December 27, 2011
JICA President Mrs. Sadako Ogata sat down recently to review events in 2011 dominated by Japan's own devastating earthquake-tsunami, other natural disasters across the globe, the birth of the so-called Arab Spring and Africa's newest nation, South Sudan, and development projects and problems from Afghanistan to Antarctica. She also looked forward to the challenges agencies such as JICA may face in 2012.
Question: The March 11 earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan shook the country and the world. What has been the subsequent fallout for JICA and its operations?
Mrs. Ogata: Because of the ongoing financial difficulties at home there had been a trend in cut back foreign assistance to developing countries (Official Development Assistance, ODA). But because of the support and help we received from all over the world, including from developing countries, there was a sudden awakening among the general public and policymakers that we are now in an interdependent world and the prosperity and health of everyone can only be achieved through closer collaboration and cooperation.
But Japan's ODA budget has been dropping for a number of years and there is even more pressure today on government resources. Do you think this decline in foreign aid will continue?
I think it has bottomed out now. I don't hear very strong words about cutting assistance and there has been a strong reaction from the general public. I have been emphasizing for some time the importance of closer interrelationships and the events of March 11 reinforced this message. We have helped a lot of countries in the past and they have responded by helping us. No one side can be profiting all the time. We are all in this together.
Going forward, will there be more emphasis in JICA projects on such areas as disaster prevention and rehabilitation?
Prevention and rehabilitation are interlinked, but what I would like to see in this area is far more collaboration and inter-dependence. Assistance in such areas, say as the Pacific, has been piecemeal until now. In that region we must bring in countries such as Australia and maybe some Asian countries and achieve more joint policy building. Here, we have not really worked hard enough. And we must consult and talk more with traditional donors, European countries and the United States, to achieve more effective results.
During a recent Washington visit you met with senior officials including the head of USAID Mr. Shah.
Yes, we discussed working together in Africa, particularly the Horn of Africa, on more of a long-term basis. He was particularly interested in the development of some ‘high impact’ crops such as maize (corn) though Japan has tended until now to focus on boosting rice production. JICA in the past tended to concentrate on development in Asia but now many of these countries, China, India, Korea, are leading members of the G20 nations and discussions are expanding on how we can collaborate more fully. There is discussion for instance between the Chinese delegation in Africa and JICA.
What is your most vivid memory of 2011?
There was one crisis after another, no? Japan was shaken by its own natural disaster and JICA, along with all institutions, had to pitch in and do something within the country. And in the meantime we had to keep up with what was going on overseas–from the earthquake in New Zealand to the flooding in Southeast Asia. So it was a very trying year.
What was the most positive development during the year?
The Arab Spring was potentially a massive event. We have to be very careful and we must be realistic. Things can move up and things can go down and right now things are touch and go. But we have to remain optimistic. What happens now has enormous implications for global development. These are not small, struggling developing countries and it is a very important region. JICA was very early into efforts to consolidate the situation both in Tunisia and in Egypt and we have already sent experts to help stabilize the situation socially and legally. And in Egypt we have already been working in areas such as education, agriculture, and the environment.
While attention has been focused on the ‘Arab Spring’ countries what about the rest of the Middle East?
We are continuing with the Corridor of Peace (a project to improve agriculture, water resources, roads and other services in the Jordan Valley bordering Israel, Jordan and Palestine). Progress is steady. We now have a large operation in Iraq and opened a bureau in Baghdad and we are involved in electricity, water supply and are moving into agriculture.
JICA underwent a major restructuring in 2008 and last year the organization re-examined all of its major activities. Has this process now been completed? Is JICA a leaner, meaner development agency today?
It was not easy, but the integration of ‘old’ JICA and part of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) has moved much better than I had originally anticipated. We are now ‘one’ organization and not members of ‘two’ groups. But we must continue to be flexible, squeezing in some areas, expanding in others, to meet changing needs. And we also must put some things into action a little more quickly.
JICA has significantly increased its overall assistance to Africa in recent years. Will this trend continue?
For the time being, I would say yes. In the past JICA concentrated much of its work in Asia, but the situation there has improved significantly. Now, Asian countries are trying to be active in Africa. And that is a very important development which JICA fully supports.
The independence of South Sudan after decades of civil war was a major success. What is JICA's role in that region?
JICA started very early in the southern part of Sudan. We helped to redevelop the Nile River port of Juba (South Sudan's capital) and open up the entire region to the outside world. We helped rebuild roads in Juba. Our staff had to endure very difficult living and working conditions. When I visited the city my room was in a container. But I am very proud of what we have accomplished in that region.
Special units of Japan's Self-Defense Forces, including engineers and other specialists may soon be deployed to the region also.
Yes, such units in the past have done really good work in areas such as Timor and I am very supportive of the idea of their deployment to South Sudan, probably in the new year.
Afghanistan is one of JICA's biggest operations, but security remains a problem. What does that mean for development assistance not only in Afghanistan but in surrounding countries such as Pakistan?
When hundreds of thousands of refugees began returning to Afghanistan early in the millennium we were able to do so much so quickly to improve the situation. It was a ‘good time’ for development. Our staff is still doing heroic work but because of the security situation we cannot do as much as we would like to do. Certainly we could do a lot more if we could get safe access. One important recent development is that we have invited 500 key Afghan officials to Japan and they are now starting their studies at universities across the country. This training will be very important for the development of Afghanistan's human resources potential going forward. In Pakistan we have been involved in such areas as roads and electricity and on several occasions have provided emergency assistance to the country after a series of natural disasters, particularly flooding.
What will be the major challenges of 2012?
There are several. We have made progress, but JICA has to continue to move faster in its decision making. Natural disasters can be terribly damaging to development. If we cannot halt natural disasters we can at least help countries be better prepared to deal with their consequences. Social inequality and lack of inclusiveness in society are major problems in some countries. Food security–or the lack of it–is again a major global crisis and we must find innovative ways to tackle the root causes.
Your position as president of JICA was recently renewed. What do you hope to accomplish going forward?
Everything we have been discussing here. Overall I would like to see JICA more efficient, more field orientated, shorter but more relevant reports. We have come a long way but there is room for further improvement.