Monday, January 13, 2014

Taiwan must review foreign aid policy in light of developments in The Gambia and El Salvador

Former Salvadorian president Francisco Flores under questioning by a congressional panel last week
AFP photo

It is becoming all too familiar - a Taiwanese check meant for development aid, disappearing in thin air at the expense of the citizens it was meant to help.

Francisco Flores, who was president of El Salvador from 1999 to 2004 found himself answering to charges that he pocketed three checks from Taiwan amounting to $ 10 million.  He admitted to receiving the checks but denied diverting them for his personal use.

According to the Taipei Times, Flores's successor, president Mauricio Funes suggested to reporters that the missing Taiwan fund  "might have been skimmed or misused" and suggested that prosecutors should look into the matter.  The checks in question were issued by the Bank of New York on behalf of Taiwan, and endorsed by Flores to a bank in Costa Rica, through another bank in Miami, Florida before it ended up in a bank in the Bahamas.

Mr. Flores's defense is that he never deposited any check in any bank, and "that is key for me..." The mere fact that the office of the president did not deposit the checks is sufficient defense of the likes of Flores of El Salvador and Jammeh of The Gambia. The latter is presently entangled in a web of Taiwanese checks dating back to 1995 until he abruptly severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan over his demand for cash payment of $ 10 million from Taiwan which was refused, according to officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).

As El Salvador sees it, MOFA is uncooperative and as a result, and in protest, the central American country has recalled its Ambassador from Taipei, according to reports of the Taipei Times.  The reason cited by Taiwan for not cooperating fully is because the matter has now entered the judicial process which, in our opinion, is as lame an excuse as the one offered by the former Salvadorian president i.e. he did not deposit the checks personally, therefore he's clean and/or absolved of all blame or culpability.  Taiwan should cooperate with the authorities in San Salvador in order to get to the bottom of the matter.  As a democracy in a sea of undemocratic governments, Taiwan will contributing immensely to efforts in promoting democracy and the rule of law especially in the case of The Gambia where dictatorship rules.

Declining to even comment on whether Flores received checks from MOFA while in office, is not helpful to the legislative and legal processes in El Salvador, and certainly detrimental to any effort of those trying to improve on "transparency, accountability and probity" to quote the Gambian dictator.  They were the words used by the Jammeh-led putsch against a democratically-elected government of Sir Dawda Jawara in 1994. Jammeh's reason for the coup was to end corruption. Gambia has seen more corruption today than in its entire post-Independence history, inadvertently fueled, in part, by Taiwanese checks.

It is our considered view that The Gambian and Salvadorian cases should serve as ample evidence for the need for Taiwan to review its foreign aid policy which appears lacking in rigor.  It is true that before assistance is extended, these countries are required to submit proposals which are then reviewed by Taiwan prior to decisions being taken.  But we have seen in at least one major project in The Gambia where over $ 15 million was spent in the past 18 years that benefited, according to reports, 90 Gambian farmers.  Who are these farmers? Where are the project areas?  What're the project outcomes? How can such a major project, by Gambian standards, be so shrouded in secrecy and whose impact on development is hardly documented anywhere.  We encourage the Taiwanese authorities to provide project documents and evaluation reports which, under normal circumstances, should be in the public domain.

It is also true that a request for $ 10 million by Gambian dictator, Yaya Jammeh, was refused which triggered the diplomatic break-up between Banjul and Taipei - a demand that would have required Taiwan to hand Jammeh cash without any paper trail which was an attempt by Jammeh to set the transparency and accountability bars even lower.  Ordinary Gambians will be forever grateful that this particular demand from Yaya Jammeh was refused. But we also know that they wished other checks were not drawn in their name that ended up in Jammeh's pocket.  

Therefore from our vantage point, as Gambians on the outside looking in, Taiwan still needs to do more.  It must tighten its foreign aid policy by revisiting its three guiding principles - seeking just cause, following legal procedures and effectively implementing the programs.  It is our contention that the policy can be tightened without losing friends which appears to be a major concern of Taiwan. Of course, the mutual exclusivity of policy reform and the likelihood of losing friends can only be proven if Taiwan is willing to move forward with appropriate reforms, at minimal risk.

While the three centerpieces of Taiwan's foreign aid are laudable in themselves, they will be less so, and may be detrimental to economic and social development in these poor countries if loopholes are not closed and implementation procedures tightened, monitoring and evaluation procedures included.

For example, many Gambians were taken by surprise to learn, many for the first time, about the vegetable and fruit plantation project financed by Taiwan.  According to MOFA, over $ 1 million a year was spent on the project in the last three years alone - a project that started receiving funding since 1995.  By our own estimates, Taiwan must have spent a minimum of $ 15 million over the 18-year period.

The peoples of El Salvador and The Gambia are counting on the Government of Taiwan to cooperate with those trying to improve on the transparency and accountability through better project design and effective monitoring and evaluation of Taiwan-financed projects by requiring a participatory approach, and actually ensuring that there is local ownership and involvement.

In the case of The Gambia which is a dictatorship, and by definition, lacks parliamentary oversight, Taiwan must step up to the plate to protect the interest of the Taiwanese taxpayers, as well as the ordinary Gambians in whose names these loans and grants are granted.