From Nov. 24 through Dec. 1 of last year, 600 volunteers from all over the world gathered in the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince for Habitat’s 29th Carter Work Project. It was their second time going to Haiti, and again, they achieved their goal which was building 100 houses for Haitians who lost their houses in the big earthquake three years ago.
Constructing good houses for homeless people is how Habitat, one of the most influential Non-Governmental Organizations(NGO) in the world, helps change the world into a better place to live. Hug For Vision is another organization that shares Habitat’s vision. This organization is managed by Korean university students, who gather used eye-glasses from donors and send them to African and Asian children with poor eye-sight.
These two organizations are not the only groups that work hard to help people and make a better society. There are around 10,000 NGOs in Korea, 28,000 when counting branch offices, Then, one may question, “If there are these many NGOs working to improve the condition of our society, why couldn’t I notice it? Why can’t I feel the change around me?”
Hug For Vision is an organization that Korean university students manage.
It helps changing the world into a better place to live.
“The fact that former President Lee Myung-bak neglected the important role NGOs have in society cannot be denied. Not only did he fail to establish new programs for NGOs, but he also stopped several NGO supporting policies,” said Park Sang-pil, a professor at Sungkonghoe University’s graduate school of NGO studies. NGOs play an essential role in the community because they have to keep things in balance with government power and protect individual rights all for the public interest. However, NGOs faced several political obstacles during the past five years.
After the candlelight vigil
After the candlelight vigil against the resumption of U.S beef imports in 2008, NGOs faced their first political barrier. This protest is recalled by many as the “mad cow disease candlelight vigil,” and as the start of the pressure on NGOs. After the vigil, which almost all of the NGOs in Korea participated in, NGOs received a notice from the government saying that they were not allowed to do any kind of antigovernment demonstrations from then on. If the organizations did not send back their written pledge or accept the notice, they would be excluded from the Ministry of Public Administration and Security’s NGO list.
Being on the list of the Ministry of Public Administration and Security has significant meaning for any NGO because it means that the NGO is provided a subsidy from the government and is recognized as an active NGO. Those NGOs that did not accept the notice, the government took measures to halt the subsidies that were supposed to be provided to them. It was then that the government’s budget for NGO subsidies dropped from 10 billion won to 5 billion won. This change is considered to be the work of the administration to stop the criticizing and anti-government activities of NGOs.
As a result of this incident, only 140 NGOs received government subsidies out of 1400 organizations in Seoul. The organizations that continue to get financial support from the administration are mostly those that are not involved in political issues having to do with any protesting.
Pressure from governments diplomatic moves
Policies and rules that were newly made, such as those mentioned, signaled the NGOs’ uphill struggle. The political atmosphere that could be felt by the government’s international strategies also put pressure on several NGOs. This was especially the case for groups that in any fashion supported North Korea. For example, an NGO that did not wish to reveal its name to the public was initially founded to exchange culture with North Korea.
However from 2008 they had to change their activities to exchanging cultures worldwide. This change happened because former President Lee’s administration was not on good terms with North Korea. The tension between the two countries worsened and the implicit pressure made it difficult for the NGO to continue its programs related to North Korea. Even the organization’s former name that was focused on North Korea had to be changed to one that means ‘the world together.’
Political constraints on NGOs were not recognized easily. “The biggest trouble we have is that we lost our power and voice since the day we got the notice after the candlelight vigil. Having been excluded from the subsidy list and interest from the government, it is more difficult to plan and continue our activities,” said a staff member at Korean Women Link, which is an NGO that promotes gender equality and participatory democratic society.
However, it is not only political pressure that NGOs face. Many know that NGOs have a hard time with financial affairs because it is difficult to get funding from companies and institutions. This problem has been common to NGOs in many countries for some time, according to a survey at the World NGOs Conference in 1999. However, when compared to other countries, the financial problem is more severe in Korea.
Comparison between European governments and the Korean government in percentage of NGO support in proportion to GNP is drastic, as it can be seen in the graph above. The graph shows that the Netherlands financially supports approximately 40 times more for NGOs than the Korean government does.
Revised donation regulations
Several explanations can be given for this huge gap. The notice NGOs received after the candlelight vigil against the resumption of U.S beef imports is one reason. “The Act on the Regulation of Donation Collections”, a regulation that restricts illegal collecting of donations and unlawful use of collected donations, is another important law that had an impact on NGOs. A bill requesting an amendment of this law was brought before the National Assembly by Lee Byung-seok, a member of the Grand National Party, and was approved in February 2008. A legislation was added to the Act on the Regulation of Donation Collections, specifying stricter rules to follow when donating and requiring additional paper work covering precise details of donations. This newly added legislation eventually made donors turn their backs on fund-raising organizations. This came as a big blow to NGOs, for they have to rely on a large part of their capital on donations, which became an unstable source after the legislation went into effect.
The entrance of an NGO deep in the alley in Namyoung-dong.
Community Chest’s embezzlement
Another blow knocked NGOs low in 2010. The Community Chest of Korea, the most popular charity fundraising institution, turned out to be corrupt in 2010. This incident of the members of the Community Chest of Korea embezzling the money people had donated came as a shock to people.
“After the case of the Community Chest of Korea, I could feel the difference in people’s attitude when I did fund raising activities outdoors,” said Jang Gi-yeong, a fund-raiser at HelpAge Korea, an NGO that provides social welfare services for senior citizens with low income. Having lost trust in the Community Chest, people hesitated donating to NGOs as well.
The changes in regulations and coverage in the newspaper are forgotten easily. However, people who are directly connected with these little changes are threatened in their work. In March 2011, twelve NGOs lost support from the government that unnoticed. The government’s reason was that the organization’s activities did not match up to their subsidy. Sooner or later in 2013, tax deductions will be cut down according to a newly established policy. This again will work as another factor that will financially blocks the way of NGOs. People know that NGOs do not have a lot of money but they do not know why, and they do not know how more severe the problem has become during the last few years.
Outlook of NGOs
The political and financial disadvantages NGOs faced led to the problems of a lack of participation and capital. All of these hardships are linked together. NGOs that got excluded from the government’s support or were negatively influenced by fund raising issues do not have the money to go on with their activities. Members of these NGOs will not feel the need to participate in powerless NGO programs and will gradually leave. With no partner and no members to plan and do activities together, NGOs’ roles in society are being threatened. NGOs were initially meant to keep government and corporate power in balance and protect individual rights in order to make the world a better place in which to live. For several years however, this important role of NGOs was ignored and forgotten.
NGOs are busy these days giving feedbacks to election pledges and policies planned by President Park Geun-hye. Statements made by NGOs may not seem important and it is up to government officials to read them. “The new government should be able to make NGOs active and influential again. Incubating programs supporting NGOs’ activities and re-establishing the tax deductions for NGO donors should be practiced,” said Professor Park Sang-pil. The staff member of Korean Women Link emphasized, “We hope the administration led by President Park will not interrupt our activities while giving subsidies to NGOs again.” The voices of these people should not be drowned out because NGOs have the power and right to enhance our society where public interest is thoroughly practiced.