEO of ThinkWell (ThinkWell.global), an organization aimed at helping countries to achieve universal health coverage. Yogesh has supported major health systems reforms in over 25 countries and served as adviser to ministers and secretaries around the world. Previously, he provided leadership to USAID’s health systems strengthening efforts. He holds a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University.