Every time a natural or man-made catastrophe strikes, human compassion results in an outpouring of aid, including medical assistance and money for support operations and reconstruction. At such times, political differences can be cast aside.
Such generous responses to suffering are noble indeed, but as laudable as that reflex may be, the result might not be the one that is intended.
The region’s two latest catastrophes — the devastating cyclone in Myanmar, which has resulted in more than 120,000 deaths, and the powerful earthquake centered in China’s Sichuan Province, killing about 50,000 — offer us perfect examples of cases in which providing cash assistance may be counterproductive.
This is not to say that the victims and local governments do not need money to deal with the immediate impact of the catastrophes and their after-effects, for they do. Rather, the reason why donor countries should refrain from giving money is that doing so takes away responsibility from the central governments that should be providing for the victims.
Sending cash also allows governments to maintain grave economic disparities and socioeconomic neglect that contributed partly to the high death toll in the first place (a similar argument has been made against providing humanitarian assistance during armed conflict, as doing so allows warring factions to focus their efforts on waging war rather than caring for their own people).
Myanmar’s case is more problematic, as it involves a government that is not, by any standard, a wealthy one.
Nevertheless, its flagrant disregard for the welfare of its citizens in the wake of Cyclone Nargis and its failure to respond appropriately underscored the fact that it is unrepresentative of Burmese and unworthy of being their government.
By providing money and assistance, contributing countries could paradoxically contribute to the survival of the regime by giving it a new lease on life.
In other words, donor aid — provided it reaches those in need — would act as a life support for a junta that should be overthrown for its criminal failure to provide for ordinary people.
The case of the Sichuan earthquake provides an even starker justification for why donor countries should refrain from giving money, and this is particularly the case for Taiwan, which, with NT$2 billion (US$65 million) set aside, quickly became one of the top contributors of aid, both monetary and medical. The reflex to give to victims and their families is natural and worthy. But unlike Myanmar, the central government in Beijing, with the world’s biggest foreign reserves and a booming economy, has more than enough money to provide for its people, including those made destitute by natural disaster.
If the infrastructure in Sichuan Province did not meet safety standards — and the uneven pattern of devastation in certain towns suggests this — then this was not the result of empty government coffers, but rather an unequal distribution of wealth. In this regard, China is faring quite badly, as its Gini coefficient (a measure of a state’s domestic inequality, with zero meaning perfect equality and 100 perfect inequality) of 46.9 — and growing — shows us.
Given the assessment of financial analysts that, despite the devastation, the damage to China’s economy will be minimal — the booming centers in the province were largely spared by the earthquake — Beijing will have little incentive to make financial investments in the region on a scale that would ensure a catastrophe of this avoidable magnitude does not happen again. Rather, the money for ordinary Chinese who really need it will come from donor countries, including Taiwan.
The irony in Taiwan donating cash for reconstruction in Sichuan lies in the fact that a good part of Beijing’s military budget, estimated at US$46 billion this year and growing at a rate of 17.6 percent, goes toward the deployment and modernization of weapons and forces that threaten Taiwan. It would be interesting to see how many schools, hospitals and apartment complexes in Sichuan could be rebuilt, or orphans cared for, with the money that Beijing spends annually on the deployment of the more than 1,000 missiles it aims at Taiwan, including their maintenance, the research and development that has gone into making the missiles more accurate, the logistics and troops that are involved in targeting processes and the large-scale, annual military exercises simulating an invasion of Taiwan.
In spite of this very real threat, Taiwan has promised millions of dollars in aid, and Taiwanese, who will be on the receiving end should those missiles be launched, are wiring money or giving to aid organizations appearing on street corners or in appeals on TV.
They are well-meaning, but they are also fortifying a regime that not only continues to fail to meet the needs of its citizens, but also threatens citizens of other countries.
Taiwanese can help those in need in Sichuan Province. But that help should come in the form of expertise, not money.
Giving the latter hurts not only Chinese in the lowest economic strata who should be getting more out of their powerhouse economy, but also Taiwanese themselves.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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