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(Yonhap Feature) KOICA volunteer spreads can-do spirit through sewing machines in Sri Lanka

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

By Park Bo-ram

COLOMBO, Nov. 3 (Yonhap) -- In a dry Sri Lankan village where the only income source lies in four months of rice farming every year, a group of ambitious village housewives stitch together pieces of imitation leather into women's handbags that could be a source of income and a chance at a better life.

Children's backpacks and shoppers' felt sacks are also among the goods that the housewives produce on their brand-new sewing machines distributed by the 32-year-old volunteer from South Korea, Lee Ji-young, in the northern border village of Sri Lanka still faltering from the 26-year-long Sri Lankan civil war that ended a long time ago.

The office worker-turned-volunteer handed out 20 Singer-brand sewing machines to middle-aged women in September in the small village in the Anuradhapura District, the North Central Province, through her one-person development aid project financed by the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), South Korea's official development assistance (ODA) body.

Lee was one of the 14 volunteers KOICA dispatched to Sri Lanka for a two-year stint in June 2012, and now she is working free of charge at the women's department in Sri Lanka's Ministry of Child Development and Women's Affairs.

"Most Sri Lankan women, except those in the high social class, usually stay at home after marriage and take charge of raising kids and manage household chores," Lee said during an interview with Yonhap News Agency in Colombo. "I first envisioned a project to create jobs for Sri Lankan women, but later scaled it down to a program to encourage at-home income earnings because the reality was that even men are hard pressed to find jobs here."

The group of 20 women previously received vocational training through a city program to produce 60 different styles of bags, as part of efforts to help stay-at-home housewives raise income. But the women who went through two months of training were left sitting idle because they couldn't afford to buy sewing machines that cost several hundred dollars per unit. And that was when Lee stepped in.

"The distressed city sought help from the ministry headquarters, and I picked up the project as part of my personal volunteering mission to empower women," said Lee, who formerly worked at the Seoul Metropolitan Government's foundation tasked with promoting gender equality and women's rights.

Her US$12,000 project -- comprising $8,000 to purchase 20 sewing machines and other costs for training -- includes bag designing, accounting, marketing and other skills needed to both make and sell the bags.

"They gratefully made bags but then the bags ended up sitting inside their houses unsold," Lee said. "They then had the skills, but did not know what to do with the finished bags, so we had to teach them how to bring the products out to bazaars and market them."

The volunteer's women-empowering project is still on-going in the remote Sri Lankan city. She plans to make a group trip to fabric and bag wholesale markets as well as the shop of a successful fellow bag maker and bag seller this month.

On their brand new machines, the housewives, at their best, churned out up to 50 bags over the past one month, each selling at prices of 200 to 500 Sri Lanka rupee, or about 2-5 U.S. dollar.

"Now a successful housewife earns up to $100 a month while others get about $1-20. However profitable each person is, the most meaningful part is that the project gave them a lesson of self-help and self-development as well as the confidence that I can do it," the volunteer said.

Transferring such a self-help mind is also in the center of KOICA's development aid activities, which include a $10 million project to establish technical high schools across Cambodia by 2017, a knowhow transfer program to help Myanmar successfully host the 2014 summit meeting of the Association of South-East Asian Nations as well as the dispatch of about 2,500 volunteers and advisers with expertise, including Lee.

"About 2,500 volunteers and advisers from KOICA are helping needy countries currently across the ODA recipient countries, and the number amounts to being the world's second- or third-biggest," said KOICA President Kim Young-mok.

KOICA, under the wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is one of the two major bodies implementing South Korea's government-level development grant aids to underdeveloped nations. The Export-Import Bank of Korea, the other body under the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, deals with almost-interest-free soft loan issuance provided to them in developmental assistance.

Since the late 1980s, South Korea has continued to increase its ODA to provide a total of $1.6 billion won last year, with KOICA alone handing out $472 million out of the total.

South Korea's rags-to-riches success story has shown the importance of human resources and ways to organize them, Kim said, highlighting KOICA's fledging program to spread the country's rapid economic growth knowhow, showcased in the Saemaeul Movement initiative.

The Saemaeul Movement, or New Village Movement in English, is a village unit-based self-help initiative pushed by the South Korea government in the early 1970s. In its early stages, the government distributed free cement as an incentive to hard-working village units and mobilized villagers to modernize the rural areas, leading to massive agricultural productivity growth and speedy national economic growth.

South Korea, meanwhile, joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Development Assistance Committee (DAC) in 2009, which is a gathering of major international ODA donor countries, becoming the world's first and only nation turning itself from a recipient to a donor country.

The KOICA president said the new village initiative essentially aims to install a hard-working spirit in underdeveloped nations, as the nationwide campaign once did in South Korea.

"When the Saemaeul Movement is successfully implemented in those countries, it will greatly change them. It will possibly make their countries' (labor) culture much healthier and thus transform the entire society," he said.

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