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POLICY REFORM

Overview

The Japanese government is the largest provider of bilateral Official Development Assistance (ODA) to all countries in the Mekong Region (Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and China). It is also a major contributor to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, two large multilateral development banks which are active in financing many projects in the region. While this is touted by the government as a great contribution to the world at various official international gatherings, we also see this as an indication of the gravity of Japan's responsibility in the exploitation and destruction of environments that many communities have depended upon for their livelihoods.

Japanese ODA policy was developed after World War II at a time when there was much focus on rebuilding the Japanese economy. War reparations to countries in Southeast Asia were largely designed to benefit certain influential Japanese companies, and ODA policy emerged from this mindset. While Japan is not unique in this sense, domestic economic interests have been a propelling force behind many decisions on ODA.

In recent years, there have been increasingly strong voices for change in policy. Japanese NGOs have been highlighting the problems of Japanese ODA and making inroads in policy recommendations. Communities and NGOs in the Mekong Region are also growing stronger in demanding their right to maintain their traditional livelihoods and protect the integrity of their environments. The Japanese government has had to begin more seriously re-examining many of its policies, such as its environmental policy as it related to ODA. While this re-examination and implementation of recommendations is far from sufficient, with civil society in Japan, international NGOs, and communities in the Mekong region themselves demanding social and environmental justice, we have seen words like "sustainable development," "human rights," "transparency," and "accountability" entering the vocabulary of decision-makers. Now we need to go beyond vocabulary to real implementation.

Concrete examples of improvements in policy have been the establishment of regular open policy dialogues between NGOs and the Ministry of Finance and new environmental guidelines for the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), the agency responsible for implementing ODA loans and other official financing. JBIC has also started regular dialogues with NGOs. An advisory committee to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has recently completed a review of the Ministry and submitted recommendations for reforms.

A new Information Disclosure Law was also put into effect in April 2001. Through the procedures under this law, people are now able to request information from the Japanese government regarding ODA projects and policy. It is still unclear how extensively this new law can actually be used (because there are ambiguous clauses regarding diplomatic concerns and national security that could be abused). So at Mekong Watch, are testing the boundaries of the law by applying for a range of documents regarding projects we are monitoring.

New guidelines, recommendation for reform, and the Information Disclosure Law--all of these are positive steps forward, but will require vigilant follow-up by civil society to ensure that these processes do not stall, or even regress.



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