January 21, 2015
Yumiko Asakuma, chief representative of the JICA Bhutan Office
By Yumiko Asakuma
Chief representative of the JICA Bhutan Office
Japanese cooperation to Bhutan commenced in 1964 with the dispatch of the late Keiji Nishioka as an agricultural expert through the Colombo Plan, and has reached 50 years as of 2014. Making contributions to rice and vegetable production as well as agricultural mechanization in Bhutan, Nishioka was highly praised for his services, and in 1980 was bestowed with the honorific title of dasho, meaning "superior" or "best," by then King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Although he passed away in 1992 in Bhutan, Nishioka is known even today as Bhutan's "father of agriculture."
With the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and Bhutan in 1986, Japan began proactively expanding cooperation, particularly technical cooperation and grant aid, and commenced Japanese ODA loan assistance in 2007. Over the years, Japan has come to be the second-largest donor to Bhutan, after India, and that cooperation is widely acknowledged by King Wangchuck and the general populace, who are fond of Japan.
Challenges facing the Land of Happiness
Commencing full-scale development in the 1960s, Bhutan has achieved a high level of economic growth in recent years due to the export of hydroelectric energy. The GDP is USD 2,460 (World Bank, 2013), higher than such nearby countries as Bangladesh, India and Nepal.
A bridge that was built along a national highway with Japanese grant aid
However, with most of the land being mountainous and since the country is landlocked, surrounded by India and China, there are severe constraints on development, making it expensive to conduct development projects. Building road infrastructure in particular is a challenge. To travel the 550 kilometers from the capital of Thimphu to the regional city of Trashigang in the east requires 20 hours by car, necessitating an overnight stay along the way. Despite government plans to reduce that to nine hours, no practical way to implement that has yet been found. However, the roads connecting Bhutan and India are relatively well maintained thanks to cooperation from the Government of India, allowing a large amount of agricultural products and daily necessities to flow in from India. As a result, domestic Bhutan products cannot compete favorably due to high domestic transportation costs.
Because of the mountainous terrain, the options for airports are limited and going forward, roads must serve as the main infrastructure. Bridge construction has progressed with grant aid from JICA and human resource training received with JICA technical cooperation, but to better develop the road infrastructure, Japan must step up cooperation using its advanced infrastructure technology for multifaceted, efficient cooperation.
After hydroelectricity and tourism, agriculture is the third largest industry in the country. Because there are limits on the extent to which industry can be nurtured to absorb the farming population that composes at least 60 percent of the population, it seems that agriculture or an industry based on agriculture such as food processing must be developed.
Government policy imposes strict controls on the use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides which are imported. This is not only for domestic market reasons but because such "near-organic" crops have the potential to fit the niche market for chemical-free products, attractive to high-income earners in neighboring India and Bangladesh. The challenges are therefore how to reduce transportation costs and ensure quality competitiveness. In the Horticulture Research and Development Project, currently being supported by JICA, steps are being taken to produce high-quality fruits and vegetables, and some young people have even quit their jobs as public servants or company employees to return to farming villages. The next challenge is how to establish such measures regionally and develop them on a national level.
The diversifying relationship of Japan and Bhutan and expectations for cooperation going forward
A small hydroelectric power plant built with grant aid more than 20 years ago continues to function today.
With careful, detailed planning backed by experience and technological ability, equipment and materials that are durable and functional and other outstanding quality and successes, Japanese assistance is greatly favored in Bhutan. Those good feelings to Japan extend further beyond infrastructure and agriculture.
Because Bhutan is prone to earthquakes, floods, cyclones, landslides and other disasters, Bhutan has high expectations from Japan, given its great stature in disaster preparedness. Technical cooperation projects are underway with the aim of improving the early flood warning capacity, building on the success of the Study on GLOFs (Glacial Lake Outburst Floods) in the Bhutan Himalayas carried out by SATREPS from 2009 to 2012.
The Rural Electrification Project in Bhutan, the first Japanese ODA loan funded project which commenced in fiscal 2007, has improved the rural electrification rate through synergistic effects from technical cooperation aiming to improve the Bhutan Power Corporation’s capacity and investment by the Asian Development Bank, raising the rate from 52 percent before the project to 97 percent.
Japanese cooperation to Bhutan has been, for many years, primarily government-to-government in nature, but in recent years, that has been changing. Bhutan faces a number of challenges, such as building up its investment environment and infrastructure, but the country has excellent advantages, such as having a relatively stable, clean government, ample power, a young demographic with a high English aptitude and the special right to export domestically produced to India without taxes, and while there are still only a handful of Japanese joint ventures at the moment, a number of Japanese companies are in the planning stages for work in Bhutan. On the academic front, Japan and Bhutan have more than 10 arrangements in place between universities with active technical support and academic exchanges at the university level. Receptive to the gross national happiness concept, Japan is just beginning to increase the level of exchange programs through local government and non-government organizations. The image of Japan that has been cultivated over 50 years of assistance is today spreading widely in various ways.
By making a national effort to further strengthen our partnership with Bhutan, we can develop cooperation that fully utilizes our expertise and technology, which will contribute to development in Bhutan and lead to a further strengthening of the relationship between Japan and Bhutan.
About the Author
Currently the chief representative of the JICA Bhutan Office, she joined JICA after working at a securities firm. Before taking her current post in December 2012, she worked in the Grant Aid Department, the Tokyo International Center, the JICA India Office and the Training Affairs and Citizen Participation Department. Asakuma is from Osaka Prefecture.
Below are some articles discussing JICA projects and developments that serve as milestones for the past 60 years of Japanese international cooperation.