Taiwan: A Lesson in Unexpected Outcomes

By Michelle Fanzo

Toward the end of 2013, I witnessed a happy couple celebrate their day of matrimony at a garbage incinerator. The attractive Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners structure – the same architecture firm that designed the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the expansion of the Louvre – was immaculate, well landscaped, and hyper-efficient. The state-owned facility operators, committed to community outreach, offer the building’s ground floor hall to local residents gratis for wedding receptions. Given my work on global sustainability issues, I could only applaud this unlikely marriage of nuptial bliss and smart waste management. 

I learned about the incinerator festivities on a recent trip to a curious island where industry is pushing the cutting edge of green technologies, toilettes have warm seats and multiple settings, and shiny recycling trucks play Mozart as they zip through city streets. Wonderland? No, it’s Taiwan. 

During my visit, I toured one of the most advanced semiconductor manufacturers in the world, TSMC. It had recently been awarded the highest ranking on the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes for its industry, which tracks the 2,500 largest companies globally and selects the top performers in terms of sustainability. TSMC is one of about five companies on the planet that can continue to produce increasingly smaller microchips, those tiny wafers of circuitry that make our electronics work. To maintain this market position, the company must now develop new microscopic tools and processes to make the next generation of chips. The desired outcome has exceeded the capabilities of the existing system; so they are evolving the system.

I work in international development, yet I had not grasped the extent of Taiwan’s transformation from an underdeveloped, agrarian society into an economic powerhouse producing high-technology goods for the world. It is the Asia-Pacific region’s research and development hub for IT, energy-efficient technologies and biotechnology, and a major manufacturer of solar panels and solar-powered batteries. On the domestic front, Taiwan fosters successful conservation efforts by engaging citizens to view recycling as a national pastime, incinerators as regional icons, and electric vehicles as transport of the future.

Taiwan, however, is a paradoxical island. On one hand, it exhibits great drive for sustainable change and innovation, and on the other, it operates in a precarious and unsustainable political situation that de facto keeps many of its accomplishments out of the international spotlight. It is a global manufacturing and technology leader that is largely invisible on the world political stage.

Since the 1970s, the U.S. and the United Nations have officially recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of the country, acknowledging the Chinese position that there is but one China – and Taiwan is part of it. However, a number of nations maintain strong, unofficial relations with Taiwan, including the U.S. This duality creates an effect like the legendary island of Avalon: 23 million people and the world’s 19th largest economy appear and disappear on the map given the conversation topic or who’s doing the conversing.

Accordingly, many people aren’t aware of Taiwan’s views, accomplishments, and development statistics. This information is not captured in the global data on which world reports are based, is not heard in meetings of the international community, and is not well covered in the media beyond a regional security and trade perspective. Those who work in some capacity with Taiwan know about its priorities and perspectives, but those perspectives are not represented in international discussions, debates, or decision-making. Although Taiwan’s lack of representation in the international community is due to unusual political circumstances, we need to consider the larger ramifications of this and change the status quo. This shift is not just for the benefit of Taiwan or other under-represented entities like it, but for all of us.

View the situation through the lens of the recent UN climate change talks in Warsaw. Taiwan requested observer status, which would have allowed silent member participation during those talks. However, Taiwan was denied such status because the island was technically already represented by the Chinese government. Given its proven expertise in green technologies and sustainability, it is a fair bet that Taiwan might have had something valuable to add to that conversation. But no one got to hear it.

As the international community is preparing to embrace a new global development agenda in 2015 – the year the current agenda, the Millennium Development Goals, expires – we must also revisit our international diplomatic agenda. In an era where challenges cross borders or are even global, the international community must be more inclusive, otherwise we are handicapped by incomplete information.  Taiwan is not the only example of a missing voice at the table– think of Kosovo, and until it was recognized by the UN as a state in November last year, Palestine.

The future of Taiwan’s political status is not the subject of this conversation. The issue is larger: how can we move past political divisiveness to allow for more inclusive conversations about our collective future? In this sense, Taiwan serves as a proxy for all the untapped possibility from local to global levels that gets missed because we don’t know it is there, don’t have access to it, or don’t value it. Given the challenges we all face as people, nations, and a planet, can we afford to let politics get in the way of a more comprehensive approach to seeking answers? At stake is not just who gets to participate; it is also about the rest of us not losing an opportunity to find a much needed solution.

This is an issue faced at every level of decision-making, as good ideas are not the sole purview of those at the top. We’ve learned that community development suffers when local residents and stakeholders are not involved. Cities suffer when administrations do not have access to local data. Countries suffer when they ignore or marginalize the needs of citizen groups. Given this, it gets harder to defend excluding people just because they are not part of the recognized power structure.

Of course, there are actions Taiwan can take to increase its visibility on issues like sustainability and climate change: publish its findings more widely in international journals, facilitate more international media coverage, expand professional and student exchanges, and share best practices at international conferences. In essence, minimize a singular focus on a system that does not recognize it and maximize its image in the world in other ways. But that only goes so far.

A more effective international system would allow us to address both present realities and a vision of change. When a political crisis runs smack into a global crisis, there must be a process that better allows us to separate the issues and accommodate both political views and substantive discussions. It is likely there will be more, not less, circumstances like this in the future involving any number of places or under-represented groups.

The international community risks making itself less relevant if it cannot live up to its purpose of being a universal forum for different viewpoints to come together. At the same time, it faces external competition from new communication platforms and global initiatives that do not face the same political constraints. Long standing political disagreements will not disappear, and the tools of diplomacy, resolutions, and conventions still work; just as international organizations are still the best structures for debating our collective needs and differences.

However, in the last decade we have repeatedly seen that the forum of public opinion, side events at global meetings, and grassroots movements have become an effective, and at times sophisticated, alternative to communicating through traditional channels. These alternatives should not replace the international system but rather serve to influence its evolution.  

What would a first step look like? Take a bottom up approach to influencing others: model more inclusive behavior locally that we would like to see adopted at other levels. The desired outcome – a way to balance political realities with the future we want – can be a poor fit with our traditional governing systems. But the complexity of the challenges we face and our increasing interconnectedness suggest it is time to open those systems to offer more options.

There are a large number of international summits and conferences on critical global issues planned for 2014, such as one on climate change and another on issues common to small island developing states, to name just two where Taiwan could offer valuable insights. Its absence from those gatherings should serve as a reminder that we can do better at navigating the complications of our world. Useful disruptions, like incinerator weddings, will seem less implausible once we commit to evolving the international system toward more inclusivity, allowing best practices and clever ideas to find their global audience.




Michelle Fanzo, a former UN staff member and expert on sustainability and governance issues, is a project leader at the World Policy Institute.

[Photo couretsy of Sprengben]

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