Enhance Research Capacity for Development Assistance

Throughout the 1990s, Japan was the world's largest donor of official development assistance (ODA). However, it slipped to fifth place in 2007 as the government's overall budget allocation for ODA has decreased in recent years. Against this backdrop, the new Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) was launched on October 1, by integrating JICA and the overseas economic cooperation operations (yen loan operations) of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC). The new JICA, which has become the world's largest bilateral development aid agency, is counted on to organically combine different aid schemes - i.e., grants, technical cooperation, and yen loans - to improve the quality of overall aid amid the prospect of a further reduction in the volume of aid. The JICA Research Institute, which is the newly established research arm of the new JICA, aims at strengthening the JICA's research functions and capacity for disseminating research findings overseas. How should we characterize academic research within the context of Japan's development assistance?

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Needless to say, crucial to enhancing the "external dissemination of research findings" called for by the institute is the ability to "create knowledge" that is of internationally recognized quality and worth disseminating overseas. But what I often encounter in discussions with policymakers is a significant gap in the perception of what constitutes "knowledge creation." Knowledge creation, in this context, is research activities geared to generate knowledge that is highly versatile and applicable to aid-related operations. And the forum in which to present research findings should be international academic journals that publish internationally competitive articles selected through rigorous peer reviews by anonymous experts in the relevant fields.

In other words, knowledge creation is not just about regularly holding research seminars, writing research reports, and presenting research findings in fluent English at international conferences. It must be underpinned by scrupulous, internationally competitive academic research activities, and make full use of every possible opportunity, including research seminars, research reports, and international conferences. Only then will it become possible to truly disseminate research findings.

Critics often say that research intended for publication in an academic journal is "research that is carried out for the sake of research and useless in practical terms." But this is an absolute misconception. Advanced research in the field of development economics involves collecting large amounts of micro data on individuals, firms, and communities through structured surveys and field experiments. Researchers can then use the information based on such factual evidence to engage in meticulous discussions on development policies.

Such research activities, among other things, have verified the efficacy and mechanism underlying the success of micro finance, a scheme initiated by the Grameen Bank under the leadership of Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, and scrutinized the effectiveness of various educational policies and public health programs. For instance, one such study has found that a conditional cash transfer program in Mexico - a public assistance scheme under which welfare benefit payments are made for each child attending school - has been effective in reducing poverty, thus giving a variety of suggestions to policy makers and practitioners.

Hence, the peer review system of academic journals should be understood as an effective mechanism for utilizing the world's expertise to the fullest extent possible in order to accurately identify the quality of new evidence-based knowledge and related policy recommendations. Indeed, we should realize that knowledge creation in the form of scrupulous academic research is what warrants the validity of arguments made by leading opinion makers and experts on development policies. Knowledge creation in this form also underpins the World Bank's flagship annual World Development Report, the origin of trends in international assistance.

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In this light, development assistance studies hitherto conducted in Japan have been exercises in pseudo-knowledge creation with many being no more than accounts of personal experiences unsubstantiated by any rigorous evidence, while others are merely wrap-ups of reports made from existing studies by other international organizations. It is thus hard to say whether they have contributed to the international dissemination of intellectual knowledge. On the other hand, however, there is a good possibility that a number of valuable experiences accumulated through Japan's ODA activities are worth disseminating overseas in the form of leading-edge research.

For instance, it is highly possible that Japanese yen loans for infrastructure development, provided through the JBIC prior to its reorganization, have contributed to economic development and poverty reduction in many Asian countries. It has been said that the development of industrial zones along the eastern seaboard of Thailand, which owes much to the Japanese yen loans, has been one of the most important driving forces behind the economic development of the country.

Likewise, JICA's technical cooperation has had a number of successful cases across the world. One frequently cited example is the distribution of a standardized maternity and child health handbook (MHC handbook) in Indonesia based on Japan's successful experience with its boshi kenko techo, as the booklet is known here. The spread of the MHC handbook (used to record the course of pregnancy, birth and growth of the child, and communications with doctors) has been credited for contributing to the improvement of maternal health and reduction in the infant mortality rate.

A number of other achievements brought about by JICA's technical assistance projects in various fields - education, medical care, the environment, agriculture, manufacturing, etc. - have been reported as "voices at the forefront" of assistance.

Although much talked about, such "experience at the forefront" has rarely been subjected to the rigorous examination of international academic studies, and any knowledge or expertise acquired through experience is hardly ever shared externally. Only just recently have some Japanese scholars begun to contribute their research findings to the World Development Report. These sorts of research efforts should receive strong and continuous support, but in reality, cases that deserve such support remain exceptional.

Japan's ODA lacks the knowledge creation functionality necessary to verify, based on evidence and the use of advanced methods of analysis, the expertise held by those at the forefront of development assistance. The expertise obtained from experience must be verified before it can be converted into internationally shared knowledge. This shortcoming is reflected by Japan's low representation in international academic journals. According to my survey, Japanese researchers' contributions to three prestigious academic journals in the field of development research - Journal of Development Economics, Economic Development and Cultural Change, and World Development - accounted for less than 4%, 5% and 2%, respectively, of total articles published from 2000-2007. Illuminated here is the reality of Japan - it provides money called ODA but it cannot offer any ideas.

The biggest challenge for the newly established JICA Research Institute is the development of an effective mechanism for knowledge creation. Unlike the Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development (FASID) and the Institute of Developing Economies (IDE), the JICA Research Institute does not have full-time researchers with advanced academic knowledge. Yet, outside of the JICA there is a very limited pool of development researchers in Japan, and even more limited is the number of those engaged in internationally competitive research.

Given this situation, building research capacity within JICA would be an indispensable means to address the problem of the lacking efficient knowledge creation mechanism. For instance, JICA has officials who hold Ph.D. but are too busy with their practical work assignments to undertake academic research. JICA may as well create an environment where these individuals can engage in research organically connected to their practical tasks, as part of policy implementation. Or it may provide willing and motivated officials with opportunities to develop experience conducting task-related research while earning a doctorate degree at the same time, without leaving their jobs. It is also necessary to proactively select and recruit young researchers - those who have enthusiasm for international development and potential for making significant research contributions - both from within and outside of Japan, and to establish an environment where researchers can concentrate on their research while working in tandem on JICA's practical work.

Moreover, taking a broad view and boldly creating a mechanism for organically integrating practical tasks with research would also help to attract excellent young talent to the field of international development assistance in the future. Designing such an organizational structure may take time, but it will pay off in the long run. We should not waste valuable resources pursuing the short-term, superficial goal of pseudo-knowledge creation.

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The primary role of the JICA Research Institute is to rigorously verify evidence and systemize the "knowledge by experience" accumulated at the forefront of development assistance so that it can be elevated to internationally sharable knowledge, i.e., an "international public good." Serving as the effective nucleus of this endeavor is the knowledge creation approach of steadily accumulating scrupulous, internationally competitive academic research.

Meanwhile, a future challenge for JICA would be the pursuit of more forward-looking knowledge creation, i.e., the formulation and implementation of innovative ideas addressing new development issues, thereby proactively getting involved in the relevant policymaking process. This includes the verification of public-private partnerships (PPPs) between quasi-governmental aid agencies and private-sector companies, a newly evolving approach to development assistance. One example of such PPP projects is the development of an innovative mosquito net by Sumitomo Chemical Co. Academic research has found that the insecticide-embedded mosquito nets are a cost-efficient, yet very effective means of reducing the prevalence of malaria infection. Sumitomo Chemical has been providing its technology to local manufacturers in Sub-Saharan African countries as part of bilateral and multilateral PPP initiatives.

Greater efforts must be made to measure the precise socioeconomic impact of PPP and other new innovative approaches to development assistance in order to disseminate knowledge accumulated in the process as an international public good, and apply the knowledge in the implementation of future poverty-reduction policies. Incorporating such a new attempt into the process of knowledge creation is the next challenge.

ODA provided by major DAC countries (net disbursements)

>> Original text in Japanese

* Translated by RIETI.

October 31, 2008 Nihon Keizai Shimbun

March 18, 2009

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