Japan has updated its policy guidelines for official development assistance — concessionary aid to developing countries — for the first time in 11 years. ODA has long been considered a key instrument of Japanese diplomacy, but its effectiveness as such has been admittedly less than satisfactory. The new ODA charter is designed to improve this aspect of Japanese aid.

The revised charter points out that the world today is beset by “many interrelated problems” amid ongoing globalization. Among these problems are the economic gap between rich and poor, ethnic and religious conflicts, terrorism, suppression of freedoms and human rights, environmental deterioration and gender inequalities. And it defines the purpose of ODA as “contributing to the peace and development of the international community and thereby ensuring the nation’s security and prosperity.”

The emphasis on national security and prosperity is to be expected. Given the complexity of the international situation, however, it is not always easy to determine what constitutes the national interest. Addressing the question requires a multifaceted and rigorous analysis of the situation.

The focus on the national interest means that judgment on the necessity of aid rests primarily with Japan. The new aid policy emphasizes the need for greater initiative on the part of the donor nation; in other words, it introduces a new element of activism into the process of aid selection. In the past, aid has been provided in response to specific requests from prospective recipient nations.

Whether this new tack in ODA policy will bear fruit depends largely on the Japan International Cooperation Agency, or JICA, the nation’s central aid-implementing body. Particularly notable in this regard is the appointment of Ms. Sadako Ogata, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and currently the Japanese government representative for Afghan reconstruction support, as the new JICA director.

Her appointment, coming at a time when JICA is being transformed into an independent administrative agency, is significant in two ways. First, it has put an end to the time-honored “revolving door” personnel practice of appointing a retired Foreign Ministry bureaucrat as JICA chief. Second, and more importantly, Ms. Ogata has many years of firsthand experience dealing with the myriad problems that plague developing countries.

She is not only familiar with refugee problems but also with the prevailing situations in Asian, African and South American developing nations. Above all, she has the respect of the governments and people of many of these countries, as well as nongovernment organizations engaged in aid activities around the world. As JICA director, Ms. Ogata has her work cut out to add a more human touch to Japan’s aid diplomacy.

JICA, its new independent status notwithstanding, will continue to use government funds and perform essentially the same work as before. But, while receiving close scrutiny from third parties concerning the effectiveness of aid projects, it will have more discretion in selecting aid projects and recipients. In this regard, great expectations are placed in Ms. Ogata.

Ms. Ogata is also expected to play a large role in promoting cooperation between governments and NGOs. Private aid groups say Japanese aid has often been used to meet the convenience of recipient-country governments, not the real needs of their people. An advocate of ODA reform, she can give a big push to such cooperation.

High hopes are also pinned on Ms. Ogata in the area of public relations. Japan, along with the United States, is the world’s leading provider of ODA, yet the Japanese people are not necessarily well informed about how aid money is being used. So another important job for her will be promoting public support and participation.

Beyond that, Ms. Ogata’s appointment as the nation’s top ODA manager can be expected to widen the conceptual horizon of Japanese aid. While the government is calling for an assistance policy focused on the national interest, many people involved with aid projects emphasize “humanitarian interest” as a new rationale for official development assistance. Greater public participation should make it possible to deepen the debate on aid diplomacy.

It would, of course, be unrealistic to place too many expectations in Ms. Ogata. Still, given her outstanding track record as an international expert in humanitarian affairs, there is every reason to expect that she will inject fresh air into an aid policy that thus far has been conducted largely under the aegis of bureaucrats.

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