Book Review: The Chinese World's Biggest NGO

Asia's new tycoons mostly like leaving monuments to themselves in the form of schools, universities and occasionally even hospital buildings emblazoned with their names. Admirable but hardly selfless.

Of course any form of worthwhile donation is to be welcomed. But the most praiseworthy are surely those who give anonymously or at least quietly to funds and for projects which leave a mark on people and societies in ways that buildings never can. Enabling selfless people to bring help and support to those in need is the next best thing to being on the front line of volunteer humanitarian work.

Tzu Chi is not only the biggest NGO in the Chinese world, it is far bigger than many a better known internationally-operating charity. With a Buddhist founding philosophy, it was set up in 1966 to help the unfortunate. It has grown and grown by attracting the support of two very different sorts of people.

On the one hand, executives from some of Taiwan's biggest and richest companies. On the other, the grass roots support of some 10 million people spread across 50 or more countries.

The organization was founded and is still headed by a Buddhist nun, Cheng Yen, who in terms of effectiveness if not holiness seems at least the comparable to the more famous Catholic nun the late Mother Teresa of Kolkata. So it is a doubly pleasing surprise to learn just how much has been done by an organization which, together with its donors such as one of the Acer group founder, Kenneth Tai, and innumerable volunteers, has kept such a low profile for years.

It has worked successfully of what, at least initially, must have been difficult circumstances for a Chinese enterprise in Indonesia and South Africa as well as in the US, mainland China and elsewhere. Some may sense a strong ethnic Chinese identity running through its Buddhism and Indonesians may wonder about the ethics of close association with Indonesian-Chinese business groups such as Sinar Mas. But its focus on good works, on cross-cultural understanding , on the needs of the poor, on values other than money making forms an admirable contrast to so much of the world today, and the mainland Chinese one in particular.

In sum, this is a sympathetic portrait of the organization by Mark O'Neill, a foreign journalist who has worked in China for many years. It is a timely and easy read about an organization that deserves to be better known.