Help with a bow
May 29th 2008 | TAIPEI
From The Economist print edition
An unexpected bringer of relief in Myanmar and China
THE natural disasters that recently befell Myanmar and China have tested the willingness of both stricken countries to let in foreign helpers. Western relief organisations are still waiting to see whether Myanmar's armed forces meant what they said when they promised to let in all aid workers, regardless of nationality. China, though quick to accept money and material from the West, was slower to let in its people. But whereas Western do-gooders have queued for entry, volunteers from Taiwan's non-governmental organisations (NGOs) received a warmer welcome. A chartered relief mission from Taipei, led by a Burmese-born Buddhist monk, was among the first to land in Yangon, Myanmar's main city. In China, emergency workers from a Taiwanese foundation were among the first to reach Sichuan. This first-responder feat is all the more remarkable given the political impasse between China and Taiwan.
Disaster relief plays to the strengths of Taiwan's NGOs. They have plenty of experience coping with earthquakes and typhoons at home, and can mobilise legions of volunteers at short notice. Operating in a vibrant democracy that encourages civil society is also handy, as is the charitable impulse of many Taiwanese. This is often channelled into Buddhist philanthropy, which troubles receiving countries less than the proselytising zeal that comes attached to some brands of Christian charity. Paradoxically, Taiwan's diplomatic isolation helps: its aid agencies can plead neutrality in countries such as Myanmar.
The largest NGO in Taiwan—and by all accounts in the Chinese-speaking world—is the Tzu Chi Foundation, which has dozens of international chapters, around 10m supporters and annual donations of $300m. In Taiwan it runs hospitals, schools, a university, recycling centres and one of the world's largest bone-marrow banks. 忘記提媒體 It began overseas relief work in 1991, responding to flooding along China's Yangzi river. Initially, its offer of help got a cool response from both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Critics at home asked why they wanted to aid “the enemy”. Eventually both sides relented, and China is now the biggest overseas recipient of Tzu Chi's low-key largesse. Earlier this year, it finally got a licence to operate freely as a 100%-foreign NGO, a first for China, it claims.
With projects in dozens of countries, Tzu Chi is starting to resemble its Western counterparts, except that its aid workers are trained volunteers who pay their own way to disaster zones. Master Cheng Yen, a Buddhist nun who founded the organisation in 1966, teaches that charitable givers must thank those they help in person, preferably with a bow. That is not just a wonderful bit of courtesy. It is also a way to make sure that aid reaches its recipients, rather than ending up in the hands of an unworthy government.