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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:02 03/09/2007
February 2001

Why Should Japan Give Economic Assistance?

Saburo KAWAI (Chairperson, International Development Center of Japan)

These days Japan's ODA (Official Development Assistance) is often criticized as a waste of public money. As a result, the ODA budget is being cut by as much as 10%, compared to a 7% cut in public investment. It is doubtful if this is a reasonable thing to do. At least we need to stop and think about why and how much we should give in economic assistance to developing nations before cutting the ODA budget so deeply.

Some argue that under the strong pressure of fiscal reform, such a budget cut would be inevitable, unless we could explain how ODA would benefit Japan. In other words, the government (or the Foreign Ministry) should persuade the general public that our ODA is serving Japan's national interest in order to justify a large amount of public funds to be allocated for development assistance.

Although it might be the case that ODA will help other countries, which may in turn help Japan in some way, this kind of argument is fundamentally wrong. We give assistance not for the benefit of Japan, but for the sake of the countries to which our assistance is given. There are many cases where no direct returns can be expected of the countries that we assist.

I have my own personal belief regarding why we must give assistance to developing countries. I use the following personal analogy to find the basic stance for economic assistance: When you enjoy a certain standard of living with a certain social status, you must have received a lot of favor and help, whether visible or not, from various people along the way. In case you receive a favor from someone, you can pay it back to that person. However, there are many debts, often invisible, that you owe to society at large, and not to any particular individual. Therefore, we have some moral obligation to pay it back to the society, say, by personally engaging in volunteer activities, for example.

Let us apply this personal approach to the case of nations. In the post-war period Japan has achieved spectacular economic growth, but must owe a lot of invisible debts to the international community as a result. Therefore, Japan has a moral obligation to repay the debts to the international community. That is exactly why we must give economic assistance to poor nations.

Japan may not make military contributions overseas. Therefore, it would be very difficult for us to help settle a racial conflict or a civil war in a foreign land, simply because we have long been detached from the dynamics of international politics with military forces. In comparison, it is so easy for Japan to make a great contribution to the international community in terms of economic assistance such as ODA.

Since the end of the cold war the strategic importance of economic assistance has declined, and some of the developing nations have joined the group of developed nations. As a result, the international conditions surrounding ODA have changed rather drastically. Now we need to be more flexible and efficient than ever in giving assistance by taking into consideration various conditions surrounding developing countries and such global issues as the environmental problem and population explosion. For this purpose, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) should be allowed to use ODA funds more freely, and the framework as well as the content of economic assistance must be reorganized. Above all, information disclosure is needed in handling ODA, which is often criticized as non-transparent. Otherwise, the fundamental question of why we should give economic assistance will never be taken up by the general public.

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