Transparency issues face public scrutiny of Japan’s COVID-19 aid
Author: Yusaku Yoshikawa, JIN Corporation
In response to COVID-19, Japan launched an Official Development Assistance (ODA) program for developing countries. Announced in December 2020, it is committing 500 billion yen ($ 4.5 billion) over two years in an emergency support loan agreement to the response to the COVID-19 crisis. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) claims that Japan started giving loans “In the first months immediately after the epidemic” to countries such as Niger, India and Myanmar.
But to what extent will this assistance actually help recipient countries cope with the pandemic? And will this aid be free from Japan’s continuing challenge of a lack of transparency in ODA?
The contingency plan includes multilateral and bilateral assistance, with multilateral assistance going to recipient countries through international institutions such as UNICEF and the United Nations Development Program, and is primarily aimed at train healthcare workers and disseminate information on COVID-19. In addition to the emergency loan program, there is bilateral assistance consisting of medical equipment supplies worth 48 billion yen (US $ 436 million) and technical assistance worth 1. 5 billion yen (US $ 13 million). The additional aid is almost comparable to Japan’s annual ODA budget of 561 billion yen (US $ 5.4 billion) in fiscal year 2020.
In his 2015 Cabinet decision on the Development Cooperation Charter, the Japanese government places ODA under its responsibility, both for the international community and for its own citizens. He states that Japan’s ODA aims to “defend national interests‘and – while a matter for debate – the Japanese public seems to expect this help will be contribute to own financial interests.
The Charter states that infectious diseases can “have a direct negative impact on the peace, stability and prosperity of the world, including Japan”. MOFA Explain that helping contain COVID-19 in developing countries is also preventing infections from spreading in Japan. The conformity of the Charter with the UN Sustainable development goals encouraged MOFA to promote Universal Health Coverage International and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to support the protection of Human security during the pandemic at the United Nations General Assembly in December 2020.
But despite these plans and justifications, it seems the Japanese government is still debating what kind of aid is most effective. More 15 ODA proposals related to COVID-19 by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) are so far surveys for project formulation – not for practical assistance.
Experts grapple with the from a distance implementation of Japanese technical cooperation projects abroad. Clarifying and examining what kind of aid will be delivered to recipient countries – as well as how it will be implemented, and why to those countries in particular – has become even more important in the context of the pandemic.
These questions call for the public disclosure of information on the implementation of emergency aid. Japanese ODA has long been criticized for its lack of transparency. The Japanese government pledged to improve transparency in its 2003 statement Official Development Assistance Charter and he made improvements by disclosing documents like the Country aid policy, which describes the country-specific aid policies that have been implemented, and its Ex post evaluation report, which reviews the past implementation of the project.
For emergency assistance, MOFA has issued press releases and reports on supply of items including, for example, x-ray machines, thermographic cameras and ambulances, which have been handed over to medical institutions in countries such as Zambia and Kosovo.
But these reports are still limited to the assistance that has already been provided. The formulation and implementation of aid takes place mainly behind closed doors. The sites of MOFA and JICA describe only past cases where emergency loans have been issued. Fundamental documents like the Project design matrix – a summary sheet of loans in yen and other Japanese development projects – remain private.
The lack of transparency regarding the selection of ODA projects confuses the actual recipients and the positive impacts of aid, especially at the local level, and confronts the public with scrutiny by government.
Yusaku Yoshikawa is an aid consultant at JIN Corporation, engaged in Japanese ODA projects in Africa.
This article is part of a special EAF series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.