|Participants of the Servas International 31st Conference and Central Assembly (SICOGA) 2018 assemble for a group photo at Imjingak during a day trip to the DMZ. / Courtesy of Servas Korea|
By Jon Dunbar
The eight-day Servas International Conference and General Assembly (SICOGA) 2018 officially wrapped up last Saturday, although members are still in Korea for after-events.
The Europe-headquartered NGO holds the event every three years to bring global citizens closer together. It has over 15,000 members in over 100 countries,
Servas International (SI) President Jonny Saganger was in Gangchon, Gangwon Province, on day 2 of the four-day Servas International Peace Riding (SIPR) bike tour, when he spoke to The Korea Times by phone.
"We are an organization that offers a network for individual members to make contacts around the world with people in your own country and in other countries," he explained, "in order to meet people of different ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, ideological beliefs, any kind of difference you can think of, and make it possible to become more tolerant through understanding."
The conference offered various talks and workshops, while the General Assembly settled operational matters for the next three years, including elections and budget planning.
The SI Executive Committee agreed to dedicate a large part of their budget over the next three years for upgrading their hospitality social media platform. The platform connects members who host other members for free. Members must pass a screening process and pay an annual membership fee.
"We have that system but we want to improve it and make it state of the art to make it possible for members from all around the world to get in touch with each other and make arrangements for visits in each other's homes," said Saganger, originally from Sweden.
He envisions expanding the platform to mobile, and making it possible to connect with other members based on keywords, for instance by searching "Ecuador" and "birdwatching" to find someone there with similar interests.
Korea was chosen as host country this year based on the thorough proposal submitted by Servas Korea, which showed its members were ready to host such a global event, according to Saganger. They aimed to have the conference as sustainable as possible, eschewing disposable items and cutting down on printed paper. They also shared only vegetarian food on Oct. 15 to promote a more sustainable way of eating.
According to Choi Byung-wan, national secretary of Servas Korea, the Korea branch has 350 active members spread out in 11 regional branches nationwide. It was founded in 1965, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2015. SI itself was founded in 1949.
"Talking together, eating together is most convenient for understanding each other," Choi said, emphasizing face-to-face contact which is the goal of SI's digital platform.
Saganger offered three seminars himself, with one on the "practical philosophy of how to make people feel welcome."
Last Wednesday, the group visited the DMZ. "An area in the world with the only demilitarized zone anywhere is of course something very interesting," he said. "It's a symbol of a conflict area that has been frozen. From a peace perspective it's a very interesting place."
He admitted to having one cultural misunderstanding during his stay, when he invited people for coffee only to find the Koreans expecting him to pay and the Europeans naturally arriving with their own money ready.
"In order to create a peaceful world, it starts with understanding and tolerating differences, rather than looking at differences as a problem," Saganger said. "It's a richness we have to understand. It's like creating a more peaceful world one talk at a time or visit at a time, that's our little contribution to a more peaceful world."
Visit servas.or.kr or servas.org for more information.