Revisiting the ownership agenda – what can we learn from the support for self help?

Owa, Masumi (2016). 'Revisiting the ownership agenda - what can we learn from the support for self help?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

This paper aims to discuss the self-help approach of Japan’s aid and offer some insights for ownership agenda. The paper will review literature on ownership agenda and introduce the notion of ‘self-help’ that is closely linked to capacity development in Japanese aid.
Ownership has been the core agenda in international development during the last decade. It was set as one of the five principles of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness agreed in 2005 by more than 100 countries and organisations. As the conditionality put by the donors to reform the aid recipients’ policy did not work during the 1990s, it was gradually recognised that the recipient side need to have strong will for reform and to own its development policy. It was in this context that ownership agenda emerged in international development arena.

The problems and challenges of the ownership agenda have been pointed out by scholars. As being criticised as too much limited to the recipient governments, the notion of ownership was expanded as ‘democratic ownership’ by including other actors than governments (Zimmermann and McDonnell, 2008). While the concept seems ideal, the donor staff faced difficulties in interpreting the ownership concept into their daily operation, as was reported in country case studies such as Indonesia (Winters, 2012), Tanzania (Hyden, 2008) or Colombia (McGee and Heredia, 2012). In fact, the ownership agenda entails much deeper issues of sovereignty (Whitfield, 2009) or the foundation of democracy (Faust, 2010). The future direction of the ownership agenda is still sought for (Fisher and Marquette, 2016). It is also well recognised that fostering leadership and developing capacity of the recipient countries should go hand in hand with ownership.

Against this background, this paper introduces the ‘self-help’ notion of Japan’s aid in comparison with ‘ownership’. The support for ‘self-help’ of the recipient countries has long been the basis of Japanese aid philosophy. While it is now used interchangeably with the term ‘ownership’, this paper argues that the ‘self-help’ notion of Japan’s aid policy is distinct from ‘ownership’. The ‘self-help’ notion is strongly linked to capacity development. The “black box” of capacity development has now researched by some (Hosono, Honda, Sato and Ono, 2011), though it was long regarded as ‘implicit knowledge’ by the policy makers and practitioners of Japan’s aid. Kobayashi (2010), by taking a case of Ishikawa Project in Vietnam, argues that what is invisible can also contribute to aid effectiveness or results. This insight in fact mirrors the view that ownership agenda does not reconcile with results-based management – the two objectives are the competing demands (Sjostedt, 2013).

The process of capacity development may not be so easy to evaluate as it involves interaction of culture, social value and individual belief. Moreover, the result of capacity development will take longer time than the usual result framework of aid donors. However, these intrinsic dilemma yet important issues need to be understood by policy makers so that international aid policy can be more realistically oriented.

In terms of methodology, the paper will be based on academic literature, government policies, and interviews as well as the element of participant observation (as the author worked for Japanese government in Uganda). As for the structure, the paper first reviews existing literature on ownership and identifies the current challenges. Then, comparison between ownership and the self-help support will be made. In doing so, some cases of capacity development will be presented. Finally, the paper offers some insights as to how the gap in ownership agenda can be minimised.

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