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November 8, 2013

Towards Building a New Partnership with the Philippines
–Takahiro Sasaki, Chief Representative of the JICA Philippines Office–

PhotoTakahiro Sasaki, chief representative of the JICA Philippines Office

By Takahiro Sasaki
Chief Representative, JICA Philippines Office

The Philippine economy has remained resilient in recent years.

In the 1960s, the Philippines, along with Malaysia, was among the economic powerhouses of Asia. Subsequently, the Philippines was left behind as many other Asian countries developed, and has sometimes been ridiculed as the "sick man of Asia."

More recently, however, the focus shifted to the "China plus one" concept and the Philippines is now known along with Vietnam and Indonesia as the "VIP" group of nations which have a strong growth potential.

Many Commonalities with Japan

The Philippines, the closest ASEAN nation to Japan, is a maritime nation. Like Japan, the Philippines faces serious threats from natural disasters such as typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The Philippines also shares important values with Japan including an orientation toward a market economy and democracy. The majority of Filipinos are Catholic and the Filipino people share with the Japanese such Asian values like mutual help (bayanihan) and repaying debts of gratitude (utang na loob).

PhotoThe population composition in the Philippines (source: United Nations)

Above all, the greatest strength of the Philippines is their population. With an average age of 23, the country has a young population that will continue to grow over the mid- to long term.

As one of the official languages of the country, English is widely spoken, and I have heard that many young people in Japan are now learning English from Filipino teachers over the Internet.

More than 200,000 Filipinos live in Japan, the third largest foreign population after Chinese and Koreans.

Japan, with its decreasing birthrate and aging population, will pay closer attention to its partnership with Philippines, given the economic potential there and the values and attributes shared with Japan.

Prime Minister Abe's Four Initiatives

In July of this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an official visit to the Philippines, six and-a-half years since the previous visit during Abe's first cabinet. To further strengthen the strategic partnership between our countries, Abe announced four initiatives in diplomacy with the Philippines: 1) the nurturing of vibrant economies together; 2) the promotion of cooperation in maritime affairs; 3) the strengthening of the assistance for the Mindanao Peace Process; and 4) the promotion of people-to-people exchanges.

In a speech about nurturing vibrant economies, Abe discussed promoting JICA cooperation for transportation in Metro Manila. This cooperation includes compiling the results of a diverse set of surveys, exchanging opinions directly with the secretaries of the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Department of Transportation and Communications, and crafting a roadmap that is uniform across sectors.

The Post Disaster Stand-by Loan[1] announced by Abe, was a new undertaking for JICA. Japan's 40-year record of cooperation with the Philippines on disaster reduction shows that such assistance enables the formulation and verification of policy reforms which are the premise of the loan.

To promote maritime cooperation, Abe announced that 10 multi-purpose ships would be provided to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). Cooperation for the PCG began in 1990 when JICA dispatched an expert to the Philippines. JICA has since provided support in this area to ensure the safety of shipping routes and assist with maritime accidents, combining three types of assistance: ODA loans, grant aid and technical cooperation. The provision of those ships as an extension to perform and expand maritime safety duties was strongly desired by the Government of the Philippines.

Amid calls for more strategic ODA, the new proposal put forth by Abe in his initiatives, building on past successes, may be considered a new beginning for Japan and Philippines relations.

Learning from the Past ‐ 60 Years of ODA

Japan joined the Colombo Plan[2] in 1954. That same year, Japan accepted its first participants from the Philippines and began providing other assistance to the Philippines.

As of 2014, 60 years will have passed since Japan's ODA to the Philippines began. Currently, PR materials are being prepared for the people of Japan and the Philippines to summarize impact of JICA projects over the years.

A typical example of cooperation activities can be found on Bohol Island, located southeast of Cebu.

In the 1980s, JICA formulated a comprehensive development plan for Bohol Island as one of the poorest regions in the Philippines. Since then, improvements have been made to help productivity in Bohol through irrigation works and agricultural technical assistance. Bohol's connectivity has also enhanced through the building of a 260-kilometer circumferential road and transmission lines for energy supply.

As poverty and safety are interrelated, JICA experts initially received threats from the New People's Army,[3] and while such problems hampered activities at times, security issues were resolved as the development process moved forward.

Through agriculture and infrastructure, development has positively affected the island economy, and in 2009, Bohol achieved self-sufficiency in rice.

In addition to maintaining public safety, Edgardo Chatto, governor of Bohol Province, has promoted policies to engage communities through volunteer projects that organize young people to bring development benefits to as many people as possible.

As a result of those efforts, the military and the National Police declared Bohol to be insurgency-free in 2010. The province has become a destination for sightseeing, with popular sites for the Philippine tarsier[4] and the Chocolate Hills[5] bringing in more than 560,000 tourists per year. JICA is working on a project to construct a new international airport for further development in Bohol. In addition to increasing the number of tourists, the project would take into consideration environmental concerns.

PhotoJICA President Akihiko Tanaka talks to a woman in Mindanao in 2012.

Chatto said that, from the standpoint of the secretary general of the League of Provinces, "I hope to use the development experiences we have had working with JICA in Bohol in other provinces that suffer from poverty, particularly Mindanao."

Last year, concrete negotiations began after an agreement was signed for a peace framework by the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).[6] In July of this year, JICA established a project office in Cotabato, the center of the conflict-affected area, and stationed employees there. Using JICA's experiences in Bohol, we will work hard to achieve peace in the Mindanao region and eradicate poverty.

Towards a New Partnership

On the 60th anniversary of ODA to the Philippines in 2014, I would like to look forward by remembering our past relations. We need to consider how ODA can make a contribution so that Japan and the Philippines, with our shared trust and values, can realize a true partnership. In Bohol, a school for network creation and design called FabLab (short for fabrication laboratory) has been established by the Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, a group of young Japanese volunteers sharing their expertise in developing countries.

The younger generation has already started working towards a new partnership. JICA therefore looks forward to a more dynamic, re-energized and strategic partnership with the Philippines that is built on a successful past with a sustainable future.

About the Author

Takahiro Sasaki

Joined the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 1984. For three years starting in 1987, he worked as a JICA expert in the Philippines. Later when ODA for Vietnam resumed in 1993, he worked for two years at the embassy in Vietnam. In 2002, he took the post of chief representative of the JICA Myanmar Office, which he held for three and-a-half years. He subsequently worked in the Southeast Asia and Pacific Department, and in October 2011, he took his current position as chief representative of the JICA Philippines Office.


  • [1] A 10-billion yen scale program loan for use for reconstruction assistance, triggered by the occurrence of a disaster.
  • [2] The Colombo Plan was formed in 1951 as the first international organization for providing assistance to developing nations after World War II.
  • [3] A communist military organization in the Philippines.
  • [4] A member of the primate order. The smallest tarsier in the world, the cute Philippine tarsier can fit in a person's hand.
  • [5] Made of marble, the more than 1,200 small conical hills are called the Chocolate Hills because of their brown appearance when the grass dies during the dry season.
  • [6] The MILF is a breakaway group of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).In 2012, the Government of the Philippines and MILF signed a Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro for peace in Mindanao.


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