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In-depth Reflections on 60 Years of Japanese ODA
Japan’s Quiet NGO Revolution: Toward a Cross-Sector Model of Foreign Aid

Ōnishi Kensuke [Profile]


Japanese nongovernmental organizations have taken off in the past two decades, and their overseas humanitarian efforts are quietly changing the face of Japanese foreign aid. Ōnishi Kensuke, founder of one of Japan’s largest NGOs and author of key domestic and regional initiatives for cross-sector collaboration, discusses the progress of this movement and his sweeping vision for the future.

I have been delivering international aid through the work of nongovernmental organizations for just about two decades now. I have assisted refugees in conflict-torn areas from northern Iraq and Afghanistan to southern Sudan and provided relief to victims of natural disasters from Pakistan to Indonesia and the Philippines. Altogether, I have worked in 26 countries, including Japan.

During these past 20 years, I have witnessed a dramatic change in the relationship between Japan’s official development assistance program and Japanese NGOs active overseas. When I first started out as a humanitarian aid worker in northern Iraq, the amount of ODA funding available to NGOs for emergency relief was negligible. The government had established a basic mechanism for financial support under its NGO Project Subsidy program, but the level of funding was paltry, and applications took so long to process that the money almost never came through in time to assist our emergency efforts in the field.

The tide began to turn during the 1999 conflict in Kosovo. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō, for whom ODA-NGO collaboration was a cherished goal, the government responded to mounting pressure from Japanese NGOs and instituted an “emergency NGO grant aid” system, under which nonprofits could receive up to ¥50 million per project on an expedited basis for overseas emergency relief operations. I remember the rejoicing at our Kosovo field office when we received a late-night call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to let us know that the new emergency grant system was up and running.

The author with children at a refugee camp in northern Iraq, February 2013. (Photo courtesy of PWJ.)

Building a Cross-Sector Platform

This was a step forward, but it was still far from adequate. I proposed a new mechanism to combine and coordinate the resources of the government, business, and nonprofit sectors for more effective and efficient relief efforts. The result was the establishment of the Japan Platform (JPF), a consortium of NGOs, government agencies, and businesses dedicated to international humanitarian aid.

The JPF is a cross-sector organization designed to enhance the speed and quality of Japan’s emergency assistance. It provides a mechanism for pooling funds from ODA grants and charitable contributions from businesses and delivering them rapidly to NGOs to provide emergency relief in the field. Member NGOs also contribute a percentage of the operational funds they raise via member dues and donations. In addition to facilitating funding, the JPF system creates a platform for pooling information, technical expertise, and personnel from a broad range of social actors, including universities, private foundations, and the media.

JPF currently has 48 member NGOs. Over the past 14 years it has provided more than ¥22 billion in ODA funding to support the aid efforts of Japanese NGOs. As a result, the ODA is a far more familiar and benevolent presence within Japan’s NGO community than it was two decades ago. On a global level as well, JPF has improved the response time of Japanese NGOs and helped to enhance the impact and stature of Japanese ODA within the international aid community.

  • [2014.09.08]

Chairperson of Peace Winds Japan and director of Japan Platform. Earned his bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Sophia University and his master’s degree in international politics from Bradford University (UK). Served as northern Iraq coordinator for the Foundation for Human Rights in Asia before founding PWJ in 1996. Participated in the establishment of Japan Platform in 2000 and launched the Asia Pacific Alliance for Disaster Management in November 2012.

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