Wed, Jun 06, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Why Taiwan should maintain its foreign aid programs

Taiwan’s foreign aid programs are generally aimed at helping alleviate poverty, providing medical assistance and boosting harvests, and the recent loss of two diplomatic allies should not stop Taipei from providing aid to those countries, experts say, even if such a policy is unpopular

By James Baron  /  Contributing reporter

A group of children from Eswatini in December 2015 perform at Taichung City Hall and thank Taiwan for providing aid to the country, Taiwan’s only remaining diplomatic ally in Africa.

Photo: Su Chin-fong, Taipei Times

Few publications have documented Taiwan’s official development assistance (ODA) efforts in such a personal way as the booklet Greening the Sahel, which was put out by the ODA agency, the International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF), in 2003. Using text and pictures, the publication describes in detail how Taiwanese agricultural know-how helped create swathes of lush paddy in the desert of Burkina Faso.

Lapsing at times into mawkish self-congratulation, the text is nonetheless a testament to the efforts of the men and women staffing the technical teams that Taiwan began sending to countries around the world from the late 1950s. Then, as now, there was always the ulterior motive of shoring up support for Taiwan, particularly in Africa.

Amid the post-colonial uncertainty, a two-way, soft power scramble for the continent was afoot. Underfunded officials were dispatched by Taipei to spook leaders of nascent polities with tales of the havoc the Chinese red agitators would wreak on traditional tribal structures. Another tactic was to pooh-pooh the Communist claim to represent the peasant masses.

“I asked them, ‘Have you seen Mao Zedong (毛澤東) working in the fields?” said former career diplomat Liu Ying (劉瑛), who worked to garner support for Taiwan in various African countries from the late 1950s. “How about Zhou Enlai (周恩來)?”

Rare is the ODA initiative that springs from unfettered altruism, and developing nations fairly bemoan what they see as hypocrisy and sour grapes on the part of Western governments that decry the strings-attached aid that China offers. Taiwan’s needs are simply more obvious, pressing and, in a word, existential.


Still, vested interests do not negate the enormous good that Taipei’s assistance has brought about. One of the best examples of the tangible difference Taiwan has made to the lives of some of the world’s neediest was a project to eradicate malaria in Sao Tome and Principe between 2003 and 2007, an achievement that was also documented in an ICDF brochure.

Yet Taiwan’s image as a beneficent development partner is completely undermined by announcements such as the May 24 statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MOFA) that it was to “begin the process of recalling our diplomatic staff, medical and technical teams” from Burkina Faso following the West African nation’s decision to breaks ties.

While this might seem like a natural reaction to the double whammy Taipei suffered last month — the Dominican Republic having severed relations May 1 — it is not in keeping with the trends that currently inform progressive development aid thinking: increased participation by NGOs and nongovernmental development organizations (NGDOs), civil society and philanthropists.

It is instructive to note that this element of Taiwan’s development aid and diplomacy has been almost completely glossed over in the fallout from that Labor Day defection.


Observers of Taiwan’s foreign policy have long touted this “third sector,” as an escape route from the asphyxiatory tactics China has employed to limit Taiwan’s international space. Colin Alexander, a former research fellow with MOFA, has stressed that traditional thinking on development aid has given way to models that must account for public input. Diplomats from Taiwan’s partner countries have echoed this, with Honduran Ambassador to Taiwan, Rafael Fernando Sierra Quesada, among the most vocal proponents of a “people-to-people” approach.

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