Friday, May 23, 2008

Is financial help to China helpful?

The devastation caused by the powerful earthquake that hit Sichuan Province last week is undoubtedly shocking, and the unprecedented access that Chinese authorities have given to media (as opposed to foreign humanitarian workers, who have been barred from going in deep) has brought us images that would move even the most jaded of observers. Schools have been leveled, burying students. Upwards of 5 million people are now homeless and at least 50,000 people are believed to have died. As is often the case following a natural catastrophe, the region surrounding the affected country shifts into donor mode and starts sending help, both material and financial. In Taiwan, televised pledges have been organized; the government has offered NT$2 billion (US$65 million) while banks have offered more, as have former vice-president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), among others. Aid organizations have begun collecting money at street corners, and starting this week, whenever one buys a 本日 coffee (coffee of the day) at Starbucks, NT$10 will be donated to China.

There is no doubt that China needs help — but not in the form of money, of which it has plenty. Yes, schools and hospitals need to be rebuilt, but given the high rate of schools/hospitals versus, say, office buildings that were crushed, it is evident that, through neglect or corruption, they had not been built as per safety norms. Furthermore, as I argue in "Why are we sending aid to China?", published today in the Taipei Times, providing financial aid to China deresponsibilizes the government in Beijing and ensures that it will not face the pressure it should be facing from disgruntled citizens in the hard-hit, poorer areas of the country.

If money is to be sent, I would encourage people to do so for Myanmar, where the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis has far exceeded that seen in China and whose government, despite its criminal neglect, has by no means the state coffers that Beijing does (see event, organized by the Taiwanese Red Cross, on the left).

Far from being callous in the face of human suffering, I advocate humanitarian assistance that will not only help those in need immediately, but also in the longer term by compelling their governments to distribute wealth in a more equitable fashion to ensure that infrastructures everywhere meet safety standards.

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