The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), an independent governmental agency that coordinates official development assistance (ODA) for the government, has played an important role for the country in its relations with foreign nations. The following is the story of a JICA staff member who worked from 2007 to 2009 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in Central Africa .
In April 2007, Tsutomu Iimura arrived in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, after working for the JICA office in Dakar, Senegal, from 2005 to 2007. His new mission was to open a new JICA office in the DRC.
Japan’s economic cooperation in the DRC dates back to the 1970s, when the country was known as Zaire. Over the years, through the help of JICA staff members assigned at the Japanese Embassy, Japan extended support in building the country’s infrastructure and in developing human resources. Unfortunately, these activities came to a halt in 1991 due to the civil war. Following the presidential elections in 2006, Japan decided to resume full-scale bilateral assistance to the DRC, this time from its own office.
“Former JICA President Sadako Ogata emphasized that we should provide assistance to two of the biggest and important African countries, the DRC and Sudan, both of which we could not reach amid the political disorder then,” Iimura said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. The 44-year-old currently works at JICA’s headquarters in Tokyo as a director in charge of Francophone Africa.
His mission in the DRC was a difficult one since “there was nothing but my bag,” Iimura said.
“No office. No local staff. No fixed telephone service. In addition, the banking system was not yet functioning,” he said. “Nobody knew JICA after 15 years of absence. But I definitely needed to get recognition of our visa and the status of JICA, and to get the government’s official requirements to provide our ODA.”
He tried every possible means to reach ministers in charge, and little by little, with the help of staff members of the United Nations’ organizations and the European Union, built up networks with the people of the DRC.
One day, Iimura was surprised to receive visitors to his unmarked office. The visitors were former trainees who had gone to Japan to take part in JICA’s training programs on road maintenance or vocational guidance in the 1980s and ’90s.
” ‘We have been waiting for JICA to come back for these 15 years,’ they said,” Iimura said. “One of them showed me what he had kept cherished since then: a JICA trainee badge.
“I often questioned myself about what I could do in this vast country that was not yet in order,” he said. “But by traveling around, I found many good legacies of Japan’s cooperation, which gave me the keys to move forward.”
Iimura visited the Matadi Bridge, a suspension bridge that is the only fixed crossing of any kind over the lower and middle Congo River. Completed in 1983 by Japanese loan aid and technical assistance, it has a span of 520 meters, carrying the main highway between Kinshasa and the Atlantic coast.
“It was a big national project at the time, involving the construction ministry, the Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Authority, Japan National Railways, JICA and the Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (predecessor of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation). But Japanese experts pulled out when the revolt occurred in 1991 and had been worrying about the bridge ever since,” Iimura said.
What he saw there was the bridge still in service, which had been guarded by Congolese technical personnel despite 15 years of conflict in the country.
“Of course, their technology was not updated, but they upheld what Japanese experts taught them about how to manage and maintain a bridge. It was amazing in an African country to see workers wearing proper shoes and helmets and safely dividing the construction area from the traffic lanes,” Iimura said.
Iimura was also impressed by the water treatment plant constructed in 1990 with Japanese grant aid. It was still providing for 50,000 people thanks to the Congolese technical personnel who kept all the pumps and the floor sparkling clean for 18 years.
At a vocational training school, a teacher had continued to give classes to young workers, saying, “Although the infrastructure may be decrepit after 25 years, people will grow up in 25 years. That’s what I learned from Japan.”
Japan’s cooperation has been done by sending experts who “go deeply into the field and work together with their African partners,” according to Iimura.
“Such Japanese experts were respected by the local people. That’s why those Congolese people have continued teaching young workers, providing water and maintaining the bridge despite 15 years of conflict. Through this, I felt like realizing what the term ‘human security,’ meant,” Iimura said. “People who live there became able to maintain and develop a sustainable society by themselves with their own wisdom.”
Today, many other countries including China, seeking the DRC’s rich mineral resources such as copper and cobalt, are investing in the country, offering large-scale infrastructural packages.
“The Japanese way of building infrastructure may not be done so quickly or at a low price. We conduct careful feasibility studies and measurements, and set up a detour prior to the construction, which requires costs and time,” Iimura said. “But once we go ahead and complete it, the Congolese people seem to realize the quality of our work. And in such kinds of construction, JICA works closely with the Japanese private sector to provide necessary support.”
“Besides these civilian sectors, one of the most important projects that JICA launched in the DRC is providing training for the Congolese National Police,” Iimura said, as a viable police force is vital for peace-building, which is a prerequisite for sustainable economic development.
“Especially in the eastern part of the country, where there are still conflicts and riots, these should be brought under control by armed forces and the police, but they were not well trained at that time,” he said.
In cooperation with the U.N. peacekeeping operation, training included refresher courses for police officers and long-term basic training of new recruits, who were often enlisted from former armed insurgent groups. Some 20,000 police officers have received training so far and the discipline of the national police has been much improved.
“This is a pioneering project, which could be applied to other countries and areas in conflict, such as the Sahel region, I believe,” Iimura said.
“At least, we could say that we need to regard the issue of Sahel region as a challenge to the international society and to provide a wide variety of assistance. It is important to show Japan’s concern about the issue at the upcoming TICAD V,” Iimura said.
Iimura has observed the Sahel region for years since he first became interested in the French Foreign Legion when he was a student at the National Defense Academy of Japan.
“My first profession was as a Japanese Self-Defense Forces official. I thought that I could contribute to the nation and the international society in that way. But after working for JICA, I realized that armed forces could create quasi-peace conditions, but they cannot create the future. For such challenges to provide people with ordinary lives and to make tomorrow better than today, I am working for JICA in cooperation with the African people.”
The background of JICA can be traced back to 1954, when Japan launched technical cooperation with foreign nations after joining the Colombo Plan, which aimed to improve the living standards in developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Meanwhile, Japan gave financial assistance to Asian countries as part of its war reparations.
For the government to implement the cooperation programs, the Overseas Technology Cooperation Agency was established in 1962. This was reorganized into JICA, a semi-governmental organization in 1974. In 2003, JICA became an independent governmental agency for overseas technical assistance.
Since the completion of war reparations in 1976, Japan’s ODA began increasing exponentially and it increased its assistance to Africa, mainly through grant aid from the 1980s to ’90s. During the decade between 1991 and 2000, Japan was the world’s top provider of ODA and initiated the first Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in 1993.
While the world’s major donor countries, which are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee, mostly provide grant aid, Japan provides more loan aid, which comprises 30 percent of its total ODA. By 2007, Japan had dropped to fifth place based on net disbursements, but based on gross disbursements, Japan remains the second largest donor in the world after the United States, providing total ODA of $19.9 billion in 2011.
In 2008, when the Yokohama Declaration was adopted at TICAD IV, Yasuo Fukuda, the prime minister at the time, declared Japan’s commitment by doubling total ODA to Africa from $900 million to $1.8 billion by 2012. This pledge was just about fulfilled by the end of the target year despite Japan’s overall ODA budget staying at about the same level.
In October 2008, ODA loan operations of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) merged with JICA. This merger of the Japanese government’s two largest aid organizations was aimed at creating an efficient integrated organization for coordinating ODA in three ways: technical assistance, loan aid and grant aid.
The new JICA has become one of the largest bilateral development organizations in the world with 97 overseas offices and projects in more than 150 countries. In 2011, JICA provided ¥188.9 billion in technical assistance, ¥107.6 billion in grant aid and ¥609.7 billion in loan aid.
JICA experts and volunteers have been at work in villages and cities all over the African continent, sharing knowledge and technology with African partners, organizing various programs and projects ranging from infrastructure, human resource development, agriculture, health care and education to peace-building and South-South cooperation.
Against the backdrop of a newly vibrant Africa experiencing growth rates of around 5 percent since the beginning of the 21st century, foreign direct investment has overtaken ODA since 2005. Emerging donor countries, including China, South Korea and Brazil, are boosting economic aid to key development areas in Africa.
Responding to the rapidly changing situations, JICA has initiated new approaches, such as a development strategy for supporting the cooperation between the African public and private sectors; a development strategy placing importance on regional connectivity, such as with the East African Community (EAC), Southern African Development Community (SADC), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA); and cooperation with Japanese companies.
Since 2012, Akihiko Tanaka has been the president of JICA.