Saturday, April 24, 2010

LAT on South Korea's new volunteerism

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, John Glionna talks about South Korea's recent attempts to make a difference in the wider world with the ROK's own version of the Peace Corps:
South Korea's international volunteer program is one way this bustling Asian nation is marking its emergence as one of the world's most industrialized nations.

Founded in 2009, the World Friends Korea program consolidated several smaller volunteer efforts under one umbrella. The organization now has 3,000 volunteers working in 40 countries, a number second only to the 8,000 enrolled in America's Peace Corps, officials here say.

Not all volunteers are young — many are retired, members of a generation that lived through the 1950s conflict with North Korea and the subsequent hard times. By 2015, the program is due to expand its ranks to 20,000.

"South Korea's development as a nation is due in part to the generous contribution of the international community," said Lee Chan-buom, coordinator of the program's launch. "We can empathize with the nations we assist because 50 years ago, there was widespread famine in Korea. For many volunteers, that starvation is a childhood memory."
Mr Glionna's article also raises doubts about the sincerity of the effort:
But in a nation obsessed with success and ranking, some question the altruism of programs such as World Friends Korea.

In a spin on the line from President Kennedy's inaugural address, some chide South Korean volunteers for having the attitude: Don't ask what you can do for the world, but what the world can do for your resume.

Many volunteers do see the program as a way to sell themselves in a downsizing job market, analysts say.

"Overseas volunteer activities are considered a special [resume builder] you cannot earn domestically," said Shin Kwang-yeong, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. "They are valued highly, so that is why people prefer those activities."
Who exactly are these doubt raisers? Frankly, I think it's a tad overly cynical to call into question the motivation of people who are putting themselves out there like that when the general public (perhaps including the author) have not done or would not do the same.

And realistically, does all volunteerism have to be purely altruistic? Do volunteers stop thinking about what will happen after their two-year or vacation-long stint is done? Do all their financial needs and physical wants magically get met when they volunteer such that they needn't think about how this might be a good résumé builder or how they will clothe and feed themselves when they return?

Sure, a CV with volunteering on it might be an attention grabber, but surely there are easier ways to get ahead that don't involve so much discomfort, time away from friends and family, and no small risk to one's personal safety. Why not question the whole of World Friends Korea in general as just a way to make Korea look good, regardless of who is getting helped?

I can't say it's a universally held feeling, but I know a lot of KoKos who feel that South Korea really owes much of the world a debt of gratitude for coming to its aid in 1950 or later, and this is one way to pay it forward. If something like that is the primary reason for doing this, I don't give a rat's ass if there are also secondary benefits of career enhancement.

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4 comments:

  1. And I would wonder on the flip side, how many volunteers, anywhere, don't have self-serving reasons for being volunteers. And as you point out, what is wrong with that. Having a self-serving reason (such as padding a resume, traveling the world, getting close that hot girl you met on the bus) for volunteering doesn't preclude having more altruistic reasons as well. If there isn't something in it for the volunteer, whatever it is, then will the volunteer feel satisfied with the experience? It has to work for both parties. And in the end, isn't it the results that matter, the end that can be pointed to with pride on all parts, and the being able to say that disadvantaged people were helped?

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  2. Thanks for that.

    As I was writing this, I was thinking of the fact that many schools in the US and increasingly in South Korea as well (and in other countries, too, I'm sure) have been requiring volunteer work for graduation.

    This forced altruism would not sit well with some, I suppose, but it puts people in a situation where they are exposed to people in need that they might not otherwise have been exposed, and this can spark a sense of altruism and community that might have been latent or even non-existent.

    Really, I was kind of bothered by the unsupported criticism (who says is "chiding South Korean volunteers"?) that under the guise of providing some sort of balance or phony objectivity only knocked people who deserve some admiration.

    It might not be Korea-bashing per se (John Glionna does not strike me as a knee-jerk Korean basher), but it did smell of a sort of "Korea discount." Like if somebody had really brought up Hwang Woosuk (as I jokingly did) in reference to the controversy over Oh Eunsun's ascent of Annapurna in the race to reach the top of all 8000er peaks. Sloppy journalism.

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    1. [i]It might not be Korea-bashing per se (John Glionna does not strike me as a knee-jerk Korean basher), but it did smell of a sort of "Korea discount." Like if somebody had really brought up Hwang Woosuk (as I jokingly did) in reference to the controversy over Oh Eunsun's ascent of Annapurna in the race to reach the top of all 8000er peaks. Sloppy journalism.[/i]

      Glionna has a chip on his shoulder regarding Korea. You should read his other articles like one about the foreign horse trainer in Korea as well as another that I linked to in one of my posts on Sonagi Consortium, something about how being bumped in the subway was a sign of Korea's xenophobia. He definitely has a chip on his shoulder like many kvetchpats, but he is a bit more sophisticated in how he presents it. I don't believe that he could ever write an objective article about Korea.

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  3. I know one guy, who truly believes that no act of kindness is not done with some sort of payoff in the end. He says even that euphoria from doing good is a payoff. So, he says there truly is no selfless act.

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