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New JICA, New think tank

Written by Fletcher Tembo

In October 2008, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), the two main government agencies in charge of Japanese overseas development assistance (ODA), merged into the so-called New JICA. With an annual budget of around $10 billion per year, the New JICA is now the largest bilateral aid institution in the world.

As part of this reorganisation, the New JICA established the JICA Research Institute (JICA-RI), which is already an important think tank for the Japanese government and the international community. Mandated to provide a comprehensive perspective to development that integrates political, economic, social and historical factors, the work of JICA-RI is founded on good theoretical and empirical analysis and informed by Japan’s own development experience.

Yesterday, Professor Keiichi Tsunekawa, JICA-RI’s new director, met ODI researchers to stress the role of JICA-RI in the realm of international development. Among other things, he pointed to the current weakness of African studies in Japan, when compared to the vast amount of knowledge generated on Asian development on such issues as governance, growth and climate change. He sees JICA-RI as well positioned to fill this gap and to bring Japanese development experience to the table.

The question is how to further this agenda. As the visit by Professor Tsunekawa augurs, the strengthening of links between JICA-RI and European think tanks and governments, such as ODI and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), is a good start point. This is because they tend to have a greater understanding of African development issues, relative to Asian issues as a result of historical ties.

The value of such links was shown in the recent research cooperation between ODI and JICA-RI on the One Village, One Product (OVOP) movement. The OVOP movement, which originated in Japan, promotes the idea that individual communities can maximise their potential and develop locally sourced and manufactured products that are rooted in the community’s cultural heritage. It has played an important role in Japan’s own development, spurred by both the internal demand of a gift-giving culture and by tourism. Initial results from the joint research on JICA’s pilot OVOP programmes in sub-Saharan Africa, suggest the different cultural, government policy and market conditions in Africa will require a modified approach to the OVOP initiative if it is to work in African contexts. The findings of this evaluation have fed in to discussions on the scale-up of this initiative in Africa.

This is just one case where think tanks play an important role in linking research and policy, policy and practice. As highlighted in James McGann’s recent Think Tank Index, which rated ODI as the top international development think tank outside the US, the think tank sector is ‘a rapidly growing global industry’. As JICA-RI gets its feet on the ground, it will be interesting to see how it positions itself in this diverse marketplace, both in terms of areas of focus and in terms of its relationships with governments, international bodies, think tanks and civil society organisations. As a government institution, JICA-RI must be careful that its laudable commitment to evidence-based policy-making does not transform into policy-based evidence-making.

The OVOP example also shows the power and importance of cooperation and collaboration based on areas of comparative advantage, and perhaps provides a model for the future of the think tank industry. Of course, this is not easy, as John Young and Julia Sable reflect upon in their recent article in NORRAG News, ODI in partnership: Leading the pack or one of the gang?, but cases like this show it is clearly worth the effort.