MANILA — Now that many Asian nations are booming, Western donors who aided them over the past few decades are asking the region's nouveau-riche countries to give a leg up to their less fortunate neighbors.
The request came last week at a meeting of the board of the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB). But the spirit of Western-style aid giving was largely found wanting - even though Asia is still home to two-thirds of the world's poor.
South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong met the request to donate to the ADB's special no-interest loan program with lukewarm replies. Singapore's public response was cold silence.
The ADB, founded in 1966 on an American initiative as a sort of mini-World Bank for the region, has helped alleviate poverty in Asia, largely through big infrastructure projects. For the poorest nations, an Asian Development Fund (ADF) lends money at no interest for 40 years. The current ADF runs out by early 1997 and the bank wants donors to put up $5.3 billion for the next four years.
While the US still has to pay up its arrears of $337 million owed to the present ADF, European donors say the rich Asian nations - some of whom have higher standards of living than some Western nations - must share the burden.
The German chairman of the ADB board of governors, Klaus-Jurgen Hedrich, argued it is a question of the "tiger" economies realizing their success is "to a considerable degree the result of development aid." ADB president Mitsuo Sato said the newly wealthy nations of East and Southeast Asia should not be blind to the poor in such nations as India, Pakistan, Vietnam, or the Central Asian republics.
The ADB also appealed for money from "going-to-be-rich" nations like Thailand and Malaysia, classified as "emerging tiger" economies.
Malaysia was the most gracious, hinting it will contribute. "Successful Asian economies carry a certain measure of moral responsibility to assist our less fortunate members. By so doing they would also foster the growth of new patterns of relationship between the rich and the poorer countries," said Malaysia Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.
Taiwan set conditions. Smarting from the bank's unilateral name change in 1986 to "Taipei, China" to accommodate China's membership, Taiwan's governor Sheu Yuan-Dong said his government could contribute substantially if the comma is removed to only "Taipei China." The comma suggests Taiwan is under China's control, he said. The idea was rejected outright.
South Korea made known that if the the bank wants more money, then Seoul must have more voting rights and more important positions in the bank's leadership.
But the harshest criticism was leveled at Singapore, the richest Asian nation after Japan. Singapore companies received $130.2 million worth of procurements from ADB-backed projects over the past years, or a share of 4.2 percent of total contracts handed out by the ADB.
"Our government does not believe in giving soft loans and grants as an assistance policy. It's a matter of principle," said Singapore's delegate Leow Siu Lin.
Hedrich retorted: "I have this message to Singapore: We can't force you; we don't want to force you, but we can only ask you to be a loyal partner of Asia."
The meeting raised the possibility of black-listing Singapore and the US (if it fails to clear its arrears) from procurements. Another ADB meeting in June in Hong Kong will decide if any ADF commitments will be made.