Senior Visiting Fellow, RIETI (Until March. 31, 2004)
This series will no longer be updated.
Senior Visiting Fellow, RIETI (Until March. 31, 2004)
This series will no longer be updated.
"Dialogue with NGOs, I guess" This was my answer when a newspaper reporter, Mr. N, asked me to look back on things that left a deep impression in the course of my work in 2001.
Showing a somewhat wondrous look, Mr. N named two of my colleagues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), and added that they also seemed actively engaged in work with NGOs. He then went on to ask, "Why is everyone talking about NGOs now?"
My assignment at MOFA is economic cooperation. More specifically, my area of work is called "yen loan", a type of official development assistance (ODA). As for the colleagues of mine whom Mr. N mentioned, one works with the World Trade Organization (WTO), while the other is engaged in financial assistance, including emergency humanitarian aid.
Until recently, neither implementation of "yen loan" nor rule making of international trade rules have been the areas where dialogue and collaborative work with NGOs has been actively pursued. Among the various areas in diplomacy, it was in areas such as environment, human rights, arms control and disarmament where interaction with NGOs has traditionally been active and widespread. It is no wonder that Mr. N perceived a kind of synchronicity in my reply that caused him to ask why everyone was talking about NGOs now. Mr. N's words gave me an opportunity to reflect on the significance of my experiences with NGOs.
In my area of work of cooperation in yen loan, we carry out cooperation with about 20 countries every year. This involves appraisal and selection of over 80 projects annually out of several times more candidate projects initially reviewed. In 2001, not a single project required more time and effort on our part than the project of a hydroelectric power plant in Kenya.
This project is aimed at expanding electric power supply in Kenya, which is experiencing a constant blackout due to insufficient electric power supply. It is expected that this project reduce this development bottleneck. Construction was planned to be carried out in two parts, Stage I and Stage II. It was at the time when Stage I construction work was underway and we were to decide on the financing for Stage II when NGOs' campaign against "environmental destruction" started.
Local NGOs, using e-mail, listed a number of environmental concerns caused by this project, and Japanese NGOs acting in concert with them made their voices heard in various circles in Tokyo. I was demanded by many Diet members to make an explanation. In the Diet committees, inquiries were made over and over again on this matter. Ms. Makiko Tanaka, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs instructed us to carry out an on-site investigation, since she was bombarded countless times with the question, "How could you give assistance to such a scandalous project?" So, I suddenly found myself on a business trip to Kenya.
To try to grasp as accurately and objectively as possible how local people felt about this project, I held impromptu meetings with local residents at ten locations near the project site. I asked them to fill out questionnaires and give their opinions. I also had talks with NGOs including the one that was said to be the most critical to the project.
The actual situation as I saw and heard locally was quite different from what had been cited at the Japanese Diet. Not a single local person was against the project or calling for its cancellation. To address environmental and social problems in the implementation of the project, an extremely unique organization named "Technical Committees" had been established that worked earnestly on these issues. Its members included a broad spectrum of people, from representatives of the local residents to university professors and engineers living in the region. Using their free time and without any remuneration, these people, together with representatives of NGOs, formed the Committees, investigated the facts and put together recommendations. The Committees covered the wide variety of environmental and social concerns raised by local residents such as compensation for people forced to move, and dust generated by construction vehicles passing by.
After returning from this field investigation, I came to meet frequently with people from Japanese NGOs. I had met with them before. However, after I returned, I wanted to speak with them and hear their opinions more than before. Particularly, I wanted to hear from them how they thought the will of the local people could be perceived and confirmed.
As I met and discussed with them, there emerged some common understanding and common awareness of the issues. Neither of us changed our respective stances, but this dialogue with the NGOs gave me some precious material to make policy decisions with.
Discussions and considerations concerning this project still being underway, this dialogue with NGOs was a quite refreshing experience. This required something not in my traditional line of work. It involved frustration and feeling of disagreement. However, it was true that I learned a lot from this process.
The dialogue with NGOs in this episode was a necessary choice for me in order to overcome difficulties in my work. However, thinking over Reporter N's question, "Why is everyone talking about NGOs now?" I came to think that my experience in this project was a reflection of the change that the age of globalization has brought about in diplomacy. This change has several aspects.
The first aspect is the rise of power of this new type of "player" in international relations. Communication via e-mail enables NGOs to instantaneously raise issues occurring anywhere in the world on a global scale. This new means of communication enhanced its impact in an unprecedented scale and widens the scope of their advocacy activity. The scope and influence of the NGOs, who have been recognized as a "player" in international relations, have increased all the more.
The second aspect involves how policymaking authorities can demonstrate the legitimacy of their course of actions. Once criticism is raised by NGOs, legitimacy of the administration becomes fragile, and if the authority cannot properly respond to it, it will be damaged. In order to avoid this, the administration has to start by having dialogue with NGOs. This may or may not close the gap between their respective positions. However, it is evident that, without having such dialogue and presenting the logic and facts that justify its policy in a persuasive way, the administrative authority will be unable to show its legitimacy.
The third aspect involves information disclosure on the part of the policy authority. Today, policy authorities tend to disclose more information at an earlier stage than previously. Diplomatic negotiation cannot reach agreement if its whole process is to be made public. Thus, diplomacy and international relations have a nature that does not allow full disclosure of information to the public. However, now that we are witnessing an expansion of the market of information due to the advance of IT, policy authorities involved in diplomacy are also being requested to disclose more information than before.
These are the changes in the environment surrounding diplomacy as globalization progresses. We should instead regard them as changes occurring in the administrative activity as a whole. In other words, every person engaged in policymaking in the administration is being confronted with the question of how to deal with NGOs and civil society as part of his/her job.
Recently, with regards to anti-globalization protest movements against G8 Summit meetings and the World Trade Organization (WTO) Cabinet Ministerial Conference, there has been much discussion on the role of NGOs. Harvard Professor Joseph S. Nye, in his article Globalization's Democratic Deficit: How to Make International Institutions More Accountable (Foreign Affairs, July / August 2001), calls on international institutions to improve their accountability. On the other hand, he points out that NGOs, not representing the people by the mechanism of democracy, needed to disclose more information than before.
As Professor Nye states, an opinion of NGOs is not automatically guaranteed to be objective, democratic or legitimate, simply because it is advanced by NGOs. NGOs are requested to play a constructive role by offering an alternative and making themselves accountable for their own claims. Policy authorities, on their part, should listen to the legitimate claim by NGOs. Also, when they find that their own stance is different from that of NGOs, it is also part of their duty to assert their own position frankly. Otherwise, they are not doing what a policy authority should do.
At the same time, there is no denying that both countries and international organizations are being required to have more dialogue with NGOs than before. The fact that they have to respond to appeals raised by the NGOs is only a part of this reason. More importantly, in order to effectively achieve the public interest entrusted to them, these institutions should listen to diverse opinions and keep an open mind more than before.
I am not suggesting that we should accept the opinion of NGOs because they represent the opinion of civil society. I am suggesting rather that "market of policy", as well as "market of information", should not be the monopoly of a few, and should be revitalized by the participation of various players. Differences of opinion are of course unavoidable. I myself had many discussions with people from NGOs over the project in Kenya, and although little by little common perceptions were formed, there were also naturally areas where our opinions diverged. However, what is important is the process by which the policy authority and NGOs reexamine their respective points of argument through mutual dialogue each by asking themselves, "Whose approach will gain the understanding of the general public-my counterpart's or mine?"
I have a hope that NGOs and the civil society play an active role in policy discussion in a constructive and responsible manner. This is because while working in the administration, my area of responsibility within the administration accounts for only a tiny portion of the activities of the government as a whole, and in other areas, my position in looking at policy issues is close to that of a member of the civil society. Thus, I am convinced that, if I can make a valid policy proposal in such areas, it will still be a contribution to the society.