Ripples of Charity—Taiwanese NGOs Reaching Out

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when Western aid organizations were queuing to enter Myanmar to provide relief, one of the first foreign non-governmental organizations admitted into the country was a Taiwanese group called Ling Jiou Mountain Buddhist Society. For many years, Taiwan has been spreading its people’s love around the world through the work of its NGOs.

A natural disaster in 2008 tested the willingness of the Burmese government to admit aid groups from other countries. According to The Economist, while many foreign aid organizations were still waiting for approval to enter the country, a chartered relief mission from Taipei, led by a Burmese-born Buddhist monk, was among the first to land in Yangon, Myanmar’s capital city.

Taiwan was so poor in the 1950s that it received American aid, but it has since grown to stand tall on its own. It is even actively extending its assistance to other countries.

Tzu Chi volunteers handle relief goods in Myanmar. Chen Hong-dai

Removing doubt with concrete action

Though the Taiwanese government has official ties with few nations, Taiwanese non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have won wide recognition from international bodies.

In 2003, the Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corps became an associate member of the Conference of NGOs, which maintains a consultative relationship with the United Nations. In 2010, the Tzu Chi Foundation, based in Taiwan, was granted special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

Sources within the Taiwanese government reveal that close to 400 aid projects have been launched around the world by Taiwan-based NGOs. More than half of those projects have been carried out in Asian-Pacific countries, due to their geographic proximity to Taiwan. The Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation, the Field Relief Agency of Taiwan, the Zhi-Shan Foundation Taiwan, Taipei Overseas Peace Service, and the Glocal Action Association all have deep roots of service in Southeastern Asian countries.

The Zhi-Shan Foundation Taiwan, for example, has worked in Vietnam since 1995. In the beginning, because Vietnam had no diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the Vietnamese government assigned agents to escort and keep an eye on visiting Zhi-Shan staffers. At times, the agents claimed the things that Zhi-Shan had planned to do were illegal, but they were never able to point out exactly why. To make it easier for his foundation to work in Vietnam, Jay Hung (洪智杰), Zhi-Shan’s CEO, studied and worked hard to familiarize himself with Vietnamese laws and regulations that governed foreign NGOs while his foundation continued to provide help in the nation. After a lot of effort on the part of the foundation to make sure it was complying with everything, the Vietnamese government finally allowed it to set up its first work station in Vietnam in 2003. Zhi-Shan became the first Taiwanese NGO recognized by the Vietnamese government. “We couldn’t have achieved that without having cared for the needy in Vietnam for a long time—there was no shortcut,” said Hung.

After Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, Tzu Chi distributed almost 200 tons of rice, provided by the government of Taiwan, to more than 10,000 families in Myanmar.
In addition, Tzu Chi volunteer physicians provided free medical service to needy Burmese. Photos by Hsiao Yiu-hwa

Afu (not his real name) was a Vietnamese child with a deformed face. Zhi-Shan sponsored him for reconstructive surgery at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taiwan in 1998. His face was so badly deformed that it took three operations to correct it. Afu was the first medical case that Zhi-Shan had ever undertaken, but he was not the last. The foundation has since become involved with the medical care and education of many poor Vietnamese children.

Tzu Chi is a Buddhist NGO based in Taiwan. The word “Buddhist” in its name has sometimes become an extra obstacle that its volunteers have had to surmount before they can reach the people they intend to help. People often suspect the group has an ulterior motive to convert them to Buddhism. Tzu Chi volunteers must prove that their motive is straightforward: They simply want to help, not proselytize.

Though sometimes working under a cloud of such suspicion, Tzu Chi volunteers push ahead with their task of delivering relief. For example, heavy rains in 2002 caused severe flooding in Jakarta, Indonesia. After assessing the situation, Tzu Chi volunteers executed a multiple-pronged assistance mission. One of their goals was to remove rubbish and waste from the heavily clogged Angke River, the result of years of neglect and incessant dumping of garbage into the river. The Jakarta government, the military, local residents, and Tzu Chi volunteers took part in this momentous project to clean up the Angke. On one day alone—March 24, 2002—more than a thousand people removed 96 tons of garbage from the river.

The foundation also built homes for people living in illegally built houses that occupied both sides of the Angke River. In July 2003, a village for 1,100 households was inaugurated. With a safer place to call home, villagers could now focus on working hard and bettering their livelihoods.

Fourteen years have passed since then. Today, the omnipresent scooters and cars in the village show that the residents’ lives have greatly improved.

The Zhi-Shan Foundation Taiwan focuses on child care and scholarships for poor students in Vietnam.
The foundation also helps Taiwanese businesses sponsor lunches for kindergarteners in Vietnam. Photos courtesy of Zhi-Shan Foundation Taiwan

Like the Zhi-Shan Foundation, the Tzu Chi Foundation had to expend time and effort to prove to the people they intended to help that they were simply there to help them, and that all other factors—religion, ethnicity, nationality, or anything else—were of no concern to the foundation. Some residents used to think that the hidden agenda behind Tzu Chi’s aid was to convert them to Buddhism, but they later found out that the foundation’s help transcended religion and ethnicity.

At another location in Indonesia, Tzu Chi faced similar suspicion when it provided assistance to Al-Ashriyyah Nurul Iman Islamic Boarding School in Parung, Bogor, a school for many orphans and poor children. Because of the large student body—8,000 students—the school is often financially strained. Elder Habib Saggaf, the founder of the school, sought help from Tzu Chi. As a result, Tzu Chi agreed to donate 50 tons of rice, provided by the Taiwanese government for international aid, to the school each month. Tzu Chi volunteers also taught students how to bake bread and grow vegetables and rice.

When Elder Habib Saggaf first asked Tzu Chi for help, he was concerned that Tzu Chi volunteers might try to convert his schoolchildren to Buddhism. Had he known the foundation better, he would not have concerned himself with such a worry. The foundation never did that, and Elder Habib Saggaf was eventually convinced that his suspicion was unfounded. He later even asked to have pictures of Master Cheng Yen, the founder of Tzu Chi, hung in the school’s classrooms as a token of appreciation.

In 2002, Tzu Chi launched a campaign to clean up the severely polluted Angke River in Jakarta, Indonesia. Hsiao Yiu-hwa


Children play in a village Tzu Chi built for people who used to live in illegally built houses that occupied both sides of the Angke River. Yan Lin-zhao

 Strangers working together

The Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corps, established in 1995, isn’t organized around a membership system. Thus, it has no members and it never solicits donations. Even so, it can quickly deliver medical aid to disaster victims, often within 12 hours. It carries out an average of 18 free clinics a year, year after year.

Its volunteers take part in its missions on their own time and dime, but that does not seem to dampen their enthusiasm. In fact, volunteers participate in its free clinics again and again. Qiu Mei-ling (邱美鈴), for example, has been on five of Taiwan Root’s overseas free medical missions. She pointed out that even if volunteers for such missions meet each other for the first time at the airport just before they ship out, this has never been a problem for them. Not having worked together previously doesn’t prevent them from successfully carrying out their work. Once they reach their mission’s venue, everyone pulls their own weight and everything gets done properly. They work so well, Qiu believes, because each member works towards the same goal: to satisfy the medical needs of local people.

Since its establishment 22 years ago, Taiwan Root has served in 47 countries and conducted 342 missions, which were staffed by more than 15,000 volunteers. “Our free clinics have always been manned by a full range of medical workers, including doctors, dentists, pharmacists, medical technologists, and nurses,” said Liu Chi-chun (劉啟群), a dentist and the founder of Taiwan Root. Even though the organization often carries out its service in less developed countries, it provides quality medical care on a par with that offered in Taiwan, noted for its high healthcare levels.

Generally, a physician may practice medicine only in the country in which their license is issued. This restriction can constrain the ability of aid organizations to offer free clinics abroad. Taiwan Root took a step to address that issue in July 2015 when, witnessed by officials from Taiwan and Japan, it signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Japan Medical Association. The agreement provided reciprocity such that, in times of emergency and for humanitarian purposes, members in one country could practice medicine in the other country.

Taiwan Root also has plans to sign an MOU with the Federation of Asian Pharmaceutical Associations and the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia to establish an alliance, which will be headquartered in Taiwan. The alliance will be comprised of members in 37 nations, including Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Nepal, and Pakistan. Under this alliance, should Taiwan Root plan to extend aid to one of the 37 nations, alliance members in that country will provide local support, enabling the aid project to achieve a higher impact. Such local support is reciprocal and therefore multidirectional—all member organizations of the alliance will benefit from the agreement.

Multinational ventures may involve a government, too. In April 2015, Nepal was rocked by a strong earthquake. Indonesian military planes helped Tzu Chi deliver relief goods to Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. Why would the Indone­sian government get involved? Tzu Chi volunteers have for a long time helped needy people in Indonesia. Volunteers have delivered disaster relief, built new homes for destitute Indonesians, built schools, and established recycling stations to help keep the world a bit cleaner. Impressed by those sustained voluntary efforts, the Indonesian government signed an MOU with Tzu Chi pledging the service of the Indonesian military to help the foundation in any of its disaster relief endeavors.

The Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corps and a Rotary club in Taipei jointly sponsored a free clinic in Myanmar.
Taiwan Root worked with medical teams in the Philippines to deliver a free clinic in that nation.
A Taiwan Root physician examines a patient in Sri Lanka. Photos courtesy of Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corps

Good leads to more good

In 2016, the Field Relief Agency of Taiwan was able to build a school in Cambodia with the help of a provincial governor. Before that, the agency had already built over ten middle or elementary schools in that nation. When Yang Wei-lin (楊蔚齡), the agency founder, was trying to acquire land to build that new school, she encountered some difficulties. Kosum Sareut, then governor of Banteay Meanchey Province, was incredulous when he heard about the impasse. “Yang Wei-lin wants to build a school for us and she can’t get land for it?” the governor exclaimed. “We must help her with all our might. I’ll buy the land for her if it comes to that.” Within a month Yang got the land she needed.

Yang was thrilled to know that the prior efforts of her agency were paying off in such a way. It is an example that the more good you do, the easier it is to do more good.

Cambodia was engulfed in a civil war from 1967 to 1975. The Khmer Rouge seized control of the country after the eight-year conflict and ruled until 1979. Those four years were time enough for the regime to carry out mass killings—the Cambodian genocide—that claimed two million lives.

People’s lives were hard after such extended turmoil and they needed help. Yang Wei-lin, once a humanitarian worker in refugee camps in Thailand, saw the needs of the Cambodian people. She established the Field Relief Agency of Taiwan in 1995 to give a hand to Cambodian women and children, promote education, and provide emergency assistance.

Homeless children abounded after the turmoil in Cambodia. Yang’s agency established a shelter that took in 122 children between 1999 and 2011. “Most of those children are grown now. They come back with their children to see us at times,” Yang said like a proud and happy mother.

She knows that education is the only viable way for Cambodians to break out of their vicious cycle of poverty. Her Field Relief Agency has built new schools or expanded existing ones in the nation—in all, 30 middle or elementary schools. For example, the agency built three of the seven middle schools in O Chrov District, western Banteay Meanchey Province.

Ninety-three percent of the children in O Chrov attended elementary school, but only 20 percent of them could finish and move up to middle school. That dismal rate has increased to 50 percent since Yang’s agency built middle schools there.

Yang has changed the landscape of Cambodia in another way, which is part physical and part spiritual. As she worked in Cambodia, she often saw corpses being burned in open fields—people were just too poor to cremate the bodies of their loved ones more discreetly. Yang’s heart went out to those children who saw their dead parents being cremated like that. There was another concern: What invariably got scattered around after the cremation might eventually contaminate the water supply of the area.

Yang wanted to help. She built a crematory at a temple—and was soon overwhelmed by an influx of inquiries from 70 other temples. They too wanted Yang to build crematories for them. One monk even walked three days to submit his petition for one.

It was apparent that there was a widespread need for crematories in the nation, but there was no means to satisfy that need. Yang started to build more crematories. She has built over 120 of them, spread across half of the nation. Now more people in Cambodia can bid farewell to their loved ones in a more dignified manner. 


The Field Relief Agency of Taiwan has helped the needy in Cambodia for over two decades. It has built 125 crematories like this one in the country.

It has also built schools (left) and vocational training centers (below) to help local people receive an education and acquire marketable skills. Photos courtesy of the Field Relief Agency of Taiwan


Getting paid to clean their own homes

In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines. The city of Tacloban, Leyte Province, was hit so hard that many residents were forced to desert their city. Among the things that Tzu Chi provided to victims was a work relief program through which the foundation paid victims to clean up their own flooded neighborhoods and homes.

The seemingly counterintuitive idea was met initially with suspicion. Many victims heard the announcement, but only half believed it: “I get paid for cleaning my own home?” They wondered whether the foundation was pulling their legs.

But it was no joke. Each person was paid 500 pesos (US$10) for working a day under the program. Cash in hand, participants who worked the first day spread the news. That drew more people to take part in the program. For example, while 611 people turned out for work on the first day, 2,310 people showed up the very next day.

Another reason people flocked to the program was that the amount of the daily compensation from Tzu Chi was double the minimum daily wage of 260 pesos in Tacloban.

However, that drew complaints from local businesses and some United Nations officials because Tzu Chi’s payments disrupted the local labor market. The foundation contended that work relief was distinct from regular labor compensation. The former contained an element of free charitable distribution for disaster relief that was absent in the latter. The UN personnel eventually accepted Tzu Chi’s explanations.

Tzu Chi volunteers had worked in the Philippines for a long time, even before Typhoon Haiyan. Many Filipinos know the foundation and its early history, when volunteers used bamboo coin banks to save money to help the needy. The example of how even small amounts of money can be pooled together and used to do great good inspired some Filipinos to follow Tzu Chi’s example. They have used plastic beverage bottles to save small change and then donated the accumulated money to the foundation. Some have even joined Tzu Chi and begun visiting needy people to comfort them and do things for them, and they carry out recycling work in response to Master Cheng Yen’s appeal for environmental protection. Tzu Chi has left impressive footprints of charity in the Philippines.

Burmese schoolchildren break into bright smiles after receiving school supplies and daily necessities from Tzu Chi. Lee Mun Keat

Seeds that give

Tzu Chi has also left deep footprints in another Asian country: Myanmar. Cyclone Nargis pummeled the country in 2008, wiping out much of its rice crop. In response, Tzu Chi distributed rice seed and fertilizer to affected farmers to help them regain their footing.

A recipient farmer, U Thein Tun, learned from Tzu Chi volunteers how the foundation had gotten its start: To help the needy, 30 housewives each put 50 Taiwanese cents (about 1.2 U.S. cents) of their grocery money in a bamboo coin bank before they went out shopping for the day. The donations of the housewives, small but regular, marked the humble beginning of the foundation.

Copying the idea of saving a little every day, U Thein Tun started saving rice in a container. Rice is a staple in Myanmar; the Burmese cook and eat it just about every day. Each time they cooked, U Thein Tun or his wife put a handful of rice into a “rice bank.” When the container was full, he donated the rice to help his fellow villagers. Following his example, many other villagers similarly began saving and donating their rice. The idea that aid recipients can save and give aid to other needy people caught on.

That idea in fact has a wide appeal. Independently, the Zhi-Shan Foundation Taiwan established a foundation in Vietnam for children in that country. “Its purpose is to facilitate a local organization to help local children. Locals helping locals, in my opinion, is a model for durable benevolence,” Jay Hung said of his foundation’s approach. Hung mentioned a Vietnamese student named Doan Van Dung, who had for 13 years received scholarships from Zhi-Shan and is now providing financial aid for a local fourth grader to attend school. He is among those who perpetuate the cycle of helping others.

Once an aid recipient, now an aid giver

Back in the 1950s, when Taiwan was still a very poor country, the United States gave 1.48 billion American dollars of aid to Taiwan, including wheat flour. Many Taiwanese mothers, pinching every penny possible, turned the flour sacks their families received into undergarments for their families. Many Taiwanese of that era still feel nostalgic when they recall that underwear.

The American aid also laid the foundation upon which Taiwan launched many fundamental infrastructure projects that helped lift the Taiwanese people out of poverty and attain much more comfortable lives.

 For a time, American troops were stationed in Taiwan. “When I was a little kid, I used to walk by the American barracks,” recalled Liu Chi-chun, founder of Taiwan Root. “When I came across G.I.s, they would give me chocolate bars or ball-point pens.” The goodwill he received from American soldiers has been transformed and symbolized in a motto embroidered on the caps that Taiwan Root volunteers wear: “Time for Taiwan to feed its love back to the world.”

“We Taiwanese once received aid from others,” Liu said. “Now that we are able, it’s our turn to give to others in need.”

Over at the Field Relief Agency of Taiwan, Yang Wei-lin has stayed true to her commitment to serve needy people in Cambodia. “We don’t buy or sell land, we don’t invest, we don’t engage in any commercial activities, we don’t get involved with religions, and we don’t have any political agenda whatsoever in Cambodia,” Yang proclaimed. “Not for a moment in the last 22 years have we deviated from that principle.” Upholding that commitment, she has again and again turned down solicitations or proposals from businesses to involve her foundation in for-profit activities. She just wants to help Cambodians, and nothing else.

With the efforts of people like Liu Chi-chun and Yang Wei-lin, the love of Taiwan is rippling out into the world.

March 2018