The Japanese Way To Development

One of the biggest and most important conferences on the effectiveness (or otherwise of aid) was held in Busan, South Korea this month. It was expected to be a clash between the Western model and that followed by Japan and increasingly, China, India and Korea. Editor Anver Versi, who observed the Japanese method first-hand in […]


One of the biggest and most important conferences on the effectiveness (or otherwise of aid) was held in Busan, South Korea this month. It was expected to be a clash between the Western model and that followed by Japan and increasingly, China, India and Korea. Editor Anver Versi, who observed the Japanese method first-hand in Africa recently, gives his views.

The whole structure of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), or aid, in common parlance, is being shaken and stirred. There are rumours and counter rumours that given the parlous state of many OECD countries (including Japan), aid budgets are being slashed or that even more conditionalities are being imposed by donors.

Aid (despite the fairly spectacular growth of some African countries over the past decade) remains a very important factor on the African economic landscape. Several countries are dependent on aid to balance their budgets, pay salaries to public service employees such as teachers, keep their health services running, finance essential infrastructure and intervene even in areas such as national audits and conducting elections.

Of course, aid is not a one-way street. Donors leverage important commercial, economic and political interests on their largesse. Aid has a very persuasive influence in the areas in which it operates and economists tell us that the often invisible ‘harvest’ from aid far exceeds in value the amounts paid out to recipients.

This explains why advanced countries are loath to reduce their ODA budgets even during times of acute belt tightening at home. Loss of influence abroad could translate into both loss of markets to hungry global competitors as well as creating kinks in their resources-supply pipelines.

While this equation has been perfectly clear to both donor and recipient and both parties seem perfectly happy with the arrangement, what Africans have repeatedly questioned is the effectiveness of the delivery of the aid to achieve its stated objectives.

African commentators have argued that the approach taken by many Western donors has largely failed to achieve the major targets set out. Given the fact that aid today is a $200bn industry, they ask why is it that there is little to show for the billions that have been poured into the region; they want to know why poverty and disease are still rampant despite the colossal sums thrown at them; why there is such a yawning gap in infrastructure and why has Africa’s development (the main objective of aid) been so laggardly in comparison with other developing regions?

They dismiss claims – often made by the Western media that official corruption is to blame – as far too exaggerated – the figures don’t add up, they say, and anyway there are a host of checks and balances that control the flow of financial resources. No, they insist, aid has not worked because the approach has been wrong. The diagnosis has been wrong, the medication has been wrong and the dosage has been wrong. Is it any wonder that despite gulping gallons of the medication, the patient is still ill?

This is where it gets very interesting because there is another development model at work in Africa since 1954. It is the Japanese ODA. Japan, until fairly recently the largest aid donor in the world, is a member of the OECD-Development Assistance Committee (DAC) comprising largely of Western donors but has come under considerable criticism for ‘going it alone’.

Different strokes

What are the main differences between the OECD and the Japanese approaches?

Japan’s ODA is based on the concept of self-help which played the principal part in Japan’s own development transformation after World War II; non-intervention, request-based and often project, rather than programme, oriented.

Non-intervention means acknowledging the independent sovereignty of recipient states. Japanese ODA only responds following requests from recipient governments and it works through governments, thereby allowing the recipient to take ownership of the project and to align its projects to government priorities.

This hands-off approach means that Japanese ODA comes with far fewer conditionalities than Western aid. In addition, it looks to be engaged in ‘beyond aid’ efforts linking ODA with investments and trade.

Western aid on the other hand, while claiming to be non-interventionist, is often very interventionist – at least in statements made by Western leaders.

By building in ‘software’ conditionalities such as governance and political reform, this type of aid downgrades the sovereignty of recipient nations. The programme-based approach, which often relies on schemes developed outside Africa, effectively denies ownership to local people or governments  – something that irks Africans.

But the question remains: which approach is the most effective in delivering stated objectives? To add a little extra spice to the mixture, a new type of donor has risen on the horizon. This is the emerging market group – specifically China, India and Korea. While the monetary contribution from this group is dwarfed by the OECD and Japan, its experience-based approach (similar to that of Japan), is winning friends and influencing people in Africa.

However, I had the opportunity of observing Japanese ODA in action on the ground through their development agency, JICA, earlier this year when I was invited to visit projects in Zambia and Malawi. There are now 31 JICA offices and hundreds of projects across Africa. Japanese aid is characterised by its focus on concrete projects – digging boreholes for water, creating irrigation channels, producing power where there is no access to electricity, supporting schools, preventing and treating HIV and other illnesses, adding value to agricultural products, teaching entrepreneurship and marketing techniques and so on. The aim is to enable the concept of self-help to predominate and thus give confidence to the local people involved that they are the authors of their own destiny.  


The Japanese seemed to have a very clear picture of not only the economic and political dimensions of Zambia but a deep knowledge of the social structures, culture and customs of the people as well. There is a formidable range of projects that JICA is involved in, from transport to tourism promotion via energy, basic education, health, agriculture, climate change and several others.

It was obvious that it would be impossible to visit all the projects during the short time that we were there so attention was focused on Zambia’s admirable efforts toprovide care to people living with HIV.

Dr Gardner Syakantu, director of clinical care for the Ministry of Health, Zambia, told us that 1.2m people in Zambia (14.3%) of the population were HIV positive although this was an encouraging decline from the 16.5% HIV positive figure of four years ago.

The government, in conjunction with various other organisations such as the Global Fund, has been providing anti-retroviral drugs, advice and other support since 2002. The impact has been tremendous but not everybody who needs the medication has access to it as dispensaries are few and far between. If people cannot come to the drugs, it makes sense to take the drugs to them via mobile clinics.

This is where JICA comes in. It supports the Zambian Ministry of Health in expanding mobile access coverage, providing training, evaluating results and applying lessons learnt from other sites. We drove to the second-largest district in Zambia, Chongwe, which is one of the four districts that JICA is involved in. It has a full laboratory and from here, teams of doctors and volunteers fan out into the countryside. One result, as Dr Moyo informed us, was that there has been a sharp decline in the number of teenage infections.

Most food in Zambia is produced by smallholders using traditional methods. We went to see how the application of more advanced techniques can literally revolutionise output and income.

We visited an ‘agricultural camp’ in the Kafue district. The idea is to train farmers in scaling up their output and then passing the knowledge, and for example, to other villages.

They receive seed money as start-up capital. For example, at the Manga camp, in addition to the all-important borehole, there was a piggery divided into various compartments – pregnant sows, litter and ‘finishers’ about ready for the market. The villagers themselves made the mud bricks for the piggery and bought cement to make the pen. They were able to buy their initial pigs with the seed capital. They started with 10 and now had 16.

The same principal is used for goats and chicken. When the goats kid, they pass on two to other villages as a gift, who do the same in turn. At Manga, they started with 30 goats and now had over 200. In addition, they had learnt how to make bricks and raise the animals most efficiently in terms of feed, etc. Incomes, as well as food sources had multiplied.


Japanese ODA has been quietly but intensively involved in Malawi for 40 years. One of the most interesting concepts is what they call the ‘One village, one product’ scheme. The idea is to leverage on the village’s competitive advantage and make it commercially viable.

For example, we visited the Mitunda village ground-nut and sunflower oil cooperative. The villagers built a factory and installed fairly simple crushing machinery with support from JICA.

Groundnuts and sunflower seeds are crushed and the pulp is then passed through a series of filtering machines until a golden, clear edible oil emerges. It is then bottled, labelled and sold at market price.

The villagers also use relatively easy techniques to produce delicious jams from tomatoes and lemons, they make a fairly potent banana wine and an all-purpose lotion from the boabab. You can also buy a general pick-me-up composed of crushed leaves from the moringa plant. A dedicated shop sells products from this and other villages.

About 50 km from Lilongwe, we came across the Katengeza Cane and Bamboo Furniture Club. In fact, this is a large shop selling beautifully crafted cane and bamboo furniture, including stools, tables, chairs, sofas and even beds. The construction is sturdy but the weight is light.

It is another example of the Japanese self-help philosophy. Around 1986, a Mr Fungwe made grain granaries from cane. JICA saw the wider business potential in this and a cooperative was created.With advice on how to run the business, the cooperative set up a basic production line, with some cutting the raw products, others treating them and yet others creating the wide variety of items based on local designs. Today the Club earns around Malawi kwacha 250,000 per annum and, with a little bit more marketing, can easily double or triple it. The export potential is also very promising.

We also saw how a project implemented jointly by Kenya and the Japanese government is transforming maths and science teaching across Africa. A technical team conducts training programmes in Nairobi on national level and the trained teachers then carry on the good work within their own districts in 32 countries.

Maths and science teaching is one of biggest weaknesses in African education, mainly due to the lack of qualified teachers, with the result that few students do well in these vital subjects. The new, student-oriented and interactive approach has worked wonders.

We visited the Livimbo Community Day Secondary School and watched an eager circle of students getting stuck into maths problems that reflect their daily lives. They don’t have desks and have to balance their books on their laps but they told us that maths and science were no longer a mystery but an exciting area of exploration.

We paid a visit to the Nkhamenya Girls Secondary School where we met the redoubtable headmistress, Sister MG Kaunda. She told us that the school was started in 1952 by the White Sisters. The boarding school now has 535 students and 21 teachers. It achieved a pass rate of 80% last year while the national average is 52%. A number of girls have gone on to university.

JICA, working with the Ministry of Energy, brought power for the first time to the school in 2004. Before that it had to rely on expensive diesel generators, which could only be used sparingly.

With power now on tap, the school has been able to install a battery of computers, pump water from boreholes and use electric cooking appliances instead of firewood. With the internet providing excellent access to the wider world, “the results have been getting better and better”, Sister Kaunda told us. Darkness no longer means the end of activity for both students and teachers. “This has changed our lives,” said Sister Kaunda.

From this field trip, it became clear that while the Japanese tend to hide their light under a bushel, the impact of their aid on the practical, day-to-day life of Africans is profound. They do not lecture, or criticise or try to ram ideologies down people’s throats, they just get on doing what is sorely needed. It is the approach that took them from total economic, political and social collapse at the end of World War II to one of the world’s economic giants today. They want to share the same methods with Africa and Africans have responded to them with open arms.

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