How does Japan involve NGOs in foreign aid?: Implications for China

Editor’s Note: In China’s international development circles, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is often looked upon as an effective government agency in coordinating Japanese overseas development efforts in a manner that strategically advances Japan’s economic and diplomatic interests, while at the same time building up the country’s “soft power”, particularly in regions such as Southeast Asia and Africa. The cultural and historical affinity between China and Japan as East Asian societies who have followed similar development pathways also adds to the relevance of JICA for China’s BRI ambitions. Indeed, today’s China acquired much of its international development acumen (the resource-for-infrastructure model, for example) from the 1970s and 80s when it was a recipient of Japanese foreign aid. And when it comes to “soft power”, JICA’s initiatives to promote Japanese civil society participation in foreign aid serves as a unique point of reference for China’s nascent international development agency (CIDCA), which also shows interest in introducing more “social forces” into the rolling out of Chinese overseas development projects, whose governance challenges have attracted attention both internationally and at home. 

In July an article on the WeChat account of Chinese development studies platform, Diinsider, looked at how JICA supports civil society groups in their participation in Japanese foreign aid. The author, Mr Doi Kenichi, worked at JICA for over a decade and, as a current PhD Fellow at Peking University, is also familiar with China’s international development scene. The topic and Mr Doi’s unique “insider” insights are highly relevant for readers who watch China’s evolving thinking on foreign aid. Panda Paw Dragon Claw got permission from Mr. Kenichi to translate and republish this piece here.

The plurality and complexity of global developmental needs mean that besides official aid agencies, the participation of diverse civil society organizations, with their flexibility and people-centric approach, is crucial. Western developed countries have a long history of involving their civil society groups in overseas developmental work. Their official aid agencies also tend to see NGOs as equal partners in a wide range of foreign aid activities. Historically, however, East Asian countries have less developed NGO sectors, especially in international development.

The infrastructure projects financed by Chinese policy banks and foreign aid agencies in Africa have been a major focus for international media, but little attention is paid to the stories of Chinese grassroots NGOs doing community service in the continent. The reason is not just a lack of attention – the total scale of activities of Chinese NGOs in Africa is simply tiny. Although Chinese NGOs are trying to expand their activities overseas in recent years, particularly in Africa, their presence is almost negligible compared to the massive scale of China’s official overseas development financing.

Between the modus operandi of Western and Chinese overseas development, Japan offers an interesting case study. The Japanese government recognizes the role of NGOs in international development. It also sees the relatively infant stage of civil society as the reason why Japanese foreign aid is lagging behind its Western peers in terms of innovation. In response, the Japanese government supplies all kinds of services and funding to NGOs to encourage them to go overseas. As an East Asian country, Japan is closer to China historically and culturally. The developmental path of its civil society in international development is also similar to that of China’s. Japanese NGOs’ experience in “Going Out” is therefore valuable for Chinese NGOs as a reference point.

Image by Ichigotomikan, CC-BY SA 4.0

Japan’s commitment to “civil participation”

The Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is the country’s leading agency of official development assistance, and a globally known bilateral aid institution. But JICA has an important domestic mandate too: promoting civil participation in foreign aid.

In the latter half of the 1990s, Japanese NGOs were increasingly active in philanthropic activities. The 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake was a key moment for voluntarism in Japan, with many civil society groups involved in post-quake reconstruction. Seeing the emergence of the sector, JICA started to support NGOs in international development, which became the origin of its civil participation program. The agency recognized that civil society groups could help meet growing, diverse demands at the local level in host countries through their granular work on the ground. Besides, JICA hoped these groups could bring their experience in host countries back home and support Japan’s countryside rejuvenation with “reverse innovation”, while also cultivating a talent pool for international development work. Civil participation became a driving force in connecting Japan’s international development with its domestic social development.

In 2008, JICA created a strategy for civil participation, with a guiding principle of “Making International Cooperation Part of Japanese Culture”. JICA approached this with the belief that the lives of the Japanese people are interdependent with the international community. It therefore sought to practice the “spirit of mutual support” of Japanese society in poor communities of the Global South, creating a global society that embodies international cooperation and people-to-people empathy. The civil participation program involves not only NGOs, but also local governments, academic institutes, the private sector, and the general public. JICA hopes that Japanese NGOs can open up channels for Japanese citizens to participate in international development services in host country communities.

Japanese NGO’s “Going Out”

JICA’s support for NGOs to go overseas takes different forms: local level friendship technology collaborations, capacity building training, information services and dialogue platforms.

Through the JICA Partnership Program (JPP), the agency conducts international development cooperation with a multi-party approach involving NGOs, universities and local governments. It promotes host country social and economic development by harnessing the experience of such parties in Japan’s domestic development context. The JPP mainly conducts two types of work: increasing the contribution of civil society to international development in both quantity and quality and promoting understanding and engagement. JPP projects also emphasize 3 principles: they must involve “technology cooperation” (not just material donations) carried out by Japanese organizations on a voluntary basis; they must be oriented toward improving the livelihood of host country local communities; they must create opportunities for Japanese citizens to better understand and participate in international development. In practice, JICA signs service contracts with Japanese NGOs (as implementing entities) to carry out JPP projects.

Those projects give Japanese NGOs opportunities to “go out”. As long as such projects benefit developing country communities, there are no restrictions as to their subject issues. For example, the group PLAS, which focuses on helping orphans of AIDS patients, carried out AIDS prevention projects in Kenya under the JPP framework. The project trained 50 experienced educators of AIDS prevention in west Kenya villages and set up a mechanism for AIDS prevention information dissemination. In the implementation process, the Japanese NGO designed the project based on the framework and steps of a standard international development project, and accumulated precious experience. Today, PLAS has expanded its service area to other parts of Kenya and Uganda.

Image by RomanDeckert, CC-BY SA 4.0

JPP also includes larger scale projects that involve more mature NGOs. Mura no Mirai (“Villages’ Future”) is a Japanese NGO that has implemented rural development projects in Asian developing countries for decades. Through the JPP program, it brought its successful model in Asia to Senegal, West Africa, by setting up farmers’ schools in promoting sustainable agriculture.

JICA also provides training to NGOs to provide essential knowledge and information while strengthening their capabilities in project implementation. In over 10 locations across Japan, JICA hosts training sessions for NGOs as well as developing country officials and experts. It also invites NGO representatives with international experience to share lessons learned.

The NGO-JICA Japan Desk is another window through which Japanese NGOs get support to go out. The Desk is embedded in 20 JICA overseas offices across the globe, including in 4 African countries (Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Senegal). The Desk’s mandate is to facilitate the formulation of JPP project cooperation between the host country and Japanese groups, and provide substantive assistance to such projects. It also provides support for on-the-ground activities, by collecting, sorting and publishing information needed by project implementers. The Desk also holds forums and exchanges between the host country and Japanese NGOs, creating opportunities for face-to-face connection.

Although the 20 host countries with NGO-JICA Japan Desks are priority countries for such support, Japanese NGOs also have access to JICA offices elsewhere for overseas project opportunities.

Sharing Japan’s experience

Japan’s NGOs have demonstrated their grassroots spirit and innovation in providing thoughtful services to local communities in international development. In doing so, they have also increased local understanding of Japan. Although the impact of one grassroots organization is far smaller than a significant investment by a big Japanese company or the sale of large quantities of Japanese products, the impression that such civil society activities leave in local communities and their contribution to local development can increase Japan’s soft power.

There is still a long way to go for Japan to “make international cooperation part of Japanese culture”, to paraphrase a JICA proposal, as Japan’s NGO sector only started to grow around the end of the last century. In a way, Japan itself is a “developing country” when it comes to NGOs’ going overseas for international development cooperation. But Japan did pioneer a model of “officially cultivated NGOs”, which is highly valuable for countries considering promoting their own NGOs’ international development activities.

China’s White Paper on International Development Cooperation released in Jan 2021 also stresses the need to “coordinate the forces of government agencies, local governments and NGOs to increase the efficacy of Chinese foreign aid”. The Chinese government is taking note of the trend of multi-stakeholder participation in international development. In recent years, more Chinese NGOs are involved in overseas developmental work. The authorities are also considering ways to strengthen policies that support “going out”, especially for those NGOs with potential to innovate on the grassroots level. As international media continue to shed light on China-supported mega-infrastructure projects and the so-called “debt trap” issue, showcasing Chinese NGOs’ developmental work on the local level can help improve China’s image.

Currently, the prospective partner of the China International Development Cooperation Agency’s (CIDCA) South-South Cooperation Assistance Fund can nominally include NGOs, but there is still some way to go before any NGO partnership under the Fund can be actually implemented. Speed is critical in collaboration with non-governmental entities, and sometimes a centralized way of operation might not be flexible and responsive enough. In Japan, partnership with NGOs is executed and coordinated by JICA’s training centers across the country, while the Tokyo headquarters are responsible for overall planning and monitoring.

In China today, only some well-funded local governments with a global view tend to work with NGOs in international development. For example, in the prosperous metropolis of Shenzhen, the municipal government has set up the Shenzhen Foundation for International Exchange and Cooperation (SFIEC) with the stated objective of “guiding societal forces in their participation in China’s overall diplomacy.” The foundation has developed a model of overseas project support that includes project design supervision, resource matching and project promotion, and has applied the model in building up a cluster of Shenzhen-based NGOs, enterprises, universities and think tanks that participate in the Shenzhen X Lancang Mekong Initiative, providing development support to communities in Cambodia and Myanmar. This could be a replicable model and the future of China’s civil society in international development. In promoting such partnerships, JICA’s JPP program and the NGO-JICA Japan desk may be valuable references for designing China’s own NGO-support program in international development.

Shenzhen Yu Pengnian Philanthropic Foundation conducting cataract screening for Cambodian residents under the Shenzhen X Lancang Mekong Initiative, Source: SFIEC

As neighboring countries, China and Japan share similar social and cultural backgrounds. There is great space in learning from each other’s experience. The Japanese government’s systematic approach in supporting NGOs to go out can be a reference for China, while a lot of the Chinese NGO innovations are of value to Japan too. Chinese and Japanese civil participation in foreign aid is a positive development in diversifying the forms of developmental work in Africa and elsewhere. It also helps with facilitating Sino-Japan cooperation for global development. As dialogues and partnerships in international development grow more active in both countries, Japan and China’s social forces should share more of their experience with each other and together push for better people-to-people exchanges between Asia and Africa.

Mr. DOI Kenichi (土居健市)is a CSP PhD Fellow at Peking University, and the senior advisor and researcher at Development Innovation Insider (Diinsider). He worked for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for 10+ years and the Japanese NGO, Services for Health in Asian African Regions (SHARE).

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