‘Support for local governments will be the focus for the future’

  • Interview Sakuma Jun

Apr 14, 2017-

Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is one of Nepal’s oldest development partners. It has been engaged in the country since 1970. During this time, JICA’s development assistance has covered wide range of sectors, from transport, energy, water and sanitation to education, health, peace building and governance. JICA has also announced a huge amount of assistance for post-earthquake reconstruction. The Kathmandu Post caught up with Sakuma Jun, chief representative of JICA’s Nepal office, to talk about its assistance strategy, ongoing reconstruction process and future assistance. Excerpts: 

It’s been almost five decades since JICA came to Nepal. How do you look back on those years?

JICA started its engagement in Nepal in 1970, initially through JICA volunteers and then gradually scaling up cooperation activities. These five decades have been eventful for both JICA and Nepal. As development partner, JICA’s assistance is not only focused on the infrastructure sector but also human capacity development. Over these years, around 5,000 government officials have been trained in Japan through JICA. It has not only provided support for Nepal’s development endeavor but also contributed much to developing good bilateral relations between Japan and Nepal.

What are the major areas that JICA is currently engaged in?

JICA’s overall objective is to support Nepal for its sustainable and balanced economic growth. All our supports are governed by four pillars. The first pillar is infrastructure and institutional development under which we’ve been providing assistance for the Tanahu Hydropower Project, Melamchi Water Treatment, Nagdhunga Tunnel. We’re assisting Nepal for the promotion of democracy and federalization under pillar two. With Nepal in the process of implementing federalism, enactment of a new civil code and institutionalization of community mediation are some of the programmes under this pillar.

The third pillar is related to rural development and poverty reduction to narrow the gap between rural and urban areas. The fourth pillar, recovery and reconstruction, is a new one which we introduced after the Gorkha Earthquake to provide support to Nepal for post-earthquake rebuilding.

JICA has pledged a huge amount of assistance for post-earthquake reconstruction. In what areas is JICA assisting the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), and how much money has been disbursed to the government?

The Japan government and JICA had committed Rs26 billion for school and housing reconstruction during the donors’ conference in 2015. We’re supporting the NRA in two projects—housing reconstruction and school reconstruction. We have already given Rs4 billion to the Nepal government for housing reconstruction and the Emergency School Reconstruction Project, and 250 schools have already been reconstructed and rehabilitated. We’re also providing support to rebuild three hospitals in Kathmandu—Bir Hospital, Paropakar Hospital and Maternity Hospital. 

Our support is not limited to cash assistance. JICA recently handed over landslide hazard maps of Gorkha and Sindhupalchok districts to the NRA which focuses on slope failure risks evaluated for each 50 metres x 50 metres square grid. This initiative is the first of its kind for Nepal under JICA’s initiative, which assists the NRA to identify risk zones in and around earthquake affected areas in order to provide appropriate information regarding the hazard risks to the residents. 

Donors have reservations given the slow pace of reconstruction and politics surrounding the appointment of the NRA CEO. How do you view the whole reconstruction process?

I understand that there was a lot of criticism about the government’s mishandling of the NRA, especially with regard to the appointment of the CEO. However, I believe the government is making efforts and we are supporting them. Generally speaking, it takes time for the recovery process. Japan is also a disaster prone country where we have lots of earthquakes. In 2012, we had a very big earthquake in eastern Japan. Now we’re on the way to recovery. Six years have already passed, but in Japan too we’re struggling towards recovery.

Let’s talk about JICA’s assistance to the infrastructure sector. JICA has given a yen loan to the Tanahu Hydropower Project. What is the status of the project? Has the government requested yen loans for other projects too?

The Tanahu Hydropower Project is currently at the bidding stage for construction works. I think the bidding process will be completed by May. We’ve just signed a contractor contract with Nippon Koei for the Nagdhunga Tunnel. On Nepal’s request for new yen loans, it’s too early to talk about the projects as we’re still at the negotiating stage. All I can say is that these are infrastructure projects, and we’ll able to say something only after August/September.

Political intervention, especially by local politicians, has hampered large donor-funded infrastructure projects, Bhairahawa Airport being the latest example. How are donors taking such disruptions?

One of the difficulties donor agencies face is quick transfer of key government and project officials. It is quite difficult to have capacity development, not only for the people but also for the institution, when key people are transferred in quick time. Even small things get affected by these quick transfers. For example, it took a long time for JICA to get visas for our experts and volunteers which should have been done swiftly. On the issue of increasing political meddling at the local level, I strongly believe corruption is one issue we’ve to avoid. As far as JICA projects are concerned, we’ve not experienced such issues.

One of the concerns donors have raised is the government’s inability to utilize aid money and the country’s absorption capacity. How do you see this?

I admit that there are some difficulties when it comes to the implementation part. It takes a very long time for the concerned ministries to take the projects forward due to lack of proper communication among the ministries. We had asked the Finance Ministry to manage the banking arrangements necessary to implement our grant aid projects. However, it took a long time to get things done. 

As I stressed earlier, the whole issue here is of having institutional memory. We at JICA believe that capacity development of the people and the institution is most important for effective utilization of assistance. That is why JICA not only provides support to the hard sector, that is infrastructure, but also for capacity development. For example, we included a capacity development component in the Sindhuli road project. 

If elections are held as planned, economic development will be prioritized; and Nepal will need more resources and donor assistance. Will donors like JICA provide more aid?

Actually, support for local governments will be the focus for the future. The new local governments that will be formed need capacity development. Hence, we are now thinking about how we can support them. In fact, we’ve already started some projects like community mediation which will contribute to solving disputes at the local level in the future. We are supporting the strengthening of the Local Development Training Academy (LDTA). In the future, we might add some projects or programmes to strengthen local governments. We are thinking along this line and keenly observing local polls. I hope local polls will be held peacefully. 

Published: 14-04-2017 09:31

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