Taiwan's Relief Efforts in Haiti

Taiwan rescue team members sort out aid at the fire department in Taipei before heading to Haiti on Jan. 13. (Photo: Sam Yeh/ AFP-Getty Images)

Faced with severe natural disaster, no nation can cope alone. In addition to the tragic death and destruction caused by natural disaster, complications inevitably arise that lead to difficulties in relief efforts. International cooperation is often required, and the January 12 earthquake in Haiti is no exception. Haiti cannot make it through this storm alone; they need help, and indeed help has begun to arrive.

People around the world have answered the humanitarian call to aid for those suffering in Haiti, putting aside political and cultural differences to try and make a difference in the recovery of that nation. The Republic of China (Taiwan) is particularly sensitive to the difficult situation Haiti currently faces and has made extraordinary efforts to bring aid in this time of crisis.

The Taiwan Connection

Both Taiwan's modern history of development and its recent natural disaster Typhoon Morakot strengthen the emotional and humanitarian link between these two peoples. An island nation like Haiti, Taiwan has only in the past 20 years grown from a position of need to one of providing assistance. Throughout the 1950s, Taiwan received approximately $100 million of aid each year, which helped the nation to work through difficult times and become an economically and politically developed international contender. Beginning in the late 1980s, several organizations were established to provide development loans and technical assistance to developing nations. These days, Taiwan is a major contributor to relief efforts worldwide, and is now proud to stand as a donor nation committed to all kinds of international humanitarian work.

Nevertheless, Taiwan's recent experience with the devastating Typhoon Morakot was a harsh reminder that any nation at any time may again find itself in a position of need. The typhoon was the deadliest in Taiwan's history, striking in early August with three days of massive rain and wind. Morakot was one of the worst natural disasters in Taiwan in recent memory and the wettest typhoon the island has ever experienced, causing catastrophic damage. Current figures estimate 676 dead with 23 still missing. Many of the dead come from the town of Xiaolin, which was almost entirely buried in a mudslide during the crisis. In the aftermath of the disaster, Taiwan and its people benefited greatly from international assistance that helped to speed relief efforts.

These circumstances should make it come as no surprise that in witnessing the awful destruction caused by the recent earthquake in Haiti—one of Taiwan's formal diplomatic allies—the government, organizations and people of Taiwan sprung into immediate action in support of that nation and its people. The Morakot experience also serves as a reference for Taiwan's disaster relief workers for how to deal with these difficult situations. Taiwanese news headlines have been dominated by coverage of the situation in Haiti, and there has been a massive outpouring of sympathy and support from Taiwan. This has resulted in many concrete contributions to relief efforts.

What Has Been Done

Taiwan's response to the crisis has come from all levels of society. Financially, the Taiwan government committed over $6 million to aid for Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, and special accounts have been set up to encourage donations from the private sector. Taiwan's overall contribution has now reached $13 million.

On the day of the earthquake, Taiwanese college students set up a Facebook group called "Taiwan for Haiti," whereby several corporations and individuals pledged to match any donations for Haiti given to the Red Cross or World Vision. The group has over 6,000 members and has encouraged awareness of Haiti's plight among the young people of Taiwan.

A warehouse was set up to receive material donations, and the first shipment of such materials arrived in the Dominican Republic on January 18, totaling 83 metric tons and valued at $340,000. The Embassy of Taiwan in Haiti has purchased 50 metric tons of rice from local markets for emergency distribution in Port-au-Prince. The first 200 metric tons of Taiwanese rice arrived in Haiti on January 29, with another 200 metric tons expected to arrive in March or April.

Many Taiwanese have traveled to Haiti to provide direct aid. A special rescue team of 23 specialists from the National Fire Agency of the Ministry of the Interior arrived in Haiti on January 16 to begin its work, and this team has so far directly saved two lives. Further, a search and rescue team organized by the Taiwanese Red Cross Society, consisting of 33 personnel, joined the efforts in Haiti on the same day. Medical teams from Taiwan joined the relief efforts as well. Taiwanroot Medical Peace Corp, a Taiwanese NGO, dispatched a 66-member medical team to Haiti on January 19. Another medical team of 17 doctors and nurses organized by Taiwan International Health Action (Taiwan IHA) was dispatched on January 26.

President Ma's Visit to the Region

Upon hearing of the destruction, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou immediately re-routed his previously planned trip to Latin America, adding a stop in the Dominican Republic on January 28. There he met with Dominican Republican President Leonard Fernandez and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive in Santo Domingo to discuss the situation and how best Taiwan could further assist with post-disaster relief and resettlement work. Ma's delegation traveled on a specially chartered freighter carrying 10 tons of medicine, food and other relief supplies to be unloaded in the DR and transported to Haiti. The three leaders discussed how to help Haiti get back on its feet in the wake of the earthquake, and during the talks President Ma proposed four key pilot programs for Haiti's reconstruction. 

The first issue addressed in President Ma's plan was public health and medical care. Professional teams from Taiwan that are experienced in overseas rescue, public health and medical care services are looking to set up medical missions in Haiti to provide needed medical services. Second were rebuilding and the resettling of survivors, and to that end Taiwan hopes to help Haiti build a "Hope Village." To start, Taiwan will donate shelters sufficient for 200 households or 1,000 people. This donation may be increased in the future to structures accommodating 1,000 households or 5,000 people, so that disaster victims not only may have houses to live in but also may find jobs. 

Third, adjacent to the "Hope Village," Taiwan plans to set up farms to provide villagers with jobs. Taiwan is also looking to cooperate with the Dominican Republic on providing materials to be used in building shelters for earthquake victims. This will increase both job and business opportunities in the Dominican Republic. Through this project, Taiwan hopes to help Haiti's people get back to their normal lives as soon as possible. Finally, President Ma proposed Taiwan assist through orphan sponsorship. Tens of thousands of children were made orphans by the earthquake. The NGO World Vision Taiwan is very experienced in work with disadvantaged children, and future efforts will work with this organization to provide relief to Haiti's orphans.

It is the president's hope that initial results from the aforementioned pilot programs will be seen by the time the World Summit for the Reconstruction of Haiti convenes on April 14 in the Dominican Republic.

A Humanitarian Responsibility

Taiwan's efforts have received international praise. The Wall Street Journal Asia noted in a January 18 editorial that Taiwan's humanitarian efforts are not limited to Haiti, but that in fact Taiwan has continually shown support in times of international crisis, including with nations that do not recognize it diplomatically. Taiwan actively supported relief efforts in Indonesia during the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami and in mainland China's Sichuan province during its severe earthquakes in 2008. As the editorial stated, "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." In instances such as these, Taiwan's contribution is a manifestation of the utter necessity of international cooperation, and Taiwan hopes for future meaningful participation in relevant international organizations so as to facilitate that goal.
These efforts have been undertaken in a spirit of global community on behalf of Taiwan and its entire people. Upon hearing of the devastation in Haiti, President Ma noted, "We want not only to express our sincere support as a diplomatic ally, but also to fulfill our humanitarian responsibilities." The political, economic and even emotional relationship between the island nations of Haiti and Taiwan has lent a great urgency to Taiwanese efforts towards relief. News media and others have commented that, though Taiwan is not an official member of the United Nations or the World Health Organization, its humanitarian aid has been no less than any member countries of those organizations. Quite the opposite, Taiwan's full commitment demonstrates that its formal status does not undermine its standing in the international community. The government and people of Taiwan very much hope to continue doing everything possible to aid those in need in Haiti.

Tony Ong is the director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York.