Transparency problems confront public scrutiny of Japan’s COVID-19 aid

Asia World

Author: Yusaku Yoshikawa, JIN Corporation

In response to COVID-19 Japan launched an Official Development Assistance (ODA) scheme for developing countries. Announced in December 2020, it commits up to 500 billion yen (US$4.5 billion) over two years to a COVID-19 Crisis Response Emergency Support Loan arrangement. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA) claims that Japan started providing loans ‘in the first few months immediately after the outbreak’ to countries such as Niger, India and Myanmar.

Aid equipment, including tents and generators, are prepared in a warehouse in Singapore before they are delivered to Myanmar May 6, 2008. Countries worldwide promised help to Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis killed 10,000 people in just one town, suggesting the overall death toll in the impoverished military-run Southeast Asian nation will be much higher. The aid was organised by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Photo: Reuters/Vivek Prakash).

Aid equipment, including tents and generators, are prepared in a warehouse in Singapore before they are delivered to Myanmar May 6, 2008. Countries worldwide promised help to Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis killed 10,000 people in just one town, suggesting the overall death toll in the impoverished military-run Southeast Asian nation will be much higher. The aid was organised by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Photo: Reuters/Vivek Prakash).

But to what extent will this assistance actually help recipient countries cope with the pandemic? And will this aid be free from Japan’s persistent challenge of a lack of transparency when it comes to ODA?

The emergency scheme comprises multilateral and bilateral assistance, with multilateral assistance going to recipient countries via international institutions such as UNICEF and the UN Development Programme, and seeks mainly to train healthcare workers and disseminate COVID-19 information. In addition to the emergency loan program, there is bilateral assistance consisting of medical equipment provisions worth 48 billion yen (US$436 million) and technical assistance worth 1.5 billion yen (US$13 million). The additional aid almost compares with Japan’s annual ODA budget of 561 billion yen (US$5.4 billion) in fiscal year 2020.

In its 2015 Cabinet Decision on the Development Cooperation Charter, the Japanese government positions ODA as its responsibility, both for the international community and for its own citizenry. It states that Japan’s ODA aims to ‘secure its national interests’ and — while a matter for debate — the Japanese public seems to expect this assistance will contribute to its own financial interests.

The Charter stipulates that infectious diseases can ‘have a direct negative impact on the peace, stability and prosperity of the world, including Japan’. MOFA explains that helping to contain COVID-19 in developing countries also prevents infections from spreading to Japan. The Charter’s conformity to the UN Sustainable Development Goals has encouraged MOFA to promote Universal Health Coverage internationally and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to support the protection of human security during the pandemic at the UN 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. Over 15 COVID-19 related ODA proposals by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) so far are surveys for project formulation — not for practical assistance.

Experts are struggling with the remote implementation of Japanese technical cooperation projects abroad. Clarifying and examining what kind of aid will be distributed in 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 public disclosure of information about the implementation of emergency aid. Japanese ODA has been long criticised for its lack of transparency. The Japanese government promised to improve transparency in its 2003 Official Development Assistance Charter and it has made improvements by disclosing documents like the Country Assistance Policy, which outlines what country-specific aid policies were undertaken, and its Ex-post Evaluation Report, which reviews past project implementation.

For emergency aid, MOFA posted press releases and reports on the provision of items including, for example, X-ray machines, thermographic cameras and ambulances, which have been given to medical institutions in countries like Zambia and Kosovo.

But these reports are still confined to assistance that has already been delivered. Aid formulation and implementation are done mostly behind closed doors. The websites of MOFA and JICA only outline past cases where emergency loans have been distributed. Fundamental documents like the Project Design Matrix — a summary sheet for yen loans and other Japanese development projects — remain private.

The lack of transparency regarding the selection of ODA projects blurs the actual beneficiaries and the positive impacts of aid, especially at the grassroots level, and is confronting public scrutiny of government.

Yusaku Yoshikawa is an aid consultant at JIN Corporation, engaged in Japanese ODA projects in Africa.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.