Introduction: Inescapable solutions: Japanese aid and the construction of global development

David Leheny, Kay Warren

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingForeword/postscript


Japan’s role is, understandably enough, a small part of a New York Times story (Filkins 2009) from January 14, 2009, about Afghani schoolgirls returning to the classroom after an attack by Taliban militants that left several of them scarred terribly by acid burns. In this account, the parents and girls in Kandahar courageously defied the Taliban’s efforts to scare them away from attending classes at the Mirwais School for Girls, though some of the children have not been back to school since the attack. And if Dexter Filkins, the journalist who had spent years chronicling the breakdown of order in Baghdad after the U.S.-led campaign to oust Saddam Hussein, shows clear horror at the brutality of the violence directed at these girls, his article suggests something indomitable in the character of the girls as well as in the promise that girls’ education holds. In this reading, the school is a site both of danger and of optimism, a place where girls might be threatened by militants determined to adhere to a highly stylized reading of the Koran, while they also aim to develop skills previously unimaginable to rural Afghani children. And it is in this context that Japan appears: the Japanese government had, as part of its reconstruction aid to Afghanistan, built the Mirwais School for Girls in 2004. On the one hand, this is unremarkable; aid agencies and donor governments were quick after the toppling of the Taliban to offer assistance to the desperately poor country. But Japan’s aid programs in Afghanistan represent in some ways a departure from traditional ideas about Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA), particularly given that Japan’s aid philosophy had long been understood to focus first and foremost on economic development, with a heavy emphasis on physical infrastructure, and was now showing clear and unmistakable interest in aspects of “human security, " including strong attention to gender equality and the rights of women and girls. And if the New York Times story is a partial account of a complex phenomenon in Kandahar, it also calls attention to the growing concern that aid itself is complex, and that development assistance is in many ways a developing subject. The very techniques that seem in many ways to be unmistakably laudable-such as the promotion of education for girls-often generate unexpected consequences when put into practice. This is not as simple as saying that girls’ education does not fit with an idealized (usually viewed as traditional, Islamic, conservative) Afghani culture; after all, the girls and parents eager to support the school have as much claim to Afghani authenticity as do the Taliban militants who have threatened it. It does, however, suggest that in transnational flows like development assistance, practice and site matter. This is no less true for the donor nations than for the recipients. In this volume, we aim to contribute to the developing literature on aid by considering Japanese ODA as a specific arena for transnational flows that bind aid donors and recipients in global debates about best aid practices, local battles over the roles and meaning of aid, and the experiences of aid practitioners who must negotiate complex political, ethical, and institutional environments. By choosing Japan, we focus on a government with aid practices that have often been described-both positively and negatively-as somewhat divergent from the OECD’s Donor Action Committee (DAC) norms, but a government that has actively moved toward an aid identity based increasingly on global themes of “human security.” We also focus on a crucial period, mostly 2001-6, during which an unusually assertive prime minister, Koizumi Jun’ichiro, aimed to align Japanese aid practices with those of other donors while simultaneously tying them more explicitly to the state’s diplomatic and security goals. Japanese aid officials found themselves facing not only a substantial reorganization of the country’s aid agencies, centralizing them and connecting them more closely to the cabinet and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but also dealing with an unexpected group of new challenges, including reconstruction of still-violent places like Afghanistan. In collecting these essays by scholarly researchers and aid workers whose views sometimes diverge with one another sharply, we aim not to provide a single argument or frame to explain Japanese aid, and we avoid any evaluation of aid’s effectiveness. Instead, we hope to focus attention on the ways in which aid techniques are judged to be solutions to global or transnational problems, and the ways in which these techniques-once encoded in international debates about aid, and sometimes without clear evidence of success-become inescapable for officials seeking legitimate and appropriate ways to promote development, human security, health, prosperity, and safety. Of course, this recognition of problems and solutions has taken place in social contexts in which researchers, activists, and policymakers are increasingly conscious of the transnational pressures bearing on them. Environmental problems are increasingly seen as global in nature, and the global warming produced by emissions of new cars in China will threaten the residents of Copenhagen as much as it does those of Beijing. AIDS is a borderless disease, and as governments like that of the United States-initially pushed into action by vulnerable domestic communities-begin to define it in national security terms, it encourages at least a recognition of increasing HIV rates in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere as a problem requiring a solution. U.S. aid policies that encourage-among other methods-abstinence as a tool against the spread of HIV/AIDS reflect contemporary American debates about the role of the state in encouraging moral sexual behavior. The policies themselves, however, mask the political fights over the nature of both the problems and the solutions; they are instead offered as answers, as the proper ways to confront global challenges. Liberalization and privatization promote growth; democratic political institutions reduce terrorism; abstinence, monogamy, and condoms will limit the HIV/AIDS epidemic. For aid professionals, these shifting goals and priorities pose both complex opportunities and challenges, particularly because almost any globally sanctioned aid initiative will confront radically different conditions “on the ground” than those idealized in meeting rooms in Washington, Paris, or Tokyo. Some solutions may be an imprecise or even poor fit, such as HIV/AIDS testing programs in regions where even a test itself would be a tacit admission of infidelity by women at risk of domestic violence and even death. And in other cases, as the New York Times story suggests, aid workers striving to improve women’s rights are working in terribly dangerous circumstances, and have to worry that a military or political victory by the Taliban will imperil those very women trained and professionalized by wellintentioned aid programs. Shifting global expectations regarding the goals and methods of aid have pro- found consequences not only for aid recipients but also for aid donors. Just as there is no obvious escape from the threat of global warming, the potential spread of pandemics, and flows of refugees from combat zones, the policy solutions chosen by international organizations and powerful aid donors have wider political implications. Giving aid is far from a one-way street. It implicates actors in wealthy nations in the social and economic outcomes in poor ones; it subjects policymakers to global debates regarding how they are supposed to engage the larger world; and it empowers those especially able to capitalize on changing constructions of the proper ways in which the world’s problems, especially those confronting the poor, are to be resolved. We aim, therefore, to build from insights embedded in ethnographies of aid that tackle simultaneously the mismatches between aid policies and outcomes, the complex tensions facing aid workers themselves, and the ideological construction of a global order.1 By focusing on Japan, we use these themes to recast common debates about Japan’s aid policies and focus the lens squarely on the effects of aid on the donor itself. In addition to tracing the shifts in Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA) and in their sensitivity to international aid discourses, we also turn the lens back to Japan, in order to explore how Tokyo’s programs in this highly mediated political arena end up having consequences for Japan itself. In development assistance, as in most other international interactions, no one gets away clean. While it is tempting to study development assistance primarily in its effects, good and bad alike, on recipients, our focus on transnational problems and solutions demands that we think of how Japan too is transformed in the process of giving aid. In considering Japanese aid as a channel for varying transnationalisms-for understanding problems, sharing ideas, prescribing solutions, and implementing programs-we aim at making two contributions, though seek first to clarify what our book does not do. Although some of our contributors make specific prescriptions, our overall goal is neither to evaluate the effectiveness of, nor to prescribe changes in, Japanese aid. Similarly, we do not aim to measure the distance between Japanese aid policies and those of other nations in order to demonstrate aberrance or deviancy by Japanese aid officials. Instead, by adopting a “constructivist”/“constructionist” approach to aid that has increasingly become popular among sociologists and anthropologists, we hope to demonstrate the subtle negotiations between local representations of problems and solutions in Tokyo, and those that obtain among major multilateral aid institutions and other aid donors. We hope, therefore, to problematize some of the relationships and comparisons involved in many of the debates about Japanese ODA. Our approach, however, is an editorial one, not an analytical framework we asked the individual contributors to use. To highlight the tensions in Japanese aid policy, we specifically invited contributors, particularly Japanese aid officials and experts, whose views diverge from the strong support of Japan’s traditional “growth-oriented” aid model in one chapter to emphasis on “human security” issues involving education and gender promoted by others. Each of these approaches is equally “Japanese, " finding support in crucial constituencies in Japan’s aid policy establishment, and each contends with transnational debates about what aid can and cannot do, should and should not do. Between the Japanese aid professionals and foreign scholars, our contributors instead draw attention to the competing and contending voices, from human-rights NGOs to Japanese economic aid planners, each vying to promote different ways to engage, develop, and improve the world.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationJapanese Aid and the Construction of Global Development
Subtitle of host publicationInescapable Solutions
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)9781135197001
ISBN (Print)9780415554480
Publication statusPublished - 2009 Jan 1
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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