Helping the UN in aid of the needy

AS the United Nations celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, historians are counting the number of crises it has solved or not solved and of aid programmes its subsidiary organisations have implemented all over the world.

The lists are long, but Hong Kong's name appears sparingly.

The major exception is the high-profile presence of the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees. But it is here to deal with the Vietnamese boat people problem and its clients are not the local people.

But Hong Kong people should actually be happy that the UN's involvement here has been minimal, because with the promotion of peace and welfare being its mission, the presence of the UN usually means its host country is afflicted by chaos and deprivation.

Just look at Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia, where soldiers wearing the UN's distinguishing blue berets patrol the streets amidst the gun fire and mayhem, and we know it's a blessing the UN is not here.

The east Asiatic region has not been free of conflicts in the past five decades, but fortunately the clashes have not affected Hong Kong directly.

The first time Hong Kong was affected by a UN decision was when it passed a resolution in 1950 to impose an embargo on the export of strategic goods to China for its support of North Korea in the Korean War.

Hong Kong complied with the embargo officially, but this did not stop China obtaining vital supplies through the territory.

The next big shock to Hong Kong involving the UN came in 1971, when the communist People's Republic of China edged out the nationalist Republic of China in Taiwan to take up China's seat in the UN.

The development sparked off speculation about Hong Kong's future.

As the PRC exercised its might on the world stage and established closer links with the United States, there was fear Hong Kong's economy would suffer as it would lose its role as the middleman between the mainland and North America.

With hindsight, only Tin Tin Daily News' prediction that Hong Kong would become the 'golden key' to China has come true.

The prevailing thinking, as expressed in the editorials of Ming Pao and the now defunct Wah Kiu Yat Pao, was more pessimistic.

Most people felt China would not take back Hong Kong until it had taken back Taiwan; as Taiwan had been expelled from the UN, China was one step closer to taking back Taiwan, said the two papers.

In 1972, China requested that the UN's Special Committee on Colonialism remove Hong Kong and Macau from the list of territories covered by the declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and people, saying the territories' questions 'should be settled in an appropriate way when conditions are ripe'.

China's intention to recover Hong Kong was clear, although the timing was left deliberately vague.

So anxious was Hong Kong about its future that some members of the International Rotary Club called on the UN to relocate its headquarters from New York to, of all places, Lantau Island.

The proponents of such a 'historic' proposal requested anonymity, probably because they knew it unlikely to succeed. But the implicit motive was clear - the presence of the UN would have somehow kept red China at bay and helped Hong Kong maintain its status quo.

The idea was wishful thinking, of course. But this has not stopped people wanting to safeguard Hong Kong's interests reviving it.

Casino magnate Stanley Ho, out of a sincere desire to restore confidence in the territory's future after June 4, 1989, proposed that the UN set up its Asian headquarters here.

The cost involved was estimated to be $6 billion and Mr Ho admitted the chances of it coming to fruition were extremely slim.

'But I have to put forward the plan because it is after all an effort to restore shattered local confidence,' he said. 'The intention is good and sometimes miracles can happen.' So far, no miracle has happened.

But although the UN's main offices are not here, its Human Rights Commission has been watching Hong Kong from Geneva, to the delight of those who feel the UN's vigilance helps to check against the violation of civil rights.

At present, the British Government has to file reports on Hong Kong under various conventions including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights; International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; International Convention Against Torture and Other Criminal, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; International Covenant on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and International Convention on Rights of the Child.

On the non-political front, Hong Kong benefited from the assistance of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organisation (WHO) throughout the 50s and 60s, notably in immunisation and nutrition programmes.

Government files stored at the Public Records Office recorded the then Medical and Health Department seeking UNICEF's assistance in dealing with undernourishment of school children.

But while the assistance of UNICEF and WHO was welcomed, a cursory reading of official records at the time showed the Hong Kong Government was very discriminating in seeking the UN's help.

Take, for example, the UN technical assistance programme's offer to provide expert help to undertake social surveys of urban communities in 1951.

One would think a poor Hong Kong, which was battling with a burgeoning refugee population from China, would have welcomed any kind of help it could muster.

Not quite, as the following passages penned by officials show.

'Any useful surveys would be expensive, with or without technical assistance from the UN. There may also be reasons for preferring not to seek outside assistance with any surveys we may be able to undertake,' said one official.

Another said: 'We have little to gain from visits of this kind and are hardly an 'under-developed country' within the meaning of the act. Our problems are those of over-development.' The kind of assistance which the Government was more keen to obtain was scholarships and fellowships for local officers to enable them to acquire the expertise Hong Kong lacked.

Also welcomed was cash assistance, such as UNICEF's US$331,100 (then worth HK$2 million) contribution to fund a social work training programme in 1962.

Generally speaking, it appeared that officials' primary consideration was to keep the UN out, not least because it would cost the public purse to have any UN experts here.

Government files showed officials were not only concerned about the cost of paying for such experts' food, lodging and travel, but also about having to indemnify the UN against any claims arising from its programmes here. By the 70s, with Hong Kong already on the road to affluence, there was a total retreat by the UNICEF and WHO.

When UNICEF returned to Hong Kong in 1986, its objective was no longer the provision of aid here, but the raising of funds to help needy children elsewhere.

Chaired by Dr Robert Fung Hing-piu, the Hong Kong Committee for UNICEF comprises 18 other prominent members of the community.

Having started with a two-man staff raising a few million dollars a year, the committee's operation has since expanded, and it raised more than $40 million last year.

The committee's senior operations manager, Matthew Mo, said there was initial concern Hong Kong people might not be willing to donate to charities which did not benefit the territory.

But in the last three years, the response had been good and contributions had come even from public housing tenants, he said.

The committee's major fund raising activities include selling greeting cards, mailing campaigns, and the Change for Good programme held in conjunction with Cathay Pacific, in which the airline collected donations of loose change from passengers on all of its flights for four months last year.

A successful campaign was also held last year to raise $10 million for China's polio eradication programme.

The committee is also engaged in public education work to arouse the population's awareness of the plight of children elsewhere and UNICEF's work around the world.

Meanwhile, although the UNHCR is now widely known for its work with the Vietnamese since the early 80s, it actually first had an office here in 1964.

In conjunction with the International Organisation for Migration, it helped white Russians who passed through Hong Kong on their way to resettlement in third countries.

A small number of them were also accepted into the community here.

Although all Vietnamese boat people are scheduled to have been repatriated before 1997, UNHCR spokesman Ian Disley said there was no plan to withdraw from Hong Kong yet.

Up to the end of May, the UNHCR had accumulated a debt of $1.01 billion with the Hong Kong Government for the boat people. Its last repayment of $21.6 million was made in November 1994, making a total refund of $90.5 million.

With the UNHCR heavily in debt and having to deal with various calamities around the world, the prospect of Hong Kong reclaiming the sum is remote.

But some commentators have argued that affluent Hong Kong, whose per capita gross domestic product is second in Asia and has surpassed Australia, Canada and Britain, should contribute more to the relief of international crises.

Signs are that the people of Hong Kong are dipping more into their pockets. Last year, Hong Kong's per-capita contribution to UNICEF, at US$0.61 (HK$4.76), ranked sixth in the world.

However, the Hong Kong Government's contribution was a meagre US$29,200 (HK$227,760), although it contributed $2 million from the Disaster Relief Fund to the Rwanda crisis last year.