REPORTING FROM SEOUL –- For South Korea, the fact that the southern port city of Busan played host Tuesday to the start of a three-day forum on global aid strategies is no less than a "rags to riches" story.
In 1963, still reeling from a war that a decade earlier had ravaged the Korean peninsula, South Korea, with a per capita income of just $89, was a major recipient of global aid, making it one of the world's least-developed countries.
That was then; this is now.
Today, Busan is the world's fifth-largest commercial port and the nation's economy is the world's 13th largest.
For the next few days, nearly 2,500 policymakers and experts from 160 nations are meeting in Busan to devise more efficient ways of providing international aid. Key participants at the Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness will be U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Jordan's Queen Rania.
For days, South Korean newspapers have played stories heralding the nation's rise in economic power from near-worst to almost-first.
"It is unprecedented that the international aid forum is taking place in a country that once survived on international aid," a government official in Seoul told the Korea Times newspaper. "In this regard, Korea is a model state whose dramatic transition from rags to riches will help highlight the significance of international aid for during the forum."
South Korea is the first Asian nation to host the forum, which has met three times previously since 2003 -– in France, Italy and Ghana.
But the world's premier development aid forum has its work cut out for it -– challenges such as getting China and India to assume a bigger role in global aid efforts. Experts are also expected to try to establish a new global framework to improve aid and make it more transparent, as well as establish a monitoring system, organizers said.
They are also trying to gauge the effects of the European financial crisis, determining whether it will lead wealthier nations to question how much they should spend on such aid amid tough domestic budget fights -– possibly retreating from crucial programs for those living in poverty.
The forum, which was last held in 2008, includes a scheduled Wednesday speech by Clinton. But it is host South Korea that has the most room to shine.
"As a country that has successfully transitioned from destitution to a developed nation, Korea is especially well positioned to bridge longtime donors and new actors on the one hand, and donors and recipients on the other," the Korea Herald said in an editorial.
In 2009, South Korea joined the international donors club, making it the first recipient-turned-donor state in history. The nation has since donated $2.3 billion in foreign aid to developing countries.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: Members of Save the Children and World Vision stage a demonstration in front of the venue of the High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, urging donor countries to provide effective aid. Credit: Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press