I recently embarked on a journey to eastern
Asia in hope of gaining a broader understanding for the enigmatic island-nation of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Specifically, I was deeply interested in examining the environment that had ushered in one of the most fascinating economic development stories in modern history. ROC (Taiwan)—roughly 50 times larger than Saint Lucia—has thrived as a nation over the past four decades; boasts a $525MM high-growth, export-oriented economy and an impressive education system ranked fourth in the world in mathematics and sciences. (Singapore ranks first while the United Kingdom and the United States ranked 20th and 28th respectively.) With a per capita GDP of $46, 000 and less than two percent of its population living below the poverty line (compared to St. Lucia’s 29 percent!), other countries seeking to carry out various socio-economic development agendas of their own should consider taking a page from the Taiwanese playbook. However, be warned; the contents of that playbook may surprise you!
It was by no accident that in the 17-year period 1980 to 1997, the unweighted manufacturers’ export index in East Asia rose by 1546 percent among developing countries. Epitomizing this growing phenomenon were Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan—commonly referred to as the four Asian Tigers. At the heart of that success? The dual-sector model of Labor Transition, otherwise known as the Lewis Model—named after its pioneering creator, none other than Nobel Laureate Economist Dr. W. Arthur Lewis. His seminal work on the patterns of trade and the international distribution of income described in his 1978 Janeway Lectures were written with chilling clairvoyance. Unlike many other models in the social sciences, Lewis’ paradigmatic framework remains extremely relevant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Lewis model has never been pursued in this land that gave him birth.
Despite ROC (Taiwan’s) exceptional achievements in the fields of development engineering, scientific research, and humanitarian assistance, it still remains largely on the peripheries of global society. Reflective of its contentious relationship with Beijing, Taiwan remains on the sidelines of crucial inter-governmental organizations such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and the World Health Organization. Diplomacy is often portrayed as sport for the genteel, even though the truth is glaringly contrary. For Taiwan, however, the adage need not apply; as it may seem not everyone loves an underdog. And so, with perspectives of a Saint Lucian, and as a student of business and international relations, I succumbed to a magnetism sixteen-thousand kilometers away. Against all odds, Taiwan pulled off a turnaround that only few thought possible. There was almost something alchemic in their transformation. What was their formula? I needed to know more. Though I learned a great deal about their country, the journey left me with more questions than answers. As I stared out the train window—observing the changing landscapes, and the industry clusters that changed with them—I recalled the words of the esteemed Trinidadian author V.S. Naipaul: “Life is cyclical,” like a story within a story. I paused: Was my journey about Taiwan? Or was it about Saint Lucia? With that, and before detailing the rest of my experience, I would like to thank the ROC (Taiwan’s) Ministry of Foreign Affairs for their hospitality, boundless generosity, and an adventure I’ll not soon forget. Thank you.
Twenty-one hours later, I had arrived in the Taiwanese capital of Teipei, a sprawling metropolis functioning as the nation’s seat of power and also as an epicenter for trans-national commerce. The capital reminded me of New York, with its skyscrapers and latticework of throughputs, roundabouts, and underpasses. Yet, even though the fluorescent billboards in Mandarin Chinese reminded me I was far away from Kansas, still there was something oddly familiar; a subtle affinity. Though I found Teipei extraordinarily metropolitan and somewhat mod, its position beneath the rolling landscape of hills and subtropical flora reminded me of Saint Lucia. The feeling was tangibly peculiar. Over the years, travelling throughout Central America and the Caribbean, I’d grown accustomed to associating the beauty of subtropical climates with a lack of infrastructural development—a stereotype that was resolutely shattered after visiting Teipei 101, the eighth tallest man-made structure on Earth. The Teipei 101 skyscraper, located in ROC (Taiwan’s) financial district, serves as spectacular symbolism for the blistering speed and hard-knuckled vigor that this nation applies toward its goals. Taking only five years to complete, the building was classified in 2004 as the world’s tallest skyscraper and remained in the Number One position until the 2009 construction of the Burj Khalifa. In deference to their environment, Teipei 101 holds the record as being the world’s largest green building.
Despite the impressively prescient spatial planning that Teipei reflects, I remained anxious to visit the agricultural districts beyond the capital. ROC (Taiwan) is a global thought-leader in the core agricultural sciences and by extension, agribusiness—typifying this cutting-edge research is ROC (Taiwan’s) multi-billion-dollar orchid industry. Surprisingly, 80 percent of the world’s orchids originate in a tiny municipality in southern Taiwan named Houbi District. Every year, hundreds of millions of these orchids are exported to secondary markets such as Japan, Holland, and the United States. While I was in Houbi, I had the opportunity to visit one of these world-class horticultural facilities. Tia-Ling Biotechnology is the largest producer of orchids in the country, accounting for approximately 40 percent of the flowers’ total exports. Guiding our tour was Tia-Ling’s Founder and CEO, a gregarious Taiwanese gentleman whom I just found fascinating. During the tour, he inquired via our translator, whether the people of Saint Lucia grew orchids. I vaguely recalled a technical assistance project the Taiwanese Mission in Saint Lucia funded and collaborated on with Saint Lucia’s agricultural sector. To my knowledge, while under Taiwanese supervision, the project was a relative success, but after transitioning oversight to local policymakers it eventually floundered. My hopefully diplomatic response to the orchid magnate: “Well, yes, kinda . . .”
Understanding the parallels between Saint Lucia and ROC (Taiwan) is acutely important if for no reason other than the fact that Taiwan is both our government’s most generous and most hands-on development partner. Although much of the discussions around the Saint Lucia-Taiwan partnership have become addled by political graft and impropriety, I firmly believe that if you show me a man’s body of work in its entirety I will tell you about the man himself. The Republic of China (Taiwan) is a humble nation of indefatigable drive and integrity, and will make an exemplarily cogent partner for deeper, more cohesive intergovernmental cooperation. Saint Lucia is a land of many greenfield opportunities and I remain hopeful that we will choose the appropriate partners to join us on our journey.