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September 8, 2010


What Asia Hopes from Japan: Our Role Revealed through NGO Activities

college_suzukimarisan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Mari Suzuki, Secretary General and Director, Asian Community Center 21

My organization, Asian Community Center 21, is an NGO with a mission toward creating new resource "flows" and building collaborative civil-society networks to realize peaceful, fair, and creative communities in the Asian region. I would like to examine Japan's role in Asia by focusing on the part of ACC21 that I manage: the Asian Community Trust.

Supporting Asia with the Charitable Trust Scheme

The Asian Community Trust (ACT) was established in 1979 with the goal of providing grassroots level assistance to developing countries in Asia, and was Japan's first fundraising-style charitable trust. A charitable trust is a scheme in which monetary donations are given to trust banks and other banks, which then use the principle or returns on the principle to better society. There are over 500 charitable trusts in Japan today, the majority of which serve people domestically by providing scholarships and other types of aid. Charitable trusts used for international cooperation are rare, but the ACT is one of them.

Charitable trusts come in a few different varieties. A fundraising-style (community-style) charitable trust like the ACT adopts a system in which donations are gathered from the public at large to carry out activities that benefit society. For example, when a person named Suzuki approaches us and says, "I want to support orphans in Vietnam with a scholarship in my name," he or she can create a special fund in the ACT called Suzuki International Cooperation Fund, or other such title. The ACT is thus a kind of large box in which people can set up a number of specially designated funds. As of December 2009, the ACT has 20 funds. We have dispersed a running total of over 370 million yen to more than 400 programs, in ten Asian countries and in such fields as development and education. We are currently providing financial assistance to 18 projects in seven Asian countries through local NGOs.

Asian NGOs Becoming Social Enterprises

Allow me to introduce actual projects happening in the Philippines. Samar, situated at the very center of the Philippine archipelago, is an island of great beauty, while at the same one of the poorest. The island is also one whose connections to Japan run deep, given its history of occupation by Japanese forces during World War II. In western part of the islands, a region once rich in natural resources, fish yields have dropped precipitously since the 1970s due to overfishing with a technique called dynamite fishing. Similarly, illegal slash-and-burn agricultural practices have devastated the environment, while along its coasts the cutting of mangrove forests is having a grave impact on the lives of people who have long lived in harmony with nature.

The majority of farmers in the Philippines are small-scale farmers and experience low productivity, with many in a state of poverty even now. Giving these farmers appropriate agricultural technologies is critical to raising their productivity. For this reason, the ACT has supported a facility called Center for Rural Technology Development (CRTD) and has helped workers at a model farm by giving them appropriate technologies and loans.

This farm, which is approximately two-and-a-half times the size of Tokyo Dome, is operated as a program in one of the projects of Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP), the largest NGO in the Philippines. Many of the staff members at NGOs like this one come from relatively highly-educated backgrounds. These are people who have studied such subjects as sociology and development studies--they are not the destitute themselves, but only intermediaries between the helpers and the helped. Judging from the almost ten years that I have worked, this seems to be one area where today's NGOs face limitations and challenges. When an NGO gives training, we still are not sure whether the trainee can apply his or her new skills to a job, whether they will be successful at putting them to practice. I think the question of how far NGOs can really help is a major issue that needs to be addressed.

Microfinance is a mechanism that has been helpful for many reasons, but it also appears to be effective in overcoming a challenge like this one. In microfinance, a loan recipient uses borrowed funds as capital to run a business, create income, and repay debt. The Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) on Luzon Island is an organization that the ACT has been involved with since the early stages of its founding. CARD is a lending institution--a so-called "bank"--for women. It also conducts various kinds of training for farmers without land and for the poor, and is the largest financial institution in the Philippines for individuals and very small businesses. Last year, their female customers broke one million for the first time.

In recent years, a growing number of people among local NGOs in Asia are conducting social entrepreneurial activities. Many groups and institutions, in spite of having started off as nonprofit NGOs, are now expanding their programs through methods closely resembling private sector business in order to operate in a more financially sustainable way.

Partnering with Community Organizations Is the Key

I would now like to take a new look at the role of NGOs. Whether in Japan or in a developing country, the role of an NGO should be to determine the real needs of residents, and serve as the intermediary in getting the right resources to the people who need them. There are said to be 400 to 500 international NGO groups in Japan, 70 to 80 percent of which help Asian regions outside of Japan. And, of course, there are also many local NGOs in the various Asian countries. No accurate data is available, but in the Philippines there are between 3,000 and 5,000 NGOs working in problems of development, 8,000 such groups in Indonesia, and probably over 1,000 in Cambodia. In a large country like India, NGOs are operating most likely at the unit of tens-of-thousands. The NGOs in developing countries are often the provider of public services after national and local governments. However, because NGOs are incapable of major tasks, most local NGOs work by partnering with various local resident-based organizations, such as farmers unions, credit unions and other self-help groups.

Robert Chambers, professor of development studies at the University of Sussex in England, suggests in his book, Rural Development: Putting the Last First, that--as the subtitle clearly states--in developmental assistance, those in greatest need should be placed at the top of the priority list. Yet, in his subsequent book, Putting the First Last, he changes the order around. What Professor Chambers is in fact illustrating is that it is much more difficult to take the people who have until now been first in line and move them to the back.

There are a number of different interests involved in any project. Take, for instance, a project to transfer agricultural technologies. When calling residents together to listen to their needs, one must always pay attention as to whether the self-proclaimed "representative" is indeed speaking in the interest of all members of the group and not in the interest of personal gain. Make a mistake at this stage, and the project may turn out useless to the people in greatest need of help. This is why partnerships between NGOs and community organizations are so vital.

Know History and Envision the Future

Lastly, I want to share my feelings from having worked face-to-face with various communities in Asia. The Ainu and Ryukyuan ethnic groups live in Japan of course, but I would argue that, for us Japanese, there are very few situations in our daily lives in which we are reminded of ethnicity. Not so in most other Asian countries. They are home to not only indigenous people but also people of various creeds, such as Islam and Christianity, people who speak different languages, all coexisting amid great diversity. When Japan seeks to get involved as a member of Asia, it too needs to recognize human differences.

This is yet another reason why we need to know history. Certainly, I am not the only one who did not study enough history in Japanese school. A case in point: go to any rural area in the Philippines and "the war" is bound to come up in conversation. Even if the discussion has nothing to do with who is to blame for the war, etc., it is still a fact that you came from Japan, that you are Japanese. I think that only when we have a clear understanding of the facts of the past can we start to communicate with local people, and share a vision for the future.

At the same time, we also need to ask the question "why?" toward pre-existing concepts or ways of thinking. For example, in the Philippines, conflict between Christians and Muslims on the island of Mindanao sometimes makes the news, but an overwhelming number of people on the island say that the conflict is not about religion. Their view is that deep underground in the region where the indigenous people have lived for centuries lies a very rich supply of mineral resources, and that the government and corporations are trying to drive them away and steal their land. In actuality, the situation is extremely complex, but sometimes the media presents it simplistically, as an opposition between ethnic groups or religions.

My hope is that more people will stop swallowing information as they see or hear it. Instead they will persist in asking the question, "Why is this happening?" and by doing so they will have an interest in problems and work to solve them in whatever way they can.


Mari Suzuki came to Asian Community Center 21 in April 2005 after working for a corporate investigation firm and the nonprofit organization Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation (JANIC). Since 2001, she has been the secretariat of the Asian Community Trust, Japan's first fundraising-style charitable trust providing financial assistance to local NGOs throughout Asia, and now conducts program recruiting surveys in Asian countries, monitoring, and evaluations. She is also in charge of projects to promote the spread of microfinance and natural farming methods, and of ACC21's Community Kindergarten Project in Cambodia.