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Taiwan Expands Disaster Assistance in the Americas

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The Western Hemisphere has long been one of the most disaster-prone areas of the world as hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have regularly impacted this region and wreaked havoc on millions of people each year. As a result, governments and development organizations remain keen on addressing disaster preparedness and response issues to ensure local communities are ready to face future disasters.   

An innovative partnership between the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) is tackling this issue head on by targeting local communities in the Caribbean and Central and  South America who are highly vulnerable to a slew of disasters. For the region, this represents a new way of facing an old problem given Taiwan’s extensive experience and expertise in dealing with natural disasters.   

The partnership is already rolling out important initiatives. In Haiti’s coastal South-East Department and the border region inside the Dominican Republic, we’re focusing on preparing for and diminishing the impacts of floods that regularly occur following tropical storms. A similar project will implement neighborhood approaches to risk reduction for precarious hillside communities in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  Both initiatives meld information technology with community-based solutions to mitigate the effects of natural disasters in low-income areas that regularly suffer devastating losses and human suffering. 

These actions reflect the policy of President Ma Ying-jeou to enhance Taiwan’s contributions to international development and humanitarian aid that address the priority needs of vulnerable communities. In a video conference with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in May 2011, President Ma Ying-jeou proposed a new set of policies for augmenting Taiwan’s contributions to the international community through use of the island’s formable “soft power.”  The partnership with PADF is an example of these new policies and how Taiwan is playing an even more significant role in the Americas. 

For years, Taiwan has been a global provider of assistance to victims of natural disasters. Following the 2010 Haiti quake, it sent life-sustaining medical aid to Haitian children and is aiding that country’s earthquake recovery. Taiwan was also the first nation to deploy emergency relief supplies and rescue teams when Japan was struck by the triple disaster of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident in 2011.  Today, Taiwan is one of the leading sources of humanitarian assistance in Asia and throughout the world, based on its successful experiences in responding to similar natural disasters. 

But Taiwan is also improving the way it shares knowledge about disasters. A major contribution to the region has been the creation of a new platform where experts can share experiences and exchange ideas that can pave the way for more sustainable development in countries that are highly vulnerable to recurring natural hazards.  At a recent seminar held in Managua, Nicaragua with the support from Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF) and regional financial institutions, experts from Taiwan, Central America and the Caribbean showcased how new mapping technologies can improve public policies for disaster response, planning and preparedness. It highlighted Taiwan’s remarkable technical expertise in disaster assistance and risk reduction and their application in the Americas. 

Taiwan’s extensive understanding of disaster preparedness and response comes from its own experiences dealing with disasters at home. During a visit to Taiwan last year, I saw firsthand how the country has embraced disaster preparedness by raising awareness at all levels—teaching the general population on what actions to take during an emergency, training teachers and students on how to best prepare, educating construction contractors and workers on seismic resistant building techniques that can mitigate damage and loss of life.  It is a world class example of raising public awareness and vigilance.   

In a similar way, Taiwan has a growing number of non-governmental organizations that are providing people-to-people assistance throughout the world as seen so vividly in its response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010. One of the most interesting groups is the Buddhist Tzuchi Foundation that has a million volunteers in Taiwan who support the recycling of plastic containers into blankets and clothing for victims of natural disasters and humanitarian crises. 

It is important to note that the ROC’s commitment to making important contributions to the international community remains strong even with the issues posed by Mainland China. We should recognize Taiwan’s efforts and willingness to collaborate on regional peace and stability, as well as on international development and disaster assistance.

In her book, “Why Taiwan Matters”, Professor Shelly Rigger offers a comprehensive explanation of how this island became a global powerhouse exercising a role in the world far greater than its small size.  Its dynamic economic growth and innovation, vibrant democracy, and strong rule of law and civil society, provide a success story that too often has been overlooked.  It demonstrates that historic progress in development and democracy can be made within one generation and that national commitment, combined with international cooperation, do work.  

Only half a century ago, in the 1950s and 1960s, Taiwan was a major U.S. aid recipient. Through the Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, it revolutionized land tenure and agricultural production that established the basis for the island’s development. In that period Taiwan pioneered major economic and education reforms, developed small and medium enterprises, and implemented investment promotion policies and export processing zones that dramatically increased trade, worker productivity and the middle class.  By the 1980s these set the stage for what came to be called the “Taiwan Miracle”, and showed how an aid recipient can quickly evolve into an aid donor as we see today. During the past two decades, Taiwan created one of the world’s leading bilateral aid agencies with its ICDF, offering world class technical advisors and technology to numerous countries and to professionals from all corners of the world. 

As PADF has seen, there is a great deal that Taiwan offers to the Western Hemisphere and to the global community. Its economic prosperity and democracy have combined to produce a vibrant innovative society that provides useful models in many areas.  PADF looks forward to expanding its collaboration with the people and Government of Taiwan as we further empower communities to confront natural disasters and advance sustainable and equitable development.

John Sanbrailo is Executive Director of the Pan American Development Foundation.

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