Japan and Africa: Globalization and foreign aid in the 21st century

Japan and Africa

Author(s):  Howard P. Lehman

ISBN:          10: 0415691427

Publisher:  Oxford University Press

Year:           2013

Price:           £19.99

Reviewed by Mary M. McCarthy, Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa, USA.

In the decades since the end of World War II, Official Development Assistance (ODA) has emerged as one of the pillars of Japan’s foreign policy strategy towards developing countries.  Although its initial focus was countries in its own backyard of Asia, changing political, economic, and strategic considerations caused Japan to become increasingly interested in Africa from the 1970s on.  Today, Japan’s aid to Africa constitutes about 14% of its ODA budget.  In fact, as Motoki Takahashi points out, ODA “is by far the most important aspect of Japan’s relations with Africa” (p.117).  Despite this, there are relatively few English-language books that analyze Japanese ODA to Africa in depth.  This edited volume seeks to fill this lacuna in the literature by exploring the evolution of Japanese aid to Africa in the context of multilateralism.

In the introductory chapter, Howard P. Lehman describes the frame of the book as the impact of both globalization and Japanese domestic experiences on Japanese aid to Africa.  Most fundamentally, he argues that Japanese aid to Africa is a result of Japan’s own historical experiences with development, as well as the need to coordinate with the global aid community.  The introductory chapter is followed by six chapters designed to provide mostly Japanese perspectives on: the foundations of Japan’s aid policy, self-help as an important principle of Japanese aid, Japanese policies towards debt cancellation, and Japan’s ability (or inability) to engage with global trends among donors.

Makoto Sato sets the stage for this with his overview of the history of Japan as an aid donor and, in particular, as an aid donor to Africa.  This chapter is an important introduction to the topic that emphasizes the causes for changes over time, as well as some of the core principles that have come to guide Japanese ODA, including on-request aid (recipient initiation and planning) and self-help efforts (recipients taking responsibility for management of projects).  Sato’s persuasive main argument is that Japan’s aid policy towards Africa has been determined, not only by the interests of and conditions in Japan and Africa, but by “third parties.”   Thus, Africa first attracted the attention of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the 1970s because of events in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, not in Africa itself; in the 1980s when Japan felt compelled to increase aid to Africa, the pressure originated from the major industrialized countries of Europe and North America rather than from Africa; and, today, it is China’s actions in Africa that are causing Japan to rethink its approach.  Simply put, “Japan has formulated its Africa policy by responding to events, pressure and activities of third parties outside of Africa” (p.21).

Lehman, in the following chapter, goes on to explain how and why Japanese ODA to Africa differs from that of Western donors.  He argues that Japan’s aid policy to Africa can be explained best by Japan’s national economic development identity as a “successful non-Western industrialized nation,” and is centered on Japan’s belief “that its economic development pattern offers profound lessons” for developing countries (p.28).  Here his reasoning is generally plausible, but it lacks sufficient evidence, while his remarks or references contradict Sato at times without comment, such as when discussing the role that aid played in post-World War II reconstruction in Japan and whether the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) introduced new initiatives for aid in Africa.  Still, this chapter raises many questions that could be explored through future case-study research.

Like Sato and Lehman, Takahashi explores the historical, experiential, and philosophical bases of Japanese aid policy.  His thesis is that it has been constituted by “ambivalence”: Japan caught between East and West, as well as reflections on the past versus ambitions to lead; he then goes on to provide recommendations for the future of Japanese ODA.  One of Japan’s main contributions to the global aid environment has been the idea of self-help, which Takahashi argues came from Confucianism.  Takahashi explains that “the self-help efforts postulated in the [1992] ODA Charter, in a sense, reflected Japanese bureaucrats’ confidence in what had been achieved in their own country and neighboring states” (p.49).  However, by the late 1990s, Japan had lost confidence and interest in “’transferring experiences of Japan and East Asia’” to Africa (p.50).  Takahashi considers this unfortunate, arguing that Japan’s advantage as a donor to Africa is in its emphasis on self-help (versus Western donor emphasis on intervention), based on its own successful developmental experiences as a non-Western country.

One case that Takahashi mentions to highlight differences between Western donors and Japan is the position on debt relief.  Junichi Hasegawa provides an analysis of the complex issues behind debt management, debt rescheduling, and debt cancellation, focusing on the impact of cancellation on poverty reduction and external credibility (ability to borrow again).  He explains that donors have preferred debt rescheduling over cancellation because it does not damage countries’ ability to borrow in the future.  However, donors have become increasingly likely to accept cancellation over the past 25 years, due to a global humanitarian campaign led by non-state actors.  By 2007, 22 countries had received cancellation of 100% of their debt; another nine had received partial cancellation.  In examining these countries, Hasegawa finds that “poverty reduction has greatly progressed as a result of debt cancellation” (p.82).  Although, at the same time, debt cancellation also did reduce external credibility, as these countries did not receive additional loans from commercial banks, and failed to improve general economic performance of the recipient countries.  Given Takahashi’s assertion that debt cancellation is against Japan’s idea of self-help in ODA, Hasegawa’s findings raise the question for this reviewer of how Japan has responded to these proven effects of debt cancellation.

Debt cancellation is only one example of how donors have sought to establish global policies or guidelines.  Nobuyuki Hashimoto focuses on the larger theme of coordination efforts among donor countries, as well as similarities and differences among donor agendas and practices.  He argues that coordination and cooperation among donors can bring them leverage, but that Japan has been slow to adopt policy coordination (at the political level; the “what”) or aid coordination (at the technical level; the “how”) with other donors.  This is due to differing conceptualizations of global aid principles, such as “ownership” (interpreted by Japan as self-help), as well as institutional particularities of the Japanese aid bureaucracy, including lack of integration and a preference for project-based aid.

In the final chapter, Takahashi focuses on some of the shortcomings of Japanese ODA to Africa, including its “delayed and weak commitment” to debt relief and General Budgetary Supports (GBS) (p.129); thereby exploring in greater depth some of the problems that Hashimoto outlines.  In the early 2000s, the United Kingdom led the introduction of GBS, a year-to-year approval of aid-in-cash that requires the money to be used for national development in order for the next year’s funds to be released.  This mechanism increases both recipient ownership of development projects and accountability to the donor.  Yet vertical sectionalism in Japan’s bureaucracy, as well as Japan’s aid experiences in Asia and the government’s inclination towards project-based aid, caused Japan to be hesitant to embrace this new approach.  Failures in Japanese inter-ministry communication meant that the relevant ministries and agencies often did not share information in terms of the utility of different procedures and reforms.  The success of Japanese ODA in development and poverty reduction in Asia left many unaware of some of the challenges existing with regard to aid to Africa, including fungibility (using aid for purposes unintended and unapproved by the donor), that GBS was intended to combat.  In conclusion, Takahashi reiterates that Japan has the potential to play an important role in aid to Africa, if it can overcome some of its own deficiencies, as “Japan’s own experiences and philosophy could help connect the West and the non-West in more productive ways” (p.142).

As this overview illustrates, as stand-alone works, most of the chapters are interesting, engaging, and informative.  They uncover the philosophy behind Japanese aid policies to Africa, as well as the difficulties Japan has faced as it seeks to cooperate with other donors.  In addition there are a number of themes that recur throughout the book, includingthe influence of Japan’s own development experience on its aid philosophy and Japanese aid policy as reactive.  However, disappointingly, the chapters fail to speak to each other.  Even where elements of the chapters disagree with each other (such as Lehman and Sato) or build on each other (such as Lehman and Takahashi), this is left unexplained and unexplored.  (The only exceptions are Takahashi’s chapters, which often reference one another.)  This problem of lack of cohesiveness, common in edited volumes, is compounded by the fact that there is no concluding chapter.

Finally, although this book purports to be about globalization, the content focuses more on multilateralism, as well as how Japanese ODA compares with other ODA, particularly European (and, even more particularly, British) ODA.  Given this, Multilateralism and Japan’s Foreign Aid: The Case Study of Africa might be a more fitting title.  As such, an appropriate audience would include Japan scholars new to ODA and aid scholars new to the Japanese approach.

Suggested citation:  

Mary M. McCarthy (2013). Review of “Japan and Africa: Globalization and foreign aid in the 21st century” edited by Howard P. Lehman, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 6, no. 14, Internet file: https://asianintegration.org/index.php?option=com_joomlib&task=view&id=107&Itemid=75