The top provider of official development assistance in the 1990s, Japan has since been shrinking its foreign aid budget as the economy stagnates.

But Sadako Ogata, president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the implementing arm of Japan’s ODA, says developing countries continue to have high expectations for Japanese support.

“It’s necessary to consider thoroughly Japan’s role in the international community again,” said Ogata, former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

In the 1990s, Japan was the world’s most generous donor. By 2008, however, Japan was down to No. 5, after the United States, Germany, Britain and France among the 22 member countries of the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In June, the Foreign Ministry compiled an ODA policy review report calling for strategic and effective implementation of foreign aid. Behind the review was concern that public interest in providing ODA was waning.

In the past, Ogata has called for Japan to increase the ODA budget and regain its status as a major donor. During the interview, she observed that most Japanese lack the awareness of how Japan has contributed to the world by providing development assistance to neighboring countries since the war.

“Japan has its own experience of receiving development aid to reconstruct the country (after the war). We received aid from the World Bank and built dams, power generation facilities and bullet trains,” she said. “When looking at the history of how Japan dropped militarism and searched for a way to contribute to the world, it is clear that development assistance was a major tool.”

For many years, the primary recipients of Japan’s foreign aid were in Asia, but Ogata said JICA has now shifted attention to Africa, after many Asian economies started to grow. In fact, African countries are eager to learn how Japan and other parts of Asia succeeded. “They are interested in science technology that supported Japan’s growth,” she said.

Indeed, previous aid recipients in Asia, including South Korea and China, are now becoming donors, helping to advance the international cooperation effort, according to Ogata. JICA has been in talks with its counterparts in those two countries to seek ways to cooperate on development, she said.

“For example, in Ethiopia, we have supported the construction of major roads leading to Addis Ababa, while the Chinese built the ring road within that city. If we had been able to talk with China from the start, those two roads could have been well connected. So we’re talking about arranging our role-sharing so it can better benefit the recipients,” Ogata said.

Building infrastructure is important in Africa, Ogata said, pointing to the highways connecting several countries that Japan helped construct. “Unless infrastructure exists, commodities won’t be exchanged and the economy will not develop,” she said.

Meanwhile, many countries still suffer from a lack of social infrastructure. The U.N. Millennium Development Goals that were adopted in 2000 set the world on a quest to halve extreme poverty, halt the spread of HIV, provide universal primary education and improve maternal health and child mortality by 2015. An action plan to boost the efforts was adopted in September at the U.N. Summit because much needs to be done by the deadline.

Because they are linked, it is necessary to support both social and economic infrastructure development, Ogata said. “It can’t be just medical support. The education to promote it, and an improved environment . . . these are all linked together and are necessary,” she said. “And economic growth will help assure medical support and the spread of education.”

During the interview, the former High Commissioner praised the government for “finally” taking part in the UNHCR’s third-country resettlement program and accepting Myanmar refugees from Thailand. Around 90 ethnic Karens will resettle in Japan during the three-year pilot program. The first 27 arrived in the fall.

“I do feel that there is a digit or two missing,” Ogata said. During her UNHCR stint between 1991 and 2000, Ogata said she felt Japan was very reluctant to assist refugees, and noted the country has not changed much in that regard.

Looking back at the past year, Ogata noted the world may have had been hit with more natural disasters than usual, including earthquakes in Haiti and Indonesia as well as major flooding in Pakistan, where JICA engaged in disaster relief.

“From my experience with both (UNHCR and JICA), working on natural disasters is more straightforward than dealing with conflicts because the latter can get complicated by the opposing parties involved. But with natural disasters, everyone can work together,” she said.

“Dealing with human disasters is also much more challenging, because you need to understand the diversity of the world, the problems people face and what they suffer and the fact that there is social injustice,” she said.

Ogata received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and taught at International Christian University and Sophia University before taking her position at the United Nations. Based on her own experience, she encourages young Japanese to go abroad to study and expand their views.

For Japan to continue maintaining its presence in the world, “it is really important for people to hold a wide international perspective and understand the differences of others and work together,” she said.

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