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Monday, March 15, 2010

Taiwan Charity Has Global Reach

Shanlin, Taiwan and Cengkareng, Indonesia

Every heart is capable of priceless, great love.

Inside a tent, a poster on the wall tells a story of ruin and resilience: Aid workers in neat blue-and-white uniforms scrape gooey gray mud off an abandoned street in the wake of a destructive typhoon. Outside the tent is a picture of renewal: A new settlement rises in a broad green valley in the town of Shanlin.

The Great Love village, complete with earthquake-resistant schools, churches and houses, will eventually accommodate 1,500 families displaced when Typhoon Morakot pummeled Taiwan last August, triggering floods and landslides that killed 700 people and left tens of thousands homeless.

Many of the new Great Love residents, who began to move in last month, are Taiwanese aborigines who lived in marginal highland communities before the typhoon hit.

The land was set aside by the Taiwanese government for typhoon survivors. But the $94 million project has been funded, designed and executed by Tzu Chi, a Taiwanese Buddhist charity known for its rapid response to the island's all-too frequent natural disasters. When it's not digging out mud-strewn villages, Tzu Chi keeps busy healing the sick, feeding the needy and recycling the island's trash

In Taiwan, Tzu Chi volunteers in their white pants and navy-blue polo shirts are a familiar sight, and the group operates a popular cable-TV channel, also called Great Love. (The charity takes its name from one of its tenets: Every heart is capable of "priceless, great love.")

Largely unknown in the West, Tzu Chi has more regular donors (10 million, mostly Buddhist) and active volunteers (two million) than any other charity based in greater China. In 2008, it raised $314 million. It has built dozens of schools on the island, and six hospitals there bear the "Tzu Chi" name, which is a combination of two characters; the first is an honorific for mother, the second means charity.

But the reach of this 44-year-old charity now extends across much of the developing world, from Ethiopia to
El Salvador to Myanmar, and it offers a view of how Asian philanthropy may evolve in an era of rising affluence. Roughly a third of Tzu Chi's regular donors live outside Taiwan; the charity has 399 offices in 47 countries running local projects and raising money for relief and development. This is foreign aid, with Taiwanese characteristics, and it has proven to be powerfully effective in providing disaster relief. What it isn't, however, is a platform for Buddhist proselytizing.

Until now, philanthropy in Asia has usually meant giving to local causes. By branching into cross-border humanitarian relief, Tzu Chi has become the first Asia-based Buddhist organization to enter a field dominated by large Western aid groups.

Asia "no longer has to be reliant on help from outside," says Richard Madsen, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied Taiwan's Buddhist nongovernmental organizations, among which Tzu Chi is the biggest and has the most global reach. As Asians become more affluent, he adds, "They can start to be generous and proactive to solve problems around the world."

Tzu Chi's roots lie on Taiwan's hardscrabble east coast. In 1966, Cheng Yen, a Buddhist nun now 72 years old, started an association of nuns and housewives who pooled their savings to help poor families. Dharma Master Cheng Yen, as she is known, has said that she was inspired by three visiting Catholic nuns who asked her what social services Taiwan's Buddhists provided.

The organization began to focus on offering Western medicine to needy Taiwanese and later opened a teaching hospital in the eastern city of Hualien. The hospital now has Asia's largest bone-marrow bank, which is open to anyone.

Tzu Chi has a full-time paid staff of 800 in Taiwan, excluding employees of the TV channel and hospital; they tap into its army of volunteers—many of them retirees—around the world. Its donors are global, too: For disaster relief outside Taiwan, much of the money is raised through local chapters, says Her Rey-sheng, a Tzu Chi spokesman based in Hualien.

The Great Love village in Cengkareng, Indonesia, which houses 800 families displaced from Jakarta slums by flooding in 2002, was paid for entirely by donations from Indonesians—including the Widjajas, the ethnic-Chinese family behind agribusiness conglomerate Sinar Mas Group. Tzu Chi has 35,000 regular donors in Indonesia and an annual local budget of more than $10 million. The Jakarta chapter runs an Indonesian affiliate of Great Love TV and sends relief teams of Indonesian physicians to disaster zones such as the earthquake-hit city of Padang on Sumatra Island, where more than 1,000 people died last October.

The Cengkareng village, which opened in 2003, boasts a recycling center, a spacious school and a 31-bed hospital that treats patients—including nonresidents—for free.

On a recent morning, Hanafi, a 76-year-old retired civil servant who goes by one name and lives in a nearby town, sat waiting for a cataract screening on the third floor of the Cengkareng hospital. He had not been able to see out of his cloudy eyes in several months, he said. After a local doctor at a public clinic told him about the free surgery at this hospital, his daughter brought him in.

While he waited his turn, he prayed that the Indonesia Tzu Chi Hospital doctors could restore his sight. Like most Indonesians, Mr. Hanafi is a Muslim. Told that Tzu Chi is a Buddhist group, he seems unruffled. "The important thing is that it's a good organization," he says. "I don't know anything about the religion."

That suits Tzu Chi just fine. It forbids proselytizing by volunteers, though anyone is welcome to join the Buddhist prayer sessions held at its local chapters, its hospitals and at disaster sites. People of other faiths aren't excluded from the charity's lay activities, such as disaster relief. Indeed, Tzu Chi's volunteer medical corps in Indonesia is mostly Muslim.

Such localization holds the key to Tzu Chi's growth, says Mark O'Neill, author of "A Silent Revolution—the Tzu Chi Story." Its offices around the world are headed by Taiwanese expatriates or overseas Chinese. Ethnic-Chinese minorities in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines often are among the first to volunteer. Western relief groups such as Mercy Corps and Save the Children often coordinate with their respective embassies in disaster areas, but Tzu Chi doesn't. In fact, in many countries where Taiwan has no official ties and thus no embassy, including the U.S., it still maintains a presence.

At times, this isolation can be an advantage. Within days of the massive cyclone that struck the southern coastline of Myanmar in May 2008, Tzu Chi and another Taiwanese Buddhist charity got permission from Myanmar's military government to fly in water and tarpaulins for shelter. Most Western NGOs were shut out for up to a month by the junta, wary of help from Western powers.

Tzu Chi's low-key charity work is a kind of Taiwanese "soft power," says Mr. Madsen, the sociologist. This is important because the island has little international clout today. The United Nations admitted China and unseated Taiwan in 1971, and in 1979, the U.S.—the key to the island's support internationally—formally established diplomatic relations with the mainland. Taiwan was effectively sidelined.

In Taiwan, Tzu Chi keeps its distance from the island's fractious politics, which helps free it to do what it wants as an aid organization. While other Taiwanese Buddhist aid groups are aligned with political parties (Fo Guang Shan, or Buddha's Light Mountain, for example, has ties to the Kuomingtang party), Tzu Chi is scrupulous about not taking sides, says Mr. Madsen.

That approach is an asset in mainland China, where Tzu Chi has been expanding gradually since 1991. It registered in 2008 as a foreign NGO, and now has projects in 25 provinces, says Mr. Her, the spokesman. China holds the greatest potential for the charity, given ties of culture, language and family. A large number of Taiwanese live and work there, and the local chapter has some 20,000 volunteers, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese.

Tzu Chi "can build a love bridge across the strait" between Taiwan and China, says Mr. Her. But there are still many curbs on what NGOs can do in China, he says. For instance, Tzu Chi must get permission to solicit donations for specific projects, which leaves it largely dependent on funds from Taiwan.

Andre Laliberte, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa who has researched Tzu Chi's China programs, says the faith-based foundation may be overly optimistic about what it can accomplish in China. "They wish they could build hospitals and have all the activities that they have in Taiwan," he says. "But it's not going to happen," given Beijing's wariness of NGOs and organizations with a religious base.

Still, after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, Tzu Chi was the first foreign aid group to get relief workers on site. Since then, it has been busy building 13 schools, many of which will be finished this year.

In monetary terms, Tzu Chi is a small fish in the global aid pond. Other organizations, such as Oxfam, CARE and Doctors Without Borders, raise more money, reach more places and employ more expert staff. But the corps of volunteers at Tzu Chi—who work for free—give this group its strength.

Overseas-Taiwanese entrepreneurs and educated professionals form the backbone of the global volunteer network, which works to build schools in Turkey, dig wells in Ethiopia and deliver babies in China. Local chapters—all run by volunteers—can be found world-wide, from La Paz, Bolivia, to Cape Town, South Africa, as well as in the U.S. and Canada. Since 1998, Tzu Chi has mobilized 15,000 doctors and nurses from around the globe to provide free medical services in dozens of countries.

Tzu Chi volunteers pay their own way, and there is a waiting list of Taiwanese wanting to join aid missions overseas, says Mr. O'Neill, the author. "Without these volunteers, the foundation would not be able to accomplish many of its missions," he says.

When Typhoon Morakot hit Taiwan last August, Tzu Chi was among the first to send relief supplies to affected highlands. It has raised $143 million in reconstruction funds from people in 52 countries, including survivors of other disasters, according to Mr. Her.

After Taiwan's government said that landslide-prone villages could not be rebuilt, Tzu Chi went to work at the new, government-sanctioned site. But many victims bemoan the abandonment, and a minority have refused to sign a form relinquishing their right to return to their old homes.

Until the Tzu Chi project opens, most of the displaced are in temporary government and army-run shelters. At a sleepy army base, Liu Wu Shou-mei, 54, hobbles gingerly. Her village was buried in mud, and she and 600 other residents spent three days and nights huddled on a rain-lashed mountainside. Her left leg had to be amputated above the knee. Mrs. Liu regrets the move to the lowlands but sees no way back. "Our hearts are in the mountains but we have to face reality," she says.

Some Taiwanese NGOs have criticized Tzu Chi for pressuring survivors into signing the consent forms. Tzu Chi officials say it's voluntary and point out that the government set the guidelines for where private charities can provide permanent shelter in the area.

Self-sacrifice and humility are among the foundation's core beliefs. It's a draw for Tzu Chi's paid staffers—many of whom are midcareer professionals who took a substantial pay cut to join. Not all are Buddhist; staff members in the U.S., for instance, are mostly Christian.

Mr. Her, a former TV news anchor who works full-time as a Tzu Chi spokesman, reports directly to "the Master" in Hualien. He says he doesn't miss his high-flying job. "I earn less, but life has more value," he says.

One of Tzu Chi's core principles is that relief supplies—blankets, food parcels—should be handed over personally, with a bow, by volunteers. The foundation feels this expresses sincerity and gratitude, in line with the movement's teachings. That's how Hsieh Ching-kuei, a former banker who is now head of international relief at Tzu Chi, found himself dancing with North Koreans in 2001.

It had taken a year and a half to persuade officials in Pyongyang to allow Tzu Chi to distribute rice directly to malnourished villagers, rather than hand it to the government. When the day finally came, more than 50 uniformed Tzu Chi volunteers stood in a row, facing the assembled villagers. Before the handover they read a letter from Master Cheng Yen and sang a song. Villagers hugged them and put on a show, says Mr. Hsieh. "When they open up, they're really good dancers," he adds.

But that kind of access isn't guaranteed. When Tzu Chi went back to North Korea in 2008, new officials in charge insisted that food aid be turned over to a government-authorized organization.

Mr. Hsieh joined Tzu Chi in 1995 after 10 years as head of Merrill Lynch's wealth-management division in Taiwan. When catastrophe strikes, Mr. Hsieh jumps on a plane to coordinate the flow of supplies, logistics and manpower. He tries to source goods nearby, to boost the local economy. In some trouble spots, Tzu Chi teams up with relief agencies that have better access. In mid-1990s Rwanda, for example, it worked with Médecins du Monde in post-genocide relief efforts.

Over the years, Tzu Chi has learned a lot from the "big names" in humanitarian relief, says Mr. Hsieh. In general, his approach to aid is the more, the merrier. "If this is a business, you want to be the only producer. But in this industry you welcome everyone."

Sometimes that means making friends with the enemy. After anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta in May 1998, Tzu Chi began distributing rice in poor neighborhoods, where anti-Chinese sentiments ran deepest. The idea was to break a cycle of hatred by putting an ethnic-Chinese face to charity.

Though thousands of Chinese-Indonesians fled the country in the wake of the May Riots, which also hit other cities, Tzu Chi stayed. When the 2002 floods inundated thousands of squatters on the banks of the Angke River, Tzu Chi volunteers organized medical services and a clean-up campaign. The wealthy Widjaja family consulted Master Cheng Yen and began to call in favors from other Indonesian tycoons. They helped raise $7 million to build new homes for the flood victims.

Today, the Cengkareng Great Love village—-a cluster of five-story apartment buildings—is thriving. Indonesian government officials have come to glean lessons for future postdisaster relocations, says Hong Tjhin, an ethnic-Chinese Tzu Chi staff member in Jakarta. He thinks Indonesia's ethnic-Chinese elite has much to learn from the project, too. "We have to give back," he says. "It's only natural and proper."

—Simon Montlake is a writer based in Bangkok.

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