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Have you ever experienced a day without food? How about losing your land or losing your culture, or losing your income? The worst is losing your family, or having your sweet daughter forced into becoming as a prostitute because, lacking money and a decent education, she can’t find a proper job.

Nobody wants such a life — but many people’s lives are exactly like that due to flaws in Japan’s Official Development Assistance program. ODA is intended to bring prosperity to people overseas, but in some cases, such as the Kotopanjang Dam in Indonesia’s West Sumatra, the result is just the opposite.

“That is why we had to sue the Japanese government — which provided the funding — and all the Japanese parties involved in Kotopanjang, in Tokyo District Court last Wednesday,” said Adhel Yusirman, an Indonesian lawyer.

As the Muneo Suzuki case involving the misappropriation of ODA funds made clear, Japan’s ODA program is in need of revision. The Kotopanjang lawsuit, involving 3,861 plaintiffs who claim they were forcibly resettled after the Kotopanjang Dam was completed in 1997, further illustrates this need.

The hydroelectric dam was built at a cost of some 31 billion yen and paid for with a yen-denominated government loan. The dam was supposed to be capable of generating 114 megawatts of electricity. But 10 years after it was established, its single active turbine only produces 6.3 MW.

Adhel calls a feasibility study recommended by Tokyo Electric Power Services Co. “a meaningless paper.” “They blame the problem on the reservoir’s water level, saying it should be 85 meters above sea level. But if the water level was raised it would ruin the entire area, including a most important ancient cultural site, the Muara Takus temple. The feasibility study done by Tepsco was absolutely wrong,” he said.

Cozy relations among Indonesian politicians, bureaucrats and business leaders are causing Japan’s ODA to destroy the culture, the environment and the lives of local residents under the pretext of assistance.

“Actually we don’t need Japanese assistance, foreign assistance, ODA or whatever. All the money is wasted as it only goes into the elites’ pockets. Meanwhile the people, who never benefit from the assistance, have to repay the loans. This is really unfair. Therefore we strongly urge the Japanese government to halt ODA assistance to Indonesia until the Indonesian government discloses clearly all matters related to ODA funds. If this is not done and Japan gives more ODA to Indonesia, it will complicate the problem for all of us,” said plaintiff Masrul Salim.

His view is supported by another Indonesian lawyer, Iman Maspardi, chairman of the Indonesian Legal Aid and Education Foundation, which has been involved with the Kotopanjang case for 12 years.

“I believe the Japanese government knows well the behavior of the Indonesian government, which has had a high level of corruption since the Suharto era. Relations between the Indonesian government and the Japanese government in the past have not been based on friendship, but rather conspiracy. Japan provides its people’s money, which is then put to corrupt use by Indonesia, and does not think of the burden ordinary Indonesians must shoulder in repaying the loan. This is totally wrong. I suggest strongly that the government elites be forced to pay back the loans rather than the people,” Iman said.

The plaintiffs in the Kotopanjang Dam case are asking for 5 million yen each in compensation. “It is impossible to set a figure for nonmaterial financial losses. Theoretically we could have sought 10 million yen yen in damages per plaintiff. Actually we did approach the Japanese government several times and ask for an apology and aid to help those who have suffered over the past 10 years to return to their normal lives. But the Japanese government refuses to see the suffering of the past,” said Adhel. “Therefore we decided to go to court with the hope that the judges can view our case clearly and render a fair judgment.”

The Kotopanjang Dam case is just one example of how ODA projects do not proceed as planned. Another is an Indonesian water project being carried out by the former Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund, now the Japan Bank for International Cooperation. “We could present a lot of evidence of ODA projects in Indonesia that have failed to benefit society,” Adhel said.

The basic concept of ODA, which is intended to strengthen international cooperation between Japan and developing countries, is excellent, and Japan deserves applause for establishing the program. The various troubles that have arisen are the result of problems in the implementation stage, such as the cozy relations between parties carrying out the work.

The Japanese government should establish a strict system to monitor the implementation stage of ODA projects. One solution would be to involve personnel from Japanese nongovernmental organizations who could, together with Indonesia NGOs, monitor the execution of ODA projects.

For example, using an action plan developed by the NGOs, the government and contractors, NGO personnel could meet at least once a month to check the work being carried out, including the disbursement of funds.

This would not constitute interference in a country’s domestic and political affairs. Technically it would only be a matter of working together, which is the very foundation of international cooperation between two countries. Both countries should trust each other and work hand in hand without prejudice. Such cooperation would strengthen the understanding between Japan and ODA recipients, to the benefit of all.

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