BRIDGE aspires high and bold
By Kim Se-jeong
UNESCO Korea is running a risky experiment that will, if it succeeds, lay a new foundation for international development. It’s risky in that it’s challenging and largely untried.
Labeled “BRIDGE,” a brand-new volunteer project by UNESCO’s Korea National Commission, has recently recruited its first batch of 18 fresh college graduates, and is training them in Gyeonggi Province.
The 50-day intensive camp is providing them with knowledge on Africa where they will spend four years after finishing their training in the skills to communicate, negotiate, build cross-cultural relationships, take pictures and write reports. Learning how to listen to others is also an important part of lessons taught at the camp.
There is also a practical program teaching them how to grow Chinese peppers, peppers, tomatoes, rice and sweet potatos.
Not to be omitted of course are the language courses.
Six natives from Lesotho, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe have also flown to Korea to interact with the volunteers. Their mission is to offer the Korean volunteers a glimpse of Africa and to give them a sense of what to expect when they begin their new lives on African soil in less than 50 days.
After the training ends in late September or early October, the 18 students will be divided into six groups and will head off to their designated African countries.
BRIDGE was brainstormed by Chun Taeck-soo, the secretary-general. It was one of his pledges as a candidate to take this role at UNESCO Korea two years ago.
Soon after taking office, he formed a group of six experts that reviewed existing volunteer programs and came up with a new scheme which would complement the old ones.
Giving an equal opportunity to students living outside the Seoul and Gyeonggi areas was a special order of the secretary general, thus UNESCO Korea gave incentives to applicants from outside the Seoul metropolitan area.
But the result wasn’t so satisfactory, Kim Dong-hun, the BRIDGE program manager, told The Korea Times. Out of the 18 final candidates, nine were from the Seoul and Gyeonggi regions and the other nine from the rest of Korea.
In many aspects, BRIDGE is unprecedented.
Found in its mission statement, the focus of BRIDGE is “to help local people form community leaders and establish local education centers, and to help them compose social development programs for themselves.”
In many international development projects volunteers are the service providers, and the people on the receiving end the consumer.
“That’s fine, but when the volunteers leave, the society will retreat back to what it used to be,” if not worse, said Kim.
That is why the unilateral flow of assistance from one country to another often comes under attack from critics who argue that help of that kind only make the recipients more dependent.
Enos Chamboco from Zimbabwe agreed. Having arrived in Korea last week to join in the volunteer training, Chamboco said what Zimbabwean people really need is not constant help from others but the strength to be independent.
“I want BRIDGE to teach people ways to stand alone,” he told The Korea Times.
Mindful of the downside, “We do not have a set of programs such as building schools or providing language courses.” Instead, “Befriend local people” will be the top mission for the BRIDGE participants.
Then, they will need to pinpoint the problems in the community, and talk to people who either cause the problems or are affected by them. Lastly, the volunteers will help the local community find solutions.
“If it means talking to the leader of the province, to help them (the community), talk to him. If it means asking the president of the country or international organizations, go and do it,” The manager said.
The fact that BRIDGE is designed to give an opportunity to the participants is what makes it unprecedented.
“Our interviews have found that experiences in the field were of very little use in building careers after students returned,” Kim said.
For the first two years, BRIDGE participants are required to work in the field, but for the two following years, they will receive formal education about the country and the neighboring region.
“So when they return, their knowledge will be useful in building up their career.”
Lee Soo-min, 25, a graduate of Chonnam National University in Gwangju with a degree in architecture, was one of those fascinated by the possibilities. She said she was quite positive her experience will enrich her future.
Contrary to what it promises, BRIDGE still has many hurdles to overcome, one of which is financing. Samsung and Korea International Cooperation Agency have agreed to provide 970 million won or $815,126, which will only cover the cost of the first two years.
UNESCO Korea will still have to find sponsors to finance the last two years of the program.
Another unknown is the social perception toward volunteers in Korea.
UNESCO is negotiating with private and public sectors so that the volunteers will have an upper hand in getting a job with their experience.
“But it’s not easy. Companies are still reluctant.
“What we ultimately want is to modify the social perception so that volunteers will be given credit for what they have done,” Kim said.
Taking things one step further, he is hoping to create an environment where people take a leave of one or two years from work to do volunteer work and come back.”
What if BRIDGE fails? The manager said that isn’t yet an option.
“We are responsible for the future of 18 students. And we will make it work,” he said, calling for help.
UNESCO Korea is hoping to gradually increase the number of volunteers and the number of participating countries as well.