Taiwan’s official development assistance (ODA) has been problematic since the nation’s withdrawal from the UN in 1971. Seeking a breakthrough in Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation is understandable, but Taipei’s use of checkbook diplomacy under the guise of the ODA defames its international image.
The Gambia case, recently published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Project and based on banking data of more than US$100 million in secret funds to former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, indicates an escalation in ODA misuse involving terrorism financing and national security.
Any possible linkage between the ODA and Hezbollah is a grave concern for Taiwanese taxpayers. Not only is it a cause for national shame — as Taiwan takes pride in being the only consolidated democracy in the Chinese-speaking world — it also jeopardizes the lives of innocent people around the world.
The Counter-Terrorism Financing Act (資恐防制法) was promulgated in 2016. Articles 8 and 9 of the act impose a criminal penalty on those who knowingly support terrorist activity financially.
Unfortunately, the legislation does not retroactively apply to the Gambia case, which covers events from 1995 to 2013.
The collusive corruption of Taiwanese foreign aid takes root in three main faults: A lack of political will, a loophole in the foreign bribery law and the mismanagement of mechanisms of enforcement.
The lack of political will and incentive to combat corruption stems from the ruling party’s determination that foreign policy keep the “status quo.”
This, in turn, gives ODA recipient countries leverage to demand or blackmail for more aid. Usually, the secret funds are hidden in items of the classified ODA annual budget, which is proposed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and approved by the Legislative Yuan.
Maintaining a “decent” number of diplomatic ties with foreign countries serves the best interests of any government, regardless of whether the Democratic Progressive Party or the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is in power.
Taiwanese diplomats who are on the front line and bear the foremost pressure to maintain diplomatic relations tend to be vulnerable to blackmail from ODA recipient countries.
Under this duress, a tacit collusion of corruption among the ruling party, diplomats and ODA recipient countries occurs at the expense of Taiwanese taxpayers.
A loophole exists in the form of the classified ODA budget. By law, the Ministry of National Defense is not allowed to engage in foreign military sales without the legislature’s prior consent.
In practice, the foreign ministry circumvents the law by using the classified ODA budget to buy military equipment and ship it to ODA recipient countries.
Military aid in the guise of ODA has been a tradition between Taiwan and African and Latin American countries.
Foreign bribery is another legislative loophole. Taiwan’s first foreign bribery law was promulgated in 2011. Article 11 of the Anti-Corruption Act (貪污治罪條例) penalizes any person bribing foreign officials “for business-related purposes.”
This legislation can be understood to exclude foreign “political” bribery. Even if ODA involves business proposals, the mechanisms of enforcement are lacking.
Taiwan’s anti-corruption agencies have little interest in pursuing foreign bribery cases. There are 25 agents from the Investigation Bureau stationed in overseas offices. They are the front line of enforcement, but without home office directives, these agents have little incentive to probe ODA scandals.
The other anti-corruption body, the Agency Against Corruption, is in charge of domestic corruption involving the public sector. Even if it collects evidence of corruption from the foreign ministry, the agency has no obligation to pass it on to the bureau.
The Taiwan’s main criminal investigation body is its prosecutors, who are reluctant to initiate overseas bribery cases due to the logistical difficulty of evidence collection and a lack of performance incentives.
The bureau, the agency and prosecutors are all subordinate to the minister of justice, a political appointee. Political interests seem to override public interest in shaping ODA policy and practice.
These compounding factors provide fertile ground for ODA scandals to grow in the years ahead.
Ernie Ko is a member of Transparency International’s Membership Accreditation Committee.
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