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60 Years of Japanese Development Assistance: Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

February 19, 2014

By Abigail Friedman

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Japan’s overseas development assistance. Looking back, Japan’s trajectory from a development assistance recipient to donor is without parallel. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Japan was a major recipient of U.S. and international assistance. Less than a decade later, in 1954, it became a development donor in the Asia-Pacific for the first time. By 1989, Japan was the number one donor of overseas development assistance (ODA), and today it is the major contributor to the Asian Development Bank, a leading member of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC), and the world’s fifth largest bilateral aid donor.

The success of international development efforts going forward will depend in great part on Japan’s ability to continue to contribute and respond effectively to the development landscape. And that landscape is changing. Today, more assistance is coming into developing countries from the private sector, remittances, international NGOs, and private philanthropy than directly from foreign government assistance programs. The challenges that need to be addressed are also evolving, and extend not only to traditional priorities such as the need to support economic growth, but to human security, too, or what the U.N. has defined as the right of “all individuals, in particular vulnerable people … to freedom from fear and freedom from want.”

On February 12, I represented The Asia Foundation at a summit hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) that brought together Japanese and U.S. government development experts, as well as representatives from the think tank community, academia, and the Philippine Ambassador for a look back and a look ahead at Japan’s role in international development assistance. Here are some of the main challenges and opportunities that emerged:

Respond to needs that go beyond government-to-government assistance. Up to now, Japan has largely contributed to global development by identifying and responding generously to the need for basic infrastructure in developing countries. In this context, Japan’s ODA has taken the form of yen loans, technical cooperation, grant aid, and some volunteer assistance. The emphasis on infrastructure, however, has meant that the vast majority of Japanese aid has been government to government. At the summit, JICA President Akihiko Tanaka affirmed Japan’s commitment to addressing human security challenges, particularly in fragile states and in middle-income countries. Panelists identified that in an era when human security concerns are a rising priority, new mechanisms for assistance may be required for Japan to effectively support and strengthen local non-government stakeholders, including civil society and the private sector.

Expand cooperation with international non-government stakeholders. With shrinking ODA budgets, Japan, like many governments, is already seeking enhanced coordination with the full range of international actors. Last April, The Asia Foundation and Japan entered into a strategic partnership to advance our shared development goals in Asia. Japan has been an active participant in the Asian Approaches to Development Cooperation series, a joint Korea Development Institute-Asia Foundation initiative, which serves as a platform for Asian emerging providers and brings together participants (government and non-government experts) with a wide range of donor experiences. And, last December, the U.S. and Japan announced a “U.S.-Japan High Level Dialogue on Development.” But to translate these multilateral engagements into real, effective partnership on the ground, panelists suggested that Japan may need to adapt its existing mechanisms to allow for greater flexibility in working with international actors. This will be particularly true for Japan as it enters into new areas such as human security in fragile states and women’s empowerment, where international non-government organizations have been working on the ground for many years.

Expanding women’s economic empowerment. At last fall’s U.N. General Assembly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe extended his government’s strong commitment to empowering women, and has thus joined the leading international development assistance donors – including Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – in highlighting women’s empowerment as one of the best and most efficient investments that can be made to encourage greater prosperity around the world.

Japan’s desire to engage in support of women’s economic empowerment is especially wise when one considers the evidence. In Asia alone:

  • A recent UNESCO report estimated that limiting women’s job opportunities costs Asia-Pacific region between $42-46 billion a year.
  • The World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap report concluded that the Asia-Pacific region continues to lag behind other regions on gender equality measures related to economic participation and opportunity – in fact, it is ahead only of the Middle East.

The WEF report further identified a “strong correlation between a country’s gender gap and its national competitiveness, income, and development.” And in countries where it is relatively easy for women to combine work with having children, female employment and female fertility both tend to be higher.

As we mark the 60th anniversary of Japan’s overseas development assistance, all indicators point to a country that is adapting to the changing landscape, and that is determined to join with a wide range of partners to effectively meet the development challenges ahead.

Abigail Friedman is senior advisor at The Asia Foundation, seconded from the U.S. Department of State. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation, Department of State, or any other entity of the U.S. government.

1 Comment

  1. There is no doubt that Japan has emerged as a superpower amongst all countries in the last decade. This will continue to grow since there are a lot of opportunities as well as the right vision for Japan to expand.

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