Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Photo by: CSIS / CC BY-NC-SA

Japan’s Development Cooperation Charter, government officials say, is designed to more effectively utilize the financial aid scheme to bolster Tokyo’s role in global affairs. But what does this mean for development?

Official development assistance remains an indispensable tool in Japan’s foreign policy toolkit. Since the launch of its aid program 60 years ago, Japan has provided ODA to help reduce poverty and spur sustainable growth in developing countries by building up their infrastructure and human capital. Lately, however, Tokyo has explicitly and increasingly emphasized leveraging its aid to advance national interests.

Shortly after the adoption in December 2013 of Japan’s first-ever National Security Strategy — which openly called for the strategic use of Japanese ODA — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a review of the aid charter. After almost a year’s process, Japan’s cabinet adopted Feb. 10 new guidelines for international aid. Although retaining traditional aid values such as respect for human rights, good governance and democracy building, the new aid charter emphasizes pursuing active pacifism to realize a peaceful and secure international society that serves Japan’s national interests.

The International Development Journal breaks down the new priorities and implementation guidelines of Japan’s development cooperation going forward.

Not a mere name change

The revisions, the first in 12 years, fit in neatly with the broader redirection of Japan’s foreign policy that seeks a more proactive role for Tokyo in international diplomacy and security. Far from being cosmetic, experts say, the changes to Japan’s aid charter are significant enough to warrant a name change.

Abe’s government abandoned the term ODA altogether in the title to present a Development Cooperation Charter that goes beyond providing bilateral assistance to utilizing aid as a catalyst for development partnerships. Recognizing the increasingly growing role of nontraditional actors in development efforts, Japan aims to spur growth in developing countries by boosting its cooperation with and mobilizing resources from the private sector, local governments and nongovernmental organizations.

Ensuring human security and alleviating poverty through ‘quality growth’

Japan’s aid program, simply put, is grounded on “human security” perspectives, which stress protecting and empowering individuals. Aid is also mainly given to support self-help efforts of developing countries to alleviate poverty by creating the foundations for self-reliant development: human capital, socio-economic infrastructure, private sector growth, and institutions and regulations.

The new aid charter builds on this tradition and goes even further by introducing the notion of “quality growth,” or growth that is inclusive, sustainable and resilient. To this end, Japan aims to leverage its own experience, expertise and technology to help developing countries realize quality development. This policy direction, however, has prompted criticism that Japan’s new aid charter focuses too much on growth. Civil society representatives have pointed out that growth seems to be the priority of Japanese development cooperation, with poverty alleviation merely a result of that growth.

Bolstering collaboration among Japan’s various development institutions

To carry out its aid more effectively, the Japanese government will bolster collaboration among the various relevant ministries and agencies, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs taking the helm. MOFA will also ensure close coordination between the government, which is responsible for planning aid policies, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which is in charge of implementation.

Likewise, collaboration between JICA and other agencies responsible for official funds, such as the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, Nippon Export and Investment Insurance, and the Japan Overseas Infrastructure and Investment Corporation for Transport and Urban Development will be strengthened.

Aid for foreign troops, nonmilitary operations

In what is a bold departure from previous official stance, Abe’s government signed off on a provision that allows giving aid money to foreign troops, although limited to nonmilitary operations such as disaster relief. While the new charter reiterated Japan’s long-standing policy of aid not being utilized for military purposes and stated that such assistance will be considered on a case-by-case basis, the policy shift nonetheless aroused a great deal of controversy.

On top of this being the first time that such a policy has been clearly stated in Tokyo’s aid charter, the vagueness of the provision for channeling aid for nonmilitary purposes, experts say, raise concerns that Japanese ODA could, in fact, end up funding foreign military operations. Government officials argue that they would be very cautious on how such assistance is disbursed since aid money is fungible and always run the risk of being spent on purposes they were not intended for.

Condensed and republished with permission from The International Development Journal, a leading monthly journal in Japanese focusing on international development.

About the author

  • Christine Dugay

    Christine is a former senior analyst under the Surveys and Advisory Services team of Devex. A skilled researcher, she contributes to and/or leads custom research projects and surveys commissioned by leading companies and development institutions. Christine has a professional certificate in political economy and a master’s degree in Japanese studies, and is a fellow of the Japan Foundation.