Human Capital Development and Agricultural Aid: A New Model for Taiwan
Author: Maxwell S. Wappel
The advent of Agriculture 4.0 technologies is creating a new paradigm where farmers harvest data rather than just plants, and renewed focus on agricultural education and human capital development is critical to fully capture these opportunities. This is a niche that Taiwan is well positioned to take advantage of through a reinvisioned agricultural aid program. Taiwanese agricultural aid programs have constituted the crux of the country’s developmental aid strategy since the ROC initiated its first agricultural mission to Vietnam in 1959. Today, Taiwan can, and indeed should, integrate its agricultural aid with the 5+2 Innovative Industries Plan and New Southbound Policy (NSP), and in turn build strong economic and political relationships while adding value to the global economy and helping its partners do the same. When asked about expanding various aid programs into NSP countries further, Member of the Legislative Yuan Chuang Jui-Hsiung replied “increased venture capital, increased business cooperation, and increased agricultural education both in Taiwan and abroad, are all things we can partner on.” Evidently, there is political will to take action on this issue.
By looking into traditional patterns of agricultural aid, we can see where Taiwan can innovate. Agricultural aid often perpetuates a core-periphery relationship between participants, wherein periphery countries engage in low cost labor-intensive production, while core countries engage in high-capital production. The periphery countries produce low-value added agricultural goods that are imported into core countries, whose economies are based around high-value added technology products in an essentially mercantile system. While this framework for viewing aid has been criticized as being “anti-capitalist,” it is nonetheless useful in informing the New Southbound Policy, which seeks to create partnerships rather than dependencies. Tsai Ing-Wen’s administration, in advocating the 5+2 Plan and NSP, provides an opportunity for merging these policies to change this core-periphery paradigm. The 5+2 Plan dovetails excellently with the NSF, particularly through its New Agriculture and Asia Silicon Valley pillars, which focus on Agriculture 4.0 technologies (drones, sensors, and controlled environments), Internet of Things (IoT), and microchip manufacturing. As the basis for rebuilding the donor—donee relationship into one of true partnership, the NSP and 5+2 Plan have the potential to radically develop Taiwan’s political and economic partnerships into mutually beneficial exchanges.
Thanks to decades of diligent service from Taiwanese government organizations and NGOs, Taiwan is well placed to be a leader in creating partnerships based on Agriculture 4.0 technologies through its NSP and 5+2 Plan.
There are several forms of aid that Taiwan has historically provided — one of which is direct aid projects handled by the MOFA, MOEA, and ICDF. These direct aid projects, where Taiwan provides technical know-how and assistance to agriculture, usually followed the pattern of a country requesting aid, followed by feasibility studies into agricultural policy and eventual MOU signing. The other type of aid is in the form of scholarship opportunities for higher education in agriculture.
Between nations following the traditional “donor and donee” relationship, there is no shortage of money being supplied for large scale infrastructure projects of questionable long term utility. Taiwan cannot compete with the sheer volume of foreign cash going into infrastructure projects through policies like China's Belt and Road Initiative— and should avoid trying to do so. Taiwan ought to use nuance in its aid programs, applying innovative agricultural aid with finesse to achieve its foreign policy goals.
In order to strengthen partnerships in the NSP and create a solid international network that benefits all of the linked nations in the supply chain, Taiwan should bolster and expand its current programs — which focus on developing human capital through education. Taiwan should also integrate these programs with a strategy of targeted investment abroad focused on the 5+2 Plan.
The merging of domestic and foreign policy is clearly aligned with Taiwan’s goals in Southeast Asia, a point which has been noted by Taiwan’s Office of Trade Negotiations. However, an adaptation of current programs is also necessary.
The ICDF International Higher Education Scholarship Program (IHESP) currently offers education in everything ranging from business administration to agricultural economics and tropical agriculture. This program provides invaluable intellectual aid, and should be further developed. However, the ICDF and its partners in the Taiwanese government should not neglect vocational level training as a crucial means of giving aid — a strategy which may be more effective in raising the value-added by a partner nation's agricultural sector. The New Agriculture pillar of the 5+2 Plan encourages farmers to meet international certification standards, develop skill in promotion and marketing, and ensure sustainable development. This plan, expanded to include visiting professionals from NSP countries, can gain from scale and cross-boundary network effects.
Furthermore, vocational aid has benefits that higher education aid does not. It provides immediate, implementable knowledge to those who are actually on the ground providing value to the country’s economy. It has the potential to alleviate domestic economic pressure on governments, nurturing stability, and does not require large top down policy changes from any government. Finally, it creates immediate amiability among partner nations for providing tangible economic benefit.
The current professional development program of the ICDF runs twenty workshops a year training around 500 participants. However, these participants are often staff of government agencies or NGOs, or high-ranking officials. While this provides an excellent basis for continued agricultural aid, it is not sufficient to produce intense economic development that will benefit the region. Taiwan must take on a leadership role by providing professional education to farmers and business owners themselves — partnering in both training and technology distribution to encourage value added agricultural manufacturing.
ICDF does not need to singlehandedly pursue a state-centered approach to this problem, but rather it can be a part of a broader society-centered strategy. It can partner with existing Taiwanese agriculture NGOs and businesses to create professional development opportunities for receiving nations. According to MYL Chuang, aid may even extend to building educational institutions in NSP countries, an undertaking that would provide human capital development to partner countries and Taiwan. This is a noble long term goal. In the short term concrete steps are necessary to make this development group a reality. Like the current IHESP, expanded programs, whether in Taiwan or NSP countries, should fully fund vocational training and focus on bringing the future of global agriculture to those that will implement it: the youth.
Young minds engaged in Agriculture 4.0 would have a significant role to play in expanding market competitiveness, especially if paired with micro-investment that can be partially funded and organized by private enterprise. The entrepreneurial spirit of the youth, their plasticity in learning new modes of agriculture, and their desire to improve the welfare of their communities makes them excellent candidates for aid that will base foreign relations on partnership, not exploitation. Focusing on the youth also allows Taiwan to share its social culture, business practices, and worldview with a receptive audience. This will require a changing of the perception of agriculture from centered around sustenance and honored tradition to high tech, high value-added, lucrative business.
One route this new paradigm might take is as such: large cohorts come to Taiwan in the agricultural off-season, or during their school holidays. Ideally cohorts include multiple participants from the same localities in order to facilitate entrepreneurial team building. After participating in an intensive three to five month professional development program focused on implementation of New Agriculture policy goals, and use of IoT technologies, students work with each other to make proposals for how these technologies can be implemented in their own countries. These proposals are then presented to both the ICDF and partnering businesses who assess them for viability, and ideally, a micro-investment is made.
This process would provide aid on a basis of trust and mutual benefit, changing the framework of the donor-donee relationship into one of legitimate partnership wherein both sides take risk for an increased reward. It also has the potential to raise the value added from the agricultural sector of partner countries extremely quickly, because of its bottom up approach to investment. For this reason, in order to fulfill the goals of the NSP, the ICDF professional development program should be expanded with a focus in implementing IoT technologies and funding agricultural entrepreneurship — a merging of the NSP with the 5+2 Plan goals of New Agriculture and Asia Silicon Valley.
Taiwan has an excellent foundation for developing the human capital of partner nations and thus increasing their capability to add value to the global economic system, breaking the pattern of “core-periphery” aid schemes. A society-centered emphasis on vocational training, deployable Agriculture 4.0 technologies, and targeted micro-investment will result in win-win outcomes for both Taiwan and its NSP partners, and should be the basis for agricultural aid going forward.
Maxwell S. Wappel is a Researcher at Taiwan NextGen Foundation, where he contributes to the New Southbound Policy and Taiwan’s Soft Power programs. He earned a Bachelor’s in History at the University of Maryland, and is currently pursuing Chinese and American Studies at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center Johns Hopkins-SAIS.