Saturday, December 25, 2004

King and McGrath’s Knowledge for Development: Comment 11

Still more on reading King and McGrath’s JICA chapter.

It is useful to be reminded that not only has Japan assumed the role of the world’s largest development assistance donor, but that its foreign aid program goes back 50 years. Now, like Western development assistance, the early history of Japan’s aid program is outside the direct experience of the people implementing that program. It is also nice to read about an aid program that focuses on person-to-person transmission of tacit knowledge. And it is interesting to read about a program from Asia that seeks to meet the expectations of the people who pay for the program, and is increasingly concerned with informing its domestic clients of the work being done and the progress it encourages. That JICA has policy differences with the European views of development assistance is not surprising, and should give pause to both those holding European views and those holding the dominant Japanese views. The approach of JICA, depending on the expertise of the sectoral ministries of government, is one that served USAID well, but seems less used now that in the past.

King and McGrath are more quantitative in this chapter than in the previous ones, giving figures for the staff of JICA, and the experts that JICA deploys overseas in short and long term assignments. I think the numbers suggest that the cumulative impact of the largely-self-organized thousands of experts actually serving in developing nations is probably much greater than that of the knowledge products, each produced by a small number of people.

I am especially impressed by the concept of wakon yosai (Japanese spirit, Western technology). This is apparently something that stems back to the Meiji period in Japanese history, when the country was finally opened to trade and technology transfer from the West.

Years ago I read a paper that traced the decline of Australian aborigine culture to the gifts of steal axes by missionaries, to replace the stone axes used in the past. People interested in cutting firewood preferred the steal to the stone for obvious reasons. But, according to the theory of the paper, the most important implements of the tribes had been the stone axes, and they had been controlled by the elders of the tribe. Devaluing the stone axes and introducing steal axes resulted in devaluation of the authority of the elders, and increased authority for the missionaries. Lacking authoritative elders, the tribes social structure and process deteriorated.

This story is illustrative of the fact that knowledge gained by importing information or technology has social repercussions. Wakon josai represents a very visible and important movement of a (then) developing country to proactively select technology that met its economic development needs, and to control the social impact of the technological innovations. The idea is, I think, to manage technological and social change into paths that are acceptable within the deeper ethical and cultural framework. Of course, limited rationality keeps such efforts from working as well as one might like, but the approach seems attractive.

I understand that Japan is now seeing moves by some parties to reinterpret the wakon yosai slogan, and to recognize that the spirit must also learn. Values too change. Where physical strength was very highly valued in a time where much work was physical, mental strength has risen in value in this time where much work is intellectual. But it would be nice to see people using knowledge and best efforts to guide change (which appears inevitable) in Japanese spirit into channels that are consonant with the best aspects of Japan’s deepest values.

I wonder whether Japan is able to implement a program using Philippine or Sri Lankan spirit and Japanese technology.

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