Japan’s hands of friendship: Have we gripped it well?

Dr. Ataur Rahman

Despite asymmetry in status and economic power, Japan-Bangladesh relations illustrate successful and harmonious relations between a developed and a developing country. It is unique that during the past three decades, Japan and Bangladesh have consistently maintained friendly and productive relations despite regime changes in both countries. This signifies the common goals that the two countries share in political, strategic and economic spheres including the legacy of Japan's sympathy for the people of Bangladesh who struggled to achieve their independence with enormous sacrifices. The birth of Bangladesh, and subsequently strategic-diplomatic considerations, thus provided the dynamics of the core of relations between Japan and Bangladesh. This core was built on economic assistance (ODA) and to an extent trade and investment. It was only since 1990 that the relations between the two countries began to diversify. Today, Japan's impacts are clearly visible on almost all aspects of Bangladesh society, economy, culture and education.

This article examines to what extent Japanese help and assistance over the years were optimal or productive; how far this large assistance amounting to almost US$ 200 million annually on the average was utilised for the development of critical sectors of the economy; what were the major constraints for the effective utilisation of aid; and what impact they made on the attitude of the people for the future prospects of Japanese aid, and in what direction the economic assistance and other relations will shape up in the coming years.

The two Prime Ministers in Japan

Performance and Shortcomings-Political and diplomatic arenas
The relations between Japan and Bangladesh were shaped in the past three decades, to a considerable extent, by economic assistance and trade orientations. Although historically political and strategic considerations played an important role when 'a solid foundation of lasting friendly relations' in 1973 was laid, the exchange of visits by heads of governments, ministers, parliamentary leaders, political missions and foreign policy managers contributed to the friendship and communication between the two countries. In this context, the contribution of late Mr. Takashi Hayakawya, the founding President of Bangladesh - Japan Friendship Society and a special envoy of the Japanese government was most noteworthy. He was an influential parliamentarian who developed “love and deep sympathy” for the people of Bangladesh and lobbied throughout his life for the cause of Bangladesh.

Economic Performance
As a country that renounced the goal of military supremacy and nuclear power, Japan has been trying to create a desirable international community mainly through economic cooperation and cultural bonds. Japan's ODA policy towards nations in South Asia is based on a general perception about the region that centered on: high rate of population, low literacy, poor infrastructure, inequalities in income, and bad governance of the countries. It is in this context and encouraged by democratisation of these countries in the 1990s that Japan began to give new priorities to Bangladesh. In fact, it was from 1992 that Japan became the largest donor for Bangladesh and is continuing to keep that position till today. The successes of Japan-Bangladesh relations are symbolised by a series of monumental friendship bridges including the Jamuna bridge, massive assistance in power and telecommunication, and establishment of fertilizer factories in addition to host of other social sector development contribution.

Implementation constraints
An evaluation was made on Japan's development assistance in the past three decades in terms of respondent's perception both in Bangladesh and Japan. Most of the respondents were happy over the performance of Japanese aid, technical assistance and cultural cooperation. But almost all people indicated that the impact of the vast aid was less than optimal. The reason was the lack of capability of the Bangladesh government's institutions that handled or implemented the aid. The implementing agencies of the concerned ministries and the External Economic Relations Division suffer from complexities and weaknesses in aid coordination from its inception to final implementation. The less competent organisational framework and weak project implementation process - to evaluate and monitor a large number of programs-often led to less optimal results. While Japan's aid has been of high quality, the capacity of aid utilisation needs substantial improvements in the future. In this context, the “medium-term” project and program formulations have to be increased and efficiently implemented.

Emphasis on infrastructure and new priorities
There are some concerns that Japanese aid has been concentrated mainly in infrastructure sector. The impact of such aid has been good, but less optimal because of disproportionate emphasis on this sector. It was also indicated by most Japanese that I interviewed that they wished to give priorities to social sectors like health, poverty reduction, environment, disaster management, and education. They also preferred to provide more assistance to grassroots organisations (NGOs), research institutions, hospitals and local governments. Many Bangladeshi respondents also suggested that the Japanese aid would have made more impact on Bangladeshi society given its size, if it could be channeled in critical social sectors, and in areas of institutional capacity building for effective governance including local levels, human resource management and poverty reduction.

Social sector development and technical cooperation: Role of JICA
The role of JICA (Japan International Cooperation agency) was also examined in this context that obtains 10 percent ODA grant for technical cooperation. The JICA administrators emphasise on the institutional and cultural factors that constrained the full utilisation of their cooperation. Lack of ownership by governmental institutions is a serious problem, ‘Bangladesh has efficient officers as persons, but they often lack national interest in view, and work in a bad institutional framework’. These seriously constrain national goal achievements. The technical cooperation provided by Japan also suffers from lack of cooperation between public and private sector. Too much donors' involvement also complicate aid efforts for achieving targeted goals. The future direction of JICA' s efforts in vital social sectors should be on medium-term planning and implementation. The responsibility of Bangladesh civil servants needs to be clearly located and fixed, and their capacity development be undertaken and utilised for the realization of ideas and goals of the planning process. The culture meaning political culture of Bangladesh at all levels needs to more compatible with development dynamics. Divisive culture and personal interests should give way to social cohesion and nation interests. Only then, the aid ownership and its full potential can be realized.

Trade and Investment Shortcomings
There is no denying the fact that Japan moved away from its purely 'commercial interests' to more liberal ODA policy, trade concessions and investment opportunities. In case of Bangladesh, this is very clear; Japan's aid quality is high in form and kind, and Japan would also like to expand trade and investment relations with Bangladesh on mutually beneficial terms. This was also illustrated by the recent exemplary move by Japan to write-off Bangladesh's past 'debt' to the tune of US $ 1.46 billion so that Bangladesh could use this fund for poverty reduction purposes and social sector development. While the trade relations between Japan and Bangladesh continued unabated since the early 1970s, there has not been any significant improvement in volume and terms of trade between the two countries in the past three decades. The total volume of trade peaked US $ 600 million. In other words, Bangladesh continued to have large imbalance of trade, imports constituting manifold times the exports, and there has not also been significant increase in volume in real terms. While most of the respondents emphasised the need for greater trade relations, it proved difficult for Bangladesh garments, leather products and frozen foods to enter Japanese markets because of the stiff competition from other countries, including China and Southeast Asian countries.

Poor investment climate
Bangladesh's high priority to attract Japanese investment has not been matched by the creation of congenial infrastructure facilities, and administrative and political climate. Therefore, despite huge potential for Japanese investment in Bangladesh as an 'economic base' in South Asian region, Bangladesh so far failed to realize its 'high priority'. Most of the people interviewed expressed a sense of despair that Bangladesh could not win Japan in this crucial area of relations. Japan has already made a huge commitment as the BOI data shows, but actual investment is yet to be made in substantial kind. Therefore, a serious gap exists for any realistic expectation of Japanese investment in Bangladesh unless there are some fundamental changes in the governance of the country in terms of administrative efficiency, combating corruption, improvement in law and order and public-private sector collaboration. Continuity of policy and political stability are two important factors for attracting Japanese investment. These are conveyed to the successive governments, but in reality the situation did not change so far, that worries Japanese investors.

An epitome of Bangladesh-Japan cooperation - Bangabandhu bridge

Bangladesh's “Look East Policy”, therefore should be made more meaningful to fulfil the conditions needed that is to create an effective and transparent governance framework in Bangladesh. It is in this context, Japan should extend necessary help in improving governance institutions and leadership potential of professionals and bureaucrats, although the task has to be done by the domestic political forces and national commitment. After all, economic development and foreign policy effectiveness of a country depend largely on the strength of a nation's internal political dynamics, unity of purpose and efficiency of people at various levels, and accountability of the administrative structures of the state.

Future Directions
No doubt, the relations between Japan and Bangladesh survived more than thirty-three years with constructive engagement in many fields. The present global situation brought new imperatives for Japan as well as for Bangladesh in terms of responsibilities and challenges to forge ahead. The long-economic recession in Japan, new ODA priorities, emphasis on grassroots organisations, particularly in human resource development, and new global security environment and economic competition are going to make significant impact on Japan's relations with the 'West Asian' countries including Bangladesh. A strong perception has emerged from this study that new structures of relationship and re-routing of cooperation along these new structures are needed at this juncture of Japan-Bangladesh relations. Identification of main changes in global and regional order needs to be done so that Japan-Bangladesh relationships can be adapted to that context. In this perspective the Aug 2005 visit of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is an important milestone in the relationship between the two countries.

In fact, Japan's vision of building network of economic relations and development cooperation hinges on a broader perspective both in terms of economic cooperation and territorial coverage in terms of regional and inter-regional cooperation. In this context, Japan wants Bangladesh to become a well-governed society where the poor are not marginalised and national determination grow to achieve economic development through building up of democratic institutions and remedying bureaucratic pathologies. It is our responsibility in the future to create a new generation of professionals and leaders in various fields who can appreciate Japan's unique beneficial role for Bangladesh, and can also become responsive to its legitimate interests in economic, diplomatic and security arenas.

It is painful that there exists a large gap in our understanding of Japan. The time is now to prioritise our agenda of development in the context of greater engagement with Japan in a peaceful, democratic and orderly Bangladesh, and in harmony with the neighbors of our region in the emerging global order.

The author is a Professor of Political Science & Founder- Director, Japan Study Center, University of Dhaka.

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