Japan’s foreign aid initiative takes a new turn

Monzurul Huq
Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Professor Masaaki Ohashi

During the second half of the twentieth century Japan emerged as a formidable economic power dominating many aspects of global economy. However, it was also a period that saw the start of slowing down of country’s fast running economic engine, and thus marking the process of a gradual withdrawal of Japan from matters that policymakers in Tokyo earlier counted as priority issues. If the period of rapid economic growth was for Japan a time to devote more in the maintenance of peace and stability through proactive involvement in areas that call for greater participation of advanced industrial nations, the slowing down phase marked a sharp departure from that position to the one where involvement calls more for strengthening defence capabilities at the expense of peaceful involvement. Thus, in recent years we have seen a shift in Japan’s long-held and highly evaluated policy of official development assistance (ODA) that until very recently had been considered an important pillar of country’s foreign policy.


Japan’s ODA is now going through a transitional phase. With a shrinking budget in line with the sluggish performance of Japanese economy, policy makers in Tokyo had been busy for quite some time rethinking the ways that would give a new shape of Japan’s aid policy. The cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has adopted last month a new foreign aid guideline for Japan. The revised document emphasized for the first time in 60 years the importance of funding foreign military forces. However, the precondition that the cabinet has set for that initiative to put into practice is that, such assistance should only be used for non-military purposes like disaster relief operations. Known commonly as the ODA Charter, the newly updated aid policy guideline also makes it clear that Japan will use its development aid to contribute to the global society in line with country’s national interest.


It was the first revision of Japan’s basic policy on foreign aid in almost 12 years. Although the charter retains the principle that aid cannot be used for military purposes or to fuel foreign conflicts, however, the document also maintains that in a situation where military forces or personnel are involved in development assistance for civil or non-military purposes like disaster relief, Japanese assistance can be channelled after a careful review of its practical significance. This particular clause of the ODA guideline, along with the declaration that by providing economic assistance to developing countries Japan will also like to secure its national interest, have been strongly criticized by development aid experts who are concerned that the scope of Japanese assistance to armed forces might be expanded further to include the so-called gray zone activities that might not be determined easily as strictly non-military. The critics are particularly cautious about the difficulty of preventing such aid from being diverted to covert military purposes. They also fear that the charter’s focus on securing national interest might undermine the basic concept of providing assistance to countries that are more in need of help.


Professor Masaaki Ohashi of Sacred Heart University Tokyo and Chairman of the Japan Centre for NGOs in International Cooperation (JANIC) is one of those who are concerned about the vague nature of the revised aid policy guideline that they feel leaves open the possibility of misinterpretation. Professor Ohashi, who earlier served at the foreign ministry’s advisory panel on ODA, said in a conversation that the problematic point of helping the military for non-military purpose is who would decide if a Japanese ODA project is military or non-military. “Apparently, a third party, which is in a (quasi) conflict situation with the recipient country, might make the situation confusing,” said Professor Ohashi He is concerned that, “even in case Japan says the aid is non-military; a third country has the right to say that this is an obvious military assistance and thus leading all concerned parties to a confusing situation that will ultimately increase tension not only between the third country and the recipient of Japanese ODA, but also between the third country and Japan.” Professor Ohashi strongly believes that this would clearly violate the non-aggravation principle of the new Charter.


Here he finds similarity with the cases of sexual abuse or abuse of power and other forms of harassments where it is the society or the police that determines if a particular case is that of an harassment or not, in accordance with the assertion of the victims, not  that of the accused.


Another clause of the new charter coming under criticism is the concept of public-private partnership that the document claims is to “support economic development of developing countries more vigorously and effectively and also to enable such development to lead to robust growth of the Japanese economy”. The revised charter emphasizes that partnership with Japanese companies, including small and medium-sized enterprises, will be encouraged in order to strengthen further the existing cooperation aimed at creating an environment conducive to the promotion of trade and investment.


Here too, Professor Ohashi feels uneasy about the concept. He finds it running contrary to the capitalist market mechanism based on fair competition, as he is concerned that “in order to win ODA project contracts, Japanese businesses will reduce their bidding prices taking the advantage of ODA assistance.” Though the process might help Japanese companies winning business contracts in developing countries, Professor Ohashi is worried that this will eventually weaken the competitive standing of Japanese private firms and encourage others to follow the similar practice. “China will soon have more ODA funding and will imitate Japan’s way of monopolizing the market, resulting eventually to our disadvantage in the long run”, said Professor Ohashi.


He is one of those development assistance scholars who think that Japanese business in general has very limited understanding of the concept of development from the perspective of social advancement, and they do not have any specific code of conduct conducive to development assistance. As a result, he is worried that their involvement might induce more problems such as industrial and environment pollution, violation of human rights, sexual harassment and so on.


Based on such critical assessments, Professor Ohashi feels that Japan’s new ODA Charter tilts heavily toward economic growth at the expense of poverty alleviation. And this cautious evaluation is well reflected when he says, “we know it quite well, economic growth expands and enlarges income gap, unless very careful redistribution policies are set together.”


The cabinet approval of the revised ODA charter marks the beginning of a new phase of Japan’s involvement with the developing world. However, many in Japan believe that instead of diversifying the scope of the official development assistance to include financial assistance to foreign military forces and making the way for private sector involvement, policy makers should seriously consider how to increase the total amount of country’s development aid that now accounts for a mere 0.17 percent of the nation’s gross national income, which is far short of the agreed international goal of 0.7 percent. Japan’s ODA allocation is in continuous decline for 16 consecutive years. The Budgetary allocation for 2015 fiscal year starting from next month saw a further 1.5 percent decline from the allocated amount for the current fiscal year ending in March.


(Tokyo, March 3, 2015)

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