Reflections on 60 Years of Japanese ODA

Building Legends in International Cooperation: An Interview with JICA President Tanaka Akihiko


Japan's top foreign aid official looks back on six decades of official development assistance and airs his vision for "cooperation with a face" and the kind of ODA that will be remembered for years to come.

Tanaka Akihiko

President, Japan International Cooperation Agency (since April 2012). Born in 1954. Received his BA in International Relations from the University of Tokyo in 1977 and his PhD in Political Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981. Has been a professor of international politics and served as vice-president of the University of Tokyo and director of the university's Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia. Winner of the Suntory Academic Prize (1996) and the Purple Ribbon Medal of Honor (2012). Author of Atarashii chūsei (The New Middle Ages), Posuto kuraishisu no sekai (The Post-Crisis World), and other works.

INTERVIEWER This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Japan’s official development assistance program. What sort of role has ODA played in Japanese security and diplomacy?

TANAKA AKIHIKO ODA has played an extremely important role in Japanese diplomacy and security in the post–World War II period. Japanese development cooperation has contributed substantially to regional security spanning East and Southeast Asia, and it's done a great deal to improve Japan's image overseas. 

Looking back the past six decades of development cooperation, you can see the program's evolution. It can be said that Japan’s early international cooperation started from World War II reparations and so-called “quasi-reparations”.

The reparations were made to Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar (then Burma), and Indonesia. For a nation that had been shut out by the international community as a result of the war, payment of reparations was an important step toward reinstatement in that community. The beginnings of Japanese international cooperation overlapped that process.

The quasi-reparations that followed the reparations as well as expansion of Japan’s ODA for supporting economic infrastructure development in East and Southeast Asia contributed substantially to the rapid economic growth of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia—the so-called newly-industrializing economies—in the 1970s and 1980s, and to China's development as well.

Among the major projects from this period were flood control in Indonesia’s Brantas River basin, an area plagued by periodic flooding, and development of Thailand’s eastern seaboard beginning in the 1980s. International cooperation of this sort helped fuel the “East Asian miracle.”

Following the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98, Japanese assistance under the New Miyazawa Initiative contributed significantly to the rehabilitation of Southeast Asia’s economies and to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the entire region. We have not experienced a single interstate war in this region since 1979.

Rapid growth in the region has also given rise to regional markets that are vital to the Japanese economy.  For the past two years, overseas investments by Japanese businesses throughout East Asia, the groundwork for which was laid by international cooperation, have allowed Japan to maintain a current account surplus despite a widening trade deficit. In this way, Japan’s international cooperation has not only benefited the recipient nations but also contributed to regional stability and to the development of markets on which the Japanese economy also depends.

Most Trusted Country—ASEAN Survey

TANAKA The Foreign Ministry's recent Opinion Poll on Japan in Seven ASEAN Countries asked Southeast Asians which country, out of eleven candidates, they considered the most reliable. Respondents in every country surveyed except the Philippines and Singapore chose Japan (figure 1).

In response to the question “To what extent do you think Japan’s economic and technical cooperation is helpful in the development of your country?” 93 percent of Indonesians responded that it was either “very helpful” or “somewhat helpful.” In Vietnam, a full 83 percent indicated that Japan’s assistance was “very helpful.” This shows what an important role Japanese development cooperation has played in fostering feelings of trust among the peoples of Southeast Asia.

INTERVIEWER What directions do you expect Japanese ODA to take under the forthcoming ODA charter currently under revision?

TANAKA I was an observer at the meetings of the expert panel charged with making recommendations for revision, and I was very satisfied with the direction the discussions took. The environment surrounding Japan’s development cooperation has changed dramatically in recent years, what with China and other countries launching their own aid programs and the private sector playing a bigger role in development than ever before. My sense is that the revision will serve to clarify Japan’s basic policy on ODA while helping it adapt to these changes.

For example, the ODA Charter needs to clearly articulate Japan’s basic policy of developing infrastructure and human resources in a way that supports the self-help efforts of the partner nations and promotes quality growth for the purpose of eliminating poverty. Another important task is to expand cooperation oriented to “human security,” an area in which we have made great efforts for almost twenty years since the initiative was launched by Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō.

Seeking Transparency in Chinese Aid

INTERVIEWER Funding from private or non-ODA sources—particularly Chinese sources—has significantly increased the global financial flow to developing countries and currently amounts to almost three times the total flow of ODA. What's your take on the role of this sort of nongovernmental financing?

TANAKA Quality growth is an important key to reducing poverty, and funding from private sources is certainly needed to keep the engines of economic growth running. China today provides both government-sponsored private financing and funds comparable to the ODA from OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries. There’s no question that these aid flows are benefiting developing countries around the world. The issue is the degree of transparency in China’s system; it’s very difficult to determine just what sort of assistance China has provided or how much. This year, China released its second White Paper on Foreign Aid, but it’s still a long way from full disclosure.

INTERVIEWER The standard estimate for China’s foreign aid budget is about 300 billion yen, right?

TANAKA The JICA Research Institute recently released a working paper on this subject by Kitano Naohiro, the institute’s deputy director. He used published figures to re-estimate the Chinese equivalent of ODA from 2001 to 2013, using criteria published by the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD. According to Kitano’s estimate, the total for 2013 was considerably in excess of 300 billion yen—in fact, he put it at more than 700 billion yen (figure 2). By this measure, Chinese foreign aid ranks sixth in the world, just behind the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan, and France (figure 3).

From an international perspective, China has some room to improve the transparency of its development assistance and conform more closely to international standards in its design and delivery of foreign aid.

ODA's Critical Support for Fragile States

INTERVIEWER What about changing the way we provide development cooperation?

TANAKA In fragile states, the government often functions inadequately, and in many cases market growth is stunted as well. You may have ongoing civil war or the kind of politically unstable conditions in which civil war could break out at any time. In these situations, we can’t really expect the private sector to step in. This is one reason we still need governments to provide ODA, particularly in terms of helping to create the conditions for human security.

Geographically speaking, it is important to secure steady socio-economic development for the next generation of fast-growing economies and to make sure they fulfill their potential. South Asia and Africa are considered very promising, but areas with growth potential are located side by side with fragile areas in both regions. In South Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan are both fragile states. Iraq is still in the grip of civil unrest, though once it’s at peace, the potential for growth will be enormous. That’s why it’s really important to bring the war to an end.

There’s also a lot of potential for growth in East Africa, especially Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. But Kenya, Ethiopia, and Rwanda are all close to such fragile states as Somalia and South Sudan, as well as Chad farther to the west. In West Africa, countries like Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire have recently shown a steady pace of growth. But Senegal borders a fragile area spanning Mali and Niger. We need to do our best to prevent any resurgence of civil strife, and we also need to provide assistance to countries bordering such fragile regions.

In North Africa, Morocco and Tunisia have been fairly stable since the Arab Spring. But most other countries of North African and the Middle East, including Iraq, are still experiencing civil unrest. In the midst of all this, Jordan is working hard to cope with a huge influx of refugees. About 1.2 million Syrian refugees have flooded into Jordan, which has a permanent population of only about 6 million. If there’s going to be a resolution to all the conflict in the Middle East, it’s vitally important that we provide the support Jordan needs to withstand the strain from this influx.

ODA's Nonmilitary Mission

INTERVIEWER As the current government attempts to establish a legal basis for Japan’s participation in collective self-defense, there’s been some talk of permitting the use of ODA funds by overseas military forces. How do you feel about that?

TANAKA From my standpoint, ODA means cooperation for nonmilitary purposes. Aid for military purposes is not ODA by definition. Any assistance one provides to another country for military purposes is military aid, not ODA. The purpose of ODA is to achieve nonmilitary goals through nonmilitary means.

During recent deliberations by the ODA Charter review panel, it was suggested that Japan’s current charter might go too far by banning any and all ODA support for nonmilitary civil-use activities that happen to be administered by military personnel.

Of course, once the funds have been donated, it may be difficult to ensure that they're used strictly for civilian programs and not diverted to military purposes. On the other hand, it would be questionable whether one should withhold medical assistance after a disaster on the grounds that military personnel are involved in the relief efforts. So, we need to tread carefully here.

Cooperation with Impact, Aid with a Face

INTERVIEWER I know you’ve toured many countries and sites as president of JICA to check the delivery of Japanese ODA firsthand. What are some of the challenges facing JICA in the field?

TANAKA Since my appointment in 2012, I’ve visited some 50 countries, including developed nations. I am convinced that Japan is implementing ODA projects that are having a major impact on our partner countries.

From the standpoint of supporting other countries’ self-help efforts, we're working with the governments of partner nations to identify and explore the projects that are important to them. We're providing financial assistance in the form of concessional loans and grant aid, and personnel contributions in the form of technical advisors, the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, and JICA Senior Volunteers. We now have quite a few senior citizens participating actively in the field under our Senior Volunteers program.

From what I’ve seen with my own eyes, Japan’s development cooperation programs are achieving the goal of “aid with a face.” I believe that we’re delivering ODA in such a way that people are coming to realize Japan is doing very well.

INTERVIEWER What are some of the issues you want to address going forward?

TANAKA Five years ago, almost all of Japan's various bilateral development programs were integrated under a single institution, JICA, which now implements technical cooperation, concessional loans, private sector investment finance, grant aid, dispatch of volunteers, and emergency relief. It would be difficult to find another example of a single development agency handling so many different aspects of international cooperation. One of our challenges going forward is to boost our effectiveness by creatively combining these forms of cooperation. For example, grant aid is more effective if it's skillfully combined with technical assistance, knowledge transfer, and human resource development.

One thing that I've realized during my travels is that there are some highly effective methods that no one is pursuing except Japan. So, one important challenge is finding ways of disseminating that know-how throughout a partner country and to other countries as well. It would be great if more development agencies around the world would emulate the kinds of technical cooperation projects undertaken by JICA. There have already been cases in which the World Bank has taken over financing of a program launched by JICA.

Another challenge is to find a way to convey the unique value of Japanese development cooperation through the kind of compelling narrative that will linger in the memories of beneficiaries and of the international community as a whole.

In Southeast Asia, a relatively large number of people agree that Japan's development cooperation has been a great boon to their nation. But even if ODA loans and Japanese technical assistance help a nation achieve economic growth, it should be the people of that country who deserve the most credit. So it's only natural for a people to attribute their country's success to their own hard work. Bridges that are built with ODA financing from JICA usually bear the logo of JICA or Japan’s aid, and over time that mark has proliferated around the world. But as the years go by, people may forget.

What we need are compelling success stories of collaboration between the local people and the Japanese, legends that will be passed down from generation to generation. I want JICA to leave such narratives behind after it's gone.

Legend Building from Kenya to Bhutan

INTERVIEWER What are some of the projects that have left a lasting impression?

TANAKA Here's an example that Prime Minister Abe spoke about at the Fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development, or TICAD V. In Kenya, Japanese technical advisors assembled groups of local farmers and showed them how keep accounts so that they could monitor the proceeds for the various crops they sold at the local market. Then they sat down with the farmers and brainstormed to figure out what crops to grow next season in order to maximize their profits.

This is known as the Smallholder Horticulture Empowerment Project, or SHEP for short. JICA Senior Advisor Aikawa Jirō has put a huge amount of work into this project. By spurring a basic shift in thinking, from the "grow and sell" approach to a "grow to sell" approach based on market information, this project helped participating farmers double their income. Now we're duplicating that method in about ten African countries.

Another good example occurred in Bhutan, where Japan began providing international cooperation back in 1964. In 1980 the king of Bhutan conferred the title of dasho, the highest rank in Bhutanese society, on the horticulturalist Nishioka Keiji, who spearheaded our agricultural modernization program there. Nishioka passed away in 1992. Last June Bhutan opened a museum dedicated to his memory. Everyone I've spoken to there identifies Japanese aid with Dasho Nishioka. Before Nishioka arrived on the scene, they said, Bhutanese farmers hardly cultivated any vegetables at all, but thanks to Nishioka, vegetable crops proliferated and became a thriving industry. It's a case of how the efforts of a single advisor can give rise to an almost legendary success story. My hope is that we can build further similar legends all over the world.

(English translation of a July 28, 2014, interview by Harano Jōji, representative director of the Nippon Communications Foundation. Photographs courtesy of JICA.)

China Africa JICA ODA Jordan Tanaka Akihiko Bhutan Nishioka Keiji