HOPE - Volunteer in Korea

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Name   HOPE
Subject   The Marvels of a Voluntary Society
Aaron McKenzie
April, 2012

  At the risk of using one too many Annie references (which is to say, one), it’s natural, upon becoming aware of the hard-knock life which orphans face, to suggest that someone should help them. Most of the time, however, this “someone” means “someone else,” whether it be the government, corporations, rich people, or just simply “anyone but me.”

  Such was not the reaction of Joohwan Baek, who, upon becoming aware of the challenges faced by Korean orphans, as well as of the barriers facing foreigners who wished to help them, co-founded HOPE (Helping Others Prosper Through English) in 2008. Rather than simply shrugging his shoulders and assuming that these were someone else’s problems, Baek and three Canadian friends took it upon themselves to improve the lot of local orphans and children from low-income families by doing what they already knew how to do: teach English. Over the past four years, with the help of donations, volunteers and partnerships, HOPE has placed over 200 teachers in approximately 20 different learning centers scattered about the Seoul area.

  While Baek may not view his activities at HOPE as anything more than a simple good deed, his dedication to this cause is in fact a prime example of not only the entrepreneurial spirit that undergirds a capitalist economy, but also the ethos of voluntarism that holds it together. Defenders of the free market spend the bulk of their time explaining the necessity and virtue of profits, and perhaps this is as it should be. After all, a profit earned through peaceful exchange is simply a sign that one has successfully catered to the needs and desires of his fellowman. This emphasis on profit, however, too often obscures the importance of the non-profit sector.

  For much of human history, and long before governments emerged as the chief providers of social services, private citizens worked together in spontaneous, bottom-up organizations to advance the public welfare. And though it may appear that for-profit and non-profit organizations could not be more different, they share the same foundation, specifically, groups of individuals who voluntarily come together to accomplish a particular goal, whether getting rich by designing the next hot gizmo or, like the folks at HOPE, giving disadvantaged kids a better start in life.

  Humans as a species, are naturally social creatures and under conditions of peaceful prosperity, it’s hard to keep them indoors and alone. In this regard, Korea is no exception. As in virtually every culture, the family in Korea has traditionally been the first line of defense against hardship, but by no
means does the human propensity to help others stop at the doorstep. Look around a Korean neighborhood and you will see troupes of senior citizens on litter patrol, university and military alumni organizations helping each other through rough times, and groups holding benefit concerts for everything from animal shelters to North Korean refugees. As extraordinary as HOPE is, then, it is merely one piece in a larger patchwork of such voluntary efforts.

  Such activities give the lie to the central justification for the welfare state, which asserts that humans lack compassion and will not lift a finger to help those in need. They also suggest that perhaps humans are capable of meeting each other’s needs without resorting to the use of force implicit in all state-funded programs. After all, in a society based on the principles of voluntarism, one can appeal to his neighbors’ sense of community, pride, or compassion as he seeks their help in addressing a local challenge, such as educating disadvantaged kids.

  He may not, however, use or threaten violence if his neighbors decline to assist him. The national tax office, by contrast, is under no such constraint when it collects funds for state programs (if you doubt this, try to deduct from your next tax payment your share of the cost of any program of which you disapprove). Even more to Baek’s credit, then, he has shown over the past four years that one can improve his community without ever resorting to the use of force.

  Unfortunately, the welfare state does not so much create new institutions as crowd out the civic organizations that people tend to spontaneously fashion of their own accord. That this has not stopped folks like Joohwan Baek from doing his own small part to help Korea’s least-fortunate kids is testament to the irrepressible human desire – a constituent part of our very nature – for the sense of community that comes from peacefully improving the lives of others.

Author’s note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Mr. Baek or of HOPE.

Aaron McKenzie is a research fellow at the Center for Free Enterprise in Seoul.

 Next    Segye Daily, 2010-09-27

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