BY FRANK AGYEKUM (ASSISTANT GOVERNMENT SPOKESPERSON ON GOVERNANCE) I have been to South Korea this past two weeks and what l saw is simply amazing. For most of us coming out of Africa, we have come to take 'development' in Europe and North America as a matter of course.
Any of us travelling to any of these continents expects to see broad roads, high rise buildings, beautiful and modern vehicles, glittering lights at night, quick and courteous services, the latest in ICT and everything else.
Thanks to the ignoble slave trade and colonialism, the worldview of most Africans has been shaped to believe that development and advancement are the preserve of Europe and North America. Even when we've seen in photographs and films this same 'development and advancement' in other parts of the world, we have assumed that these other countries were playing catch-up with the West and their import have been largely lost on us
I have also read about the economic miracle of the 'Asian Tigers.' I have also seen photographs and films of some of the developments in these countries, and particularly in the days before my trip to South Korea, l read enough about that country to know that it was an emerging economic power.
But none of these prepared me enough for the South Korea that l saw. Five years after gaining independence from Japan in 1945, Korea was plunged into a three-year war which ended with the splitting of the country into two entities, North Korea under a communist-style government and South Korea with a liberal economic outlook.
All economic indicators show that from the end of the war in 1953 to the early 1960s South Korea was among the least developed countries in the world and like most African countries then, was characterized by high inflation, high population growth and high unemployment.
The annual inflation rate was 22 per cent, domestic savings about four per cent, and investment ratio about 10 per cent. Gross National Product (GNP) growth averaged 4.4 per cent and population growth was three per cent.
Wholly lacking in natural resources, South Korea was considered the third poorest country in Asia. Its exports, 88 per cent of which were primary products, consisted only three per cent of GDP and it depended largely on foreign aid.
The irony is that while these figures were true of many African economies in the late '50s and '60s and still stands true of many African countries today, South Korea shows an entirely different picture today
Ghana's per capita income at independence in 1957 was equal to that of South Korea and Ghana with its rich and abundant natural resources, efficient civil service and a well structured education system was seen as the more viable economy of the two. South Korea, then coming out of a three-year war with the north and with very little natural resources did not amount to much in the eyes of economists.
Forty years or so on, the two countries tell an entirely different story. South Korea has moved on to become the 13th largest economy in the world. It is second in the world in shipbuilding, and sixth in both steel production and vehicle manufacture.
Its GDP per capita in 2004 was $19,200. Population growth rate is now 0.38 per cent. Agriculture is 3.2 per cent of the economy and employs eight per cent of the labour force; industry 40.2 per cent with 19 per cent of the labour force and services, 56.6 per cent and engages 73 per cent of the labour force.
South Korea today has 91 airports, 88 of which have paved runways with the rest unpaved. The Han River, which runs along the length of the country just like our Volta River, is crossed by 23 bridges, all of which are bigger than our single Adome Bridge over the Volta.
The capital, Seoul, is an artist's dream of glass skyscrapers, some rising as high as 63 floors and at night, the city comes alive in a razzmatazz of glitzy lights. The streets in the inner cities are either six or four lanes and they are full of made-in-Korea vehicles – Hyundai, Kia or Daewoo. Foreign made vehicles such as the Mercedes Benz, Lexus or BMW are a rarity.
Throughout my 10-day stay, the question l kept asking my hosts was how come South Korea has been able to make such a gigantic turn around in 40 odd years or so, while we in Ghana and Africa as a whole have stood still?
Today the same statistics which held true for both South Korea and much of Africa in the 1950s are still true for Africa, while South Korea as moved on in gigantic leaps and bounds. So what happened to us?
Each time the thought crossed my mind that at the turn of our independence in 1957, Ghana with per capita income equal to that of South Korea was seen as the more viable economy because of our 'rich and abundant natural resources,' l felt like bowing my head in shame.
The Koreans however, are ever ready to tell about their success story. They are ever ready to tell how they started off with agrarian reforms to ensure that they had enough to eat; and then in the early-'60s embarked on export-led light industrialization such as the manufacture of televisions sets for export. The story is told that at the time the South Koreans started exporting television sets, they had no television station in their country.
By the mid-'60s, steel production had started to be followed by the manufacture of vehicles. The first Hyundai vehicle was produced in1967. By the early '70s, South Korea had started building ships. This was followed later by electronics which saw Samsung Company limited playing a large part in the country's development and now the emphasis is on ICT, seen as the product of the future.
During this period, South Korea had its fair share of currency devaluation, IMF-induced policies, deregulation etc, and all the measures so well known to us in Africa. Most importantly however, they had a stable government.
South Korea is a relatively young republic and most of those who lived through the hard times of the 1950s and 1960s are now in their 60s and in very important positions
I met three of them who are all professors in various fields. One of them, now a professor in education told me times were so hard for her family that most times, she drank only water and slept.
“When l was going to primary school, my parents could not afford girls' school uniform for me so l used to wear that of my elder brother which was already suffering from wear and tear.
“Many people thought l was a boy. They only saw the difference when l had to urinate,” she said.
The other, now a professor in international relations said: “In those days everything was regulated. Even the amount of food one took to school was regulated and you were punished if you brought more than the required amount.
“This was because things were so tough and the government advised that we saved some of what we had for tomorrow.”
As we went through the cities of Seoul and Pusan, my hosts would point to whole paddy fields that have now been turned into ultra-modern real estates, or a fishing community where now sits a huge industrial complex.
While l listened to my hosts, my mind would occasionally go back to this old pensioner who lived next to my flat in London. His favourite topic whenever we had a little time to chit-chat was his amazement at how much London has changed from since he was a boy.
He told me about how the times were so difficult that some of them could not afford milk for their porridge. He told me about how they had to use public baths and about how night life in London was not full of lights and there were occasional black outs.
What l found common about my Korean hosts and my London flat neighbour was their pride in 'showing of' the 'scars' of their hard struggles in the past. It brought home more forcefully to me that every country that has made it in this world has a generation that was prepared to bear the brunt of the very hard times for a better future. This is true of Japan, of Germany, of Italy, of the US, of France, etc.
Question is: “Are there any set of Ghanaians willing to take the bull by the horns and tackle the economic development of this country just as the generation of the 'Big Six' did for our political independence?”
This government has shown it is ready to take the hard but necessary decisions to set the country on the path of development.
Whenever the 'Wahalians' take to the streets each time tough measures are taken that will lay the basis of our economic take-off, what they seem to be saying is: 'we are not prepared to see to the development of this country. We prefer our present status of underdevelopment.'
Unlike all those countries that have made it despite passing through some very harsh times, the 'Wahalians' seem to be telling the whole world that Ghanaians are not prepared to take their destiny into their own hands and that they would rather be kept living in our present state of underdevelopment.
The teachings of Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher seem to have a great influence on the thinking of South Koreans and his quotes can be found in lifts and public places.
One of them that l came away with says: “If a man takes a taught not of what is distant, he will find sorrow near at hand.” Think about it.