In its commitment to foster public-service oriented leaders, the Leadership Programme encourages first-year WHT Scholars to undertake a pro-bono project of their choice. Scholars are permitted to do this in Oxford, their home country or elsewhere, with the only requirement being that it involves engagement in unpaid public service.  Many of our scholars embark on dynamic public service projects across the globe. Antonio Beun (Argentina, MPP, Louis Dreyfus Weidenfeld-Hoffmann) shares his experience below:

Mentoring Korean youth in the Diaspora a WHT probono project by Antonio K Beun

Antonio poses for a photo with young mentees after the leadership training.

The Korean community in Argentina is roughly 30.000. The first Koreans arrived with nothing but their shirts on their backs 55 years ago. They were poor but struggled mightily and achieved upward social mobility through the textile industry. What they have done is formidable. As a close example, my parents arrived in Argentina with only $20 and yet they managed to provide me and my brothers the best education available.

Nevertheless, revenues within the textile industry create a phenomenon similar to the one known as the ‘oil curse’, applicable to several nations with plenty of natural resources. Specifically, textile businesses created disproportionate wealth. While they allowed many Korean families to achieve upward social mobility, they also suffocated other entrepreneurial activities.

In addition, ‘behavioural barriers’ prevented subsequent generations from leaving this comfort zone and innovating. The community is now facing stagnation and lack of diversification, since new generations choose to continue with their family businesses instead of pursuing higher education and other economic activities. This is not harmful in itself however; it leaves the community’s full potential unfulfilled. This same pattern replicates in many Korean diasporas throughout Latin America.

In conversation with Korean parents and young people from the Diaspora.

Identifying the right problem

  • Behavioural and social barriers

According to behavioural and psychology literature, social factors can drive patterns of behaviour. We adopt behaviours through social learning. In other words, we adopt behaviour by observing our environment and reinforcing what we have picked up through social networks (Bandura, 1977). This theory casts some light on what happens to the Korean community in Argentina and other parts of Latin America: the vast majority is dedicated to the textile business and this is a salient characteristic that defines the community in terms of behaviour and identity.

  • Identity shapes choice

According to Tajfel, we also adopt identity by belonging to a certain social group. And this is important because a person’s identity affects behaviour and choices (Akerlof, 2000). ‘Belonging’ or feeling associated to a certain social group has a great influence in how we choose occupations and where we draw the limits of our aspirations. This also explains why the second generation does not pursue higher education: identity economics shows that even if individuals have easy access to education, they might choose not to, in order to keep on belonging to a social group. As such, pursuing higher education within some groups would disrupt the routine they maintain within their social networks – from which they derive their sense of identity.

  • Preference for the familiar

Finally there is a familiarity bias. Individuals tend to prefer things that they already know and understand, compared to things they do not. The positive side is a constructed feeling of foreseeability. The downside is the path dependency to what is familiar. In the case Korean communities, teenagers often choose a job related to the community’s textile business over education, despite the seemingly obvious gains of formal qualifications.

“a one sided story is nothing more than a monologue. In other words, one-sided stories highlight not the presence of discrimination, but the lack of dialogue about what a community wants to be in a certain country. “

Antonio K Beun (Argentina, MPP, Louis Dreyfus-Weidenfeld and Hoffmann)

Theory of Change

I believe that the social and behavioural barrier regarding aspirations and social preferences of every Korean community in Latin America can be overcome. My idea is simple: I leverage on social influence to address the problem. I sustain my argument in many research papers that show how social influence through mentors can improve aspirations (Beaman – Duflo, 2012; Breda 2017). Interventions which seek to address aspirations should have a knock on effect if successful. In this light, I have been volunteering through different organisations, activities and programs as a mentor for younger generations of the Korean community and diasporas in Latin America. I have been working closely with the diaspora in Argentina, but an opportunity to visit Guatemala arose thanks to the invitation of the Korean Embassy to work with the Korean community there.

Launching the project in Argentina

In Argentina, I designed a mentorship program with the Overseas Korean Traders Association, the Korean Embassy and other NGOs. We searched for talented young leaders within the community and provided them with a week-long workshop inspiring them into taking leading roles and guiding them with practical tools of leadership.

We worked on identity crisis and built strong bonds between mentors and participants. The program was divided into: personal development and identity, negotiation and communication skills, basic knowledge about the public, private and non-profit sector of Argentina.

Our goal was to bridge the gap between Asia and Latin America through young, multicultural and diverse Korean-Argentine leaders who would facilitate communication and exchange from relevant positions in the public, private and non-profit sector. We had two sets of customers: Korean parents interested in the education of their children and Korean or Korean descendant students between the ages of 16 and 22. Since 2015, we have mentored more than 100 students per year.

Replicating the project in Guatemala

It was not possible to replicate the same experience in Guatemala due to time constraints. However, I was able to work for a long-day workshop with more than fifty participants between parents and students. In this opportunity, I opened with an initial talk stressing on the similar origin I shared with them, because perceived similarity is fundamental for trust-building. I then highlighted the idea with examples (that I frequented the same type of Korean restaurants as them, the church, etc.). Finally, I showed them that I progressed in my career because of hard work rather than because I was gifted.

In the second part of the day, I worked individually with students addressing their concerns. Something that surprised me was that these were students that needed much more than social catapults, such as resources or money. In fact, their biggest demands and questions were not around a lack of access to good education, but a lack of role models to follow or consult. A second problem that was common among all students was the lack of integration with the Guatemalan society and the resulting prejudice against Asian communities. I argued that the community should stop regarding the issue as a consequence of discrimination. Instead, think of it as a consequence of a lack of conversation.

I explained that a one sided story is nothing more than a monologue. In other words, one-sided stories highlight not the presence of discrimination, but the lack of dialogue about what a community wants to be in a certain country. An immigrant community that talks with the host country can negotiate the limits of its identity, accommodate its integration and contribute to the future of that society. In contrast, the community that does not attempt to generate this conversation, contributes passively, to feed prejudices and, thus, stereotypes. The result of the workshop was satisfactory and it was especially helpful that I could work with students and their parents at the same time.

About the Scholar

Laura Stewart


(), I am not a scholar
, Oxford
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