Almost a month ago Haiti experienced a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that left the capital, Port-au-Prince, in ruins. Besides causing death and destruction on a massive scale, the earthquake also destroyed the country’s already weak infrastructure. Within 24 hours of the quake, Taiwan dispatched five rescue and medical teams to Haiti. Being no strangers to earthquakes, the Taiwanese knew that time would be crucial if lives were to be saved amid the rubble. Since then, Taiwan has joined other countries in helping an estimated two million survivors to rebuild their lives.
Taiwan, a country rarely in the international spotlight, has truly risen to the challenge by mobilizing its resources quickly and effectively, something that has not gone unnoticed by the international community. The Wall Street Journal noted how Taiwan was pulling its international weight in Haiti despite being kept in a diplomatic no-man’s-land. “It should give those working to help Haiti pause to think that a prosperous nation ready and willing to shoulder such burdens is relegated to the wings of the international stage.” Taiwan’s quick action was also mentioned by Time magazine, which wrote, “some of the first search-and-rescue teams to depart for the devastated Haitian capital came from another small island on the other side of the globe: Taiwan.”
Ma pledges ongoing support
Last month, during President Ma Ying-jeou’s visit to the Dominican Republic, he made a point of meeting Haitian Prime Minister Minister Jean-Max Vellerive to personally deliver the relief supplies that had been brought on his chartered plane. Along with 10 tons of disaster relief supplies, Ma also increased Taiwan’s aid donation to US$10 million and gave the prime minister Taiwan-made satellite phones. Speaking to the media afterwards, Ma outlined the four most urgent tasks.
First, Taiwan will provide medical services to help prevent the outbreak of disease that could easily spread given the unsanitary conditions in many devastated areas. Already, teams of medical personnel have rotated into Haiti to offer medical assistance at health stations. On January 19, one such group comprised of 66 medical professionals (23 from the US) from the Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corp (TRMPC) transited through San Francisco on their way to Haiti. They brought 2 tons of medical supplies and equipment for Haiti. Upon that team’s departure, another medical team took its place. So far, three teams have already been sent, and over 5,000 victims treated as of January 28.
On January 27, Taiwan’s first shipment of Taiwanese medical supplies arrived in Port-au-Prince. The 6 tons of supplies were officially delivered to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) representative Henriette Chamouillet.
Second, Taiwan's government plans to join other countries in building “villages of hope” for hundred of thousands of homeless Haitians. It hopes to build 200 homes capable of accommodating up to 1,000 people, increasing to 1,000 units to house 5,000 people.
Besides TRMPC, other civil organizations, as well as Taiwan International Health Action, have sent a combined 84 tons of relief supplies (worth US$378,000) which arrived in the Dominican Republic on January 18 for transportation to Haiti. The provision included: first aid supplies, foodstuffs, drinking water, clothing, tents and lighting equipment. In April, Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture (COA) will continue the flow of aid with a pledge of 200 tons of rice.
Third, Taiwan would like to establish farms and factories near the newly built housing so that the new tenants can be offered vocational training and jobs to get them back on their feet. The president will encourage Taiwanese businesses to work in Haiti to spur job creation. Already the TRMPC has allocated US$110,000 to Mercy Corps International for exactly this purpose.
Fourth, the government will also work with non-governmental organizations to encourage direct sponsorship of orphaned children through World Vision Taiwan and the Taiwan Fund for Children and Families. Currently, Taiwanese people sponsor 200,000 children overseas, according to the Taiwan News.
Taiwanese officials are also mulling the possibility of canceling or reducing Haiti’s public external debt, which reached US$1.8 billion in 2008. At least US$91 million of that amount is guaranteed by Taiwanese banks.
Tzu Chi’s inspirational work for Haiti
Beside government agencies, Taiwan’s biggest non-profit organization, Tzu Chi, has taken an active role in the relief work. Immediately after the earthquake, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation sent a team to evaluate the situation in Haiti. The foundation decided to focus its work in the district of Tabarre since it was designated by the UN to be a suitable place to accommodate survivors, and also because Tzu Chi had prior experience working with a local orphanage, the Institute for Human and Community Development (IHCD), there. Tzu Chi volunteers had visited and provided assistance to the orphanage just a year before the earthquake. When they returned to the area, they saw some of the plastic tarpaulins they had given out before being used to provide make-shift shelters.
Soon after the earthquake, Tzu Chi began stockpiling instant corn powder, a food staple in Haiti, and began including it, along with cooking oil, milk powder, beans, oatmeal, rice, gas stoves and reusable utensils, in their relief packages. After the initial small distribution on January 29 at IHCD, Tzu Chi has continued with several smaller distributions as well as a large distribution in the city of Tabarre in cooperation with officials from USAID, local churches, the Haitian police and UN peacekeepers from Jordan. This week, the foundation will conduct another large-scale distribution by providing food as well as medical and dental services to over 10,000 survivors.
Early February, Tzu Chi began its work relief program which pays Haitians for cleaning up their community in return for either food or cash. People registered to take part are delighted to be paid to clean up and to help in the reconstruction. It gives them a sense of hope, respect and pride. Participants are fed by Tzu Chi volunteers and they can also take meals back home for their families.
Currently, more food, blankets and portable restrooms are on their way to Haiti from the United States and Taiwan. On February 4, Tzu Chi’s third major shipment, with enough food for 1.6 million meals, left its headquarters in Hualien, Taiwan.
A time for wider recognition
Taiwan has a long standing relationship with Haiti. It is one of the countries that continue to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country. Even before the earthquake, Haiti was a country in need of assistance, and Taiwan has tried to do its part.The Taipei-based International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF) have been working with local farmers to see if a Taiwanese strain of rice called “Taichung-shien No. 10” would grow well there. With the ICDF’s assistance, farmers in Haiti have planted 3,000-hectares on farms in the Artibonite region. When the earthquake struck, the ICDF donated US$50,000 towards purchasing 50 tons of locally grown rice to boost post-quake relief. Buying locally is the best form of assistance since farmers are provided with a market for their products and the money spent remains within Haiti. Besides working with traditional farmers, ICDF is also supporting fish-farming in southern Haiti.
Before the earthquake, Haiti was ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world, at 153 out of 177 nations. Located all the way across the globe, Taiwan went the extra mile to help Haiti. In many other parts of the world, Taiwan has also stepped up to the plate to offer assistance to many other countries in their hour of need. Perhaps now is the time to acknowledge just how much more Taiwan could do if it were a full fledged participating member of the international community.
- The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.
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