Japanese NGOs in Relief: A Growing Sector
by Humanitarian Practice Network June 1996

A 1993 survey of development NGOs in 13 OECD member states characterised the Japanese NGO movement as ‘small, young and fragile’ in comparison with its counterparts in other countries. Historically, growth in the NGO sector was restricted by factors such as the limited tradition of philanthropy beyond the Buddhist tradition of charity; the strong role of government and private companies in the provision of services often associated with the voluntary sector in other rich countries; and the lack of facilitation of tax-deductible charitable giving within the taxation system. However, the NGO sector in Japan is growing and becoming increasingly active. A number of factors are contributing to this process.

For development NGOs, an important funding innovation has been the ‘Voluntary Deposit for International Aid’ scheme introduced in 1990 by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications. Under the scheme, holders of post office savings accounts (a widely used form of banking in Japan) could opt to contribute 20% of the after-tax interest earnings to a special fund for development NGOs. Grant applications are solicited once a year from NGOs and advice on grants is sought from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the NGO umbrella organisation JANIC (Japanese NGO Centre for International Cooperation). NGOs are also increasingly benefitting from the support of the Japanese Aid Programme through subsidies and matching grant programmes, though such support is still well below the levels seen in other rich countries. Latest DAC figures (1995) show that overseas development assistance (oda) provided by Japan stands at $13.24 billion, more than the UK and US contributions combined. This figure represents 0.29% of the country’s GDP, which, although a comparatively small proportion of GDP, ranking below most Western European countries, Australia and Canada, nonetheless makes Japan the largest overall donor country. 

Japanese official emergency aid has traditionally been channelled through UN agencies and the large and well-established Japanese Red Cross Society. Japanese NGOs first participated in international relief efforts in the operations in Thailand and Cambodia in 1979, which led to the formation of several new NGOs.However, it was not until the operations in support of Kurds in Northern Iraq, Iran and Turkey in 1991, and the Bangladesh Cyclone operation at the same time, that Japanese NGOs benefitted directly from Japanese oda funds.Whilst some of the Japanese NGOs involved in the provision of relief assistance are the Japanese components of the large international NGOs such as CARE, World Vision and MSF, there are several indigenous NGOs involved in the provision of relief assistance, including the Association of Medical Doctors for Asia (AMDA), Association to Aid the Refugees (AAR), Japanese International Volunteer Center (JVC) and a host of smaller organisations working in single countries and many student organisations.

The largest and fastest growing of the indigenous Japanese NGOs specialising in the provision of relief assistance is the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia (AMDA). The organisation was formally constituted in 1984 but has its origins in the experience of a Japanese doctor attempting to provide assistance during the Thai-Cambodia operations five years earlier. The Association now includes 16 country ‘chapters’, with 900 members working for improvement in health-related areas in African and Asian countries. In addition, a number of medical missions carry out operations in other countries with relief needs, such as Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Mozambique and Rwanda. When an emergency occurs, a group is formed consisting of doctors from AMDA country ‘chapters’ and is sent to the affected area. Because many of these doctors have experienced similar emergency situations and provided the same types of care in their own countries, their assistance in humanitarian operations is particularly valuable.

Although this type of federal structure is not unique in the international relief community, what is unusual is the fact that Thai or Philippino doctors may work in medical relief activities in Tanzania or Somalia – a ‘South-South’ transfer of experience and expertise as opposed to the more common ‘North-South’ transfers of technical assistance.

Within Japan itself, the increasing number of foreign residents in Tokyo led AMDA to set up the International Medical Information Centre in 1991. According to the Ministry of Justice, there are nearly 1.3 million registered foreign residents in Japan, and the number of illegal aliens is estimated at about 300,000. The Information Centre, subsidised by city governments and Osaka Prefectural, offers telephone consultations on the Japanese healthcare system in eight languages.

For more information about AMDA, contact:
AMDA International Secretariat (HQ) 
310-1 Narazu
Okayama City, 701-12
Japan
Tel: + 81 86 284 7730
Fax: + 81 86 284 6758

For more information about Japanese NGOs see:
Smillie, I & Hemich, H (1993) Non-Governmental Organisations and Governments: Stakeholders for Development. OECD, Paris. 1993.

The annual DAC (Development Assistance Committee) Report. OECD, Paris.

or contact:
JANIC (Japanese NGO Center for International Cooperation)
Saito Building 5 F,
9-1 Kanda-Nishiki-cho 2-chome
Chiyoda-ku
Tokyo 101
Japan
Tel: +81 3 3294 5370
Fax: +81 3 3294 5398

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