By Cheng Ya-wen
Mayeesha Yu-hwei Tseng
Over the last few weeks we have seen people in Taiwan, from the president down to the person on the street, fall over themselves praising Chen Shu-chu (陳樹菊) after Time magazine placed her on their 2010 Most Influential list under the “Heroes” category for philanthropy. Her picture has been splashed all over local newspapers. There’s no denying that the selfless contribution this unassuming woman has made to her family, neighborhood and the wider society is very moving.
The attention given her, however, brings up several points that might be worth considering for what they tell us about Taiwanese society.
The first question we might ask is how the winners of this award were actually chosen. How did the international media get wind of the philanthropy of this Taiwanese woman? This is not to say that she is undeserving of the accolade given to her. A simple Internet search will tell you that she was originally recommended to Forbes magazine, after which the editors decided to include her in their list of the 48 top philanthropists for Asia. Time then named her as one of the top 100 most influential people of the year.
Forbes is known for its annual rich list and its readership is composed primarily of people involved in finance. The magazine is most at home with moneymaking and obsesses over wealth, status, power and prestige. Given that, what it is about Chen they found so interesting? After all, the rich list is, surely, exclusively focused on money.
The rich and powerful just love to praise charitable actions, but balk at those who question the current distribution of wealth and challenge unfair social power structures, not to mention people who try to bring about social reforms.
For example, look at poverty-stricken Bangladesh. Muhammad Yunus received international acclaim and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work in economic and social development from below, but hardly anyone knows about public health activist Zafrullah Chowdhury, who has been involved in public health reforms in that same country.
Yunus is the founder of Grameen Bank and has been instrumental in providing poor women with microcredit so they can improve their circumstances. As a banker, he is notable for his compassion and social responsibility, but he has never actually challenged the power structures that created the poverty in the first place. Also, by encouraging people to create personal wealth, he is subscribing to the Western mainstream capitalist paradigm, which goes some way to explaining why he has become the darling of international development policy.
By comparison, Chowdhury has worked hard to make inexpensive medicine universally available. He has done much to improve the national drug policy, but people with vested interests have constantly obstructed him to the point that an attempt was even made on his life. The international (that is, Western) media have also more or less turned a blind eye to his work.
In many societies, vested interests are quite happy to heap accolades on charity work done at the individual level, but have a habit of ignoring, or even blatantly obstructing, anyone who actively tries to change existing unfair and oppressive power structures.
We would like to applaud Chen for her work At the same time, however, it is important to keep a perspective on what is happening in our society.
We should be asking whether there are deeper issues such as the current allocation of education resources when schools cannot afford to build libraries; whether we need to take another look at our social welfare and education systems when some school children rely on charitable donations to pay for their tuition fees; and whether there is something wrong with our health insurance system when there are people out there who rely on handouts to keep up with their health insurance payments.
What we would like to see is a social system that promotes mutual cooperation, instead of relying on more philanthropists.
Cheng Ya-wen is an associate professor at the Institute of Health Policy and Management at National Taiwan University. Mayeesha Yu-hwei Tseng is a doctoral student at the institute.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER
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