JICA, Peacebuilding, and COVID-19 

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) engages in peacebuilding in various countries and regions with an overarching goal of “building a resilient state where conflict does not occur or recur.” With the spread of COVID-19, this work has only grown in importance.

Handover of health and hygiene supplies at the Jalazone refugee camp in Palestine, September 10, 2020. Pictured are camp community representatives and staff of JICA and DoRA. COURTESY OF JICA

Conflicts continue around the world with no hope for a solution. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) at Uppsala University in Sweden, about 76,000 people died in conflicts around the world in 2019.

The conflicts are also creating many refugees. According to the Global Trends Report published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in June 2020, a record 79.5 million people were displaced as of the end of 2019. This is double the 2010 figure. At least 8 out of 10 refugees have fled to a developing country and a heavy load is borne by the recipient countries.

To promote conflict prevention, ceasefires and preventative measures against the reemergence of conflict, many kinds of peacebuilding activities are conducted by governments, international organizations, aid organizations, NGOs and others. These include Peace Keeping Operations (PKO), preventative diplomacy, mediation and peace negotiations, humanitarian assistance and development aid.

The Japanese government is involved in peacebuilding in developing countries. One of the basic policies of the Development Cooperation Charter that was established in 2015 is “contributing to peace and prosperity through cooperation for non-military purpose” while “sharing universal values and realizing a peaceful and secure society.” The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is an instrument for engaging in peacebuilding in various countries and regions based on this charter. An overarching goal is “building a resilient state where conflict does not occur or recur.”

 “To facilitate peacebuilding, JICA supports the building of a resilient state that can provide inclusive, fair, and functional public services as well as the building of a society where diverse people can co-exist,” says Sakane Koji, senior director of the Office for Peacebuilding at JICA. “If the state and the people trust each other, the people will not resort to violent extremism. The country will also be able to withstand a variety of shocks.”

Toward the Establishment of an Autonomous Government: Mindanao, Philippines

Naguib Gani Sinarimbo, Minister of Interior & Local Government of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority(BTA)

JICA has been involved in peacebuilding in Mindanao in the southern Philippines for more than twenty years. Since the late 1960s, conflict had raged in Mindanao between Islamic groups and the Philippine government. However, a peace agreement was reached between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government in 2014, and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) was established as a territory following a local referendum in 2019, realizing the creation of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) as a transitional organization before the autonomous Bangsamoro Government to be formed in 2022.

The Japanese government has supported the peace process from the late 1990s with the expectation that peace in Mindanao would greatly contribute to regional peace and stability.

 “Japan’s contribution in Bangsamoro is very significant,” says Naguib Gani Sinarimbo, the BTA’s Minister of Interior & Local Government. “The Japanese government was very helpful in achieving the peace agreement.”

As part of this support for peace, JICA has been sending experts to the International Monitoring Team (IMT) through the Japanese government since 2006. IMT is an organization founded in 2004 that consists of Japan, Malaysia, Brunei, the EU, Norway and other member countries. In addition to monitoring the ceasefire, the IMT is responsible for the protection of civilians, provision of humanitarian assistance, and social and economic development. Experts dispatched by JICA have taken charge of social and economic development in the IMT.

Tax payment campaign through the Revenue Enhancement Assistance for LGUs (local government units) program implemented in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) COURTESY OF JICA

Moreover, in accordance with Japan-Bangsamoro Initiatives for Reconstruction and Development (J-BiRD) launched in 2006, JICA is using a variety of development aid schemes like ODA loans, Grants and Technical Cooperation to provide support such as building water supply facilities and schools, training human resources in the agricultural sector, and constructing roads. Furthermore, JICA implemented the Comprehensive Capacity Development Project for the Bangsamoro (CCDP) from 2013 to 2019 to support the building of institutions and organizations as well as training of administrative human resources in preparation for the establishment of the new autonomous government. For example, there is the implementation of the Revenue Enhancement Assistance for LGUs (local government units) (REAL) project as part of the CCDP. In local government units (LGUs) in the Bangsamoro region, the government does not receive the trust of the people because of the conflict, and tax collection is insufficient due to underdeveloped institutions. They had to heavily rely on internal revenue allotment (IRA) from the central government. In order to improve this situation, REAL aimed to boost LGU revenue. JICA has provided support such as training for financial administrators in the LGUs as a way to promote revenue generation.

 “The REAL project has successfully improved revenue collection and systems and processes in the LGUs,” says Minister Sinarimbo. “We have been able to increase the number of LGUs that can generate their own resources apart from IRA.”

Since 2019, the Capacity Development Project for the Bangsamoro has been run in partnership with the BTA. The focus of this project is human resource training in the BTA. With the founding of the BTA, there is now a need to help the community affected by the conflict recover. Important for the stability of the BARMM region is that the BTA functions as an administrative organization and smoothly provides administrative services. The aim of the project is to strengthen the BTA’s administrative and managerial capacities in order to deal with these challenges. Moreover, the region is awaiting the decommissioning and transition to productive civilian life of more than 40,000 former MILF members. The BTA also needs to develop the community so that it can accept these former MILF members.

BTA staff implementing COVID-19 rapid assessment online  COURTESY OF JICA

However, the spread of COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the BARMM region.

“COVID−19 has put stress on the transition to new autonomous government. We are in the process of building bureaucracy and hiring people. But it has become very difficult to interview applicants because of the restriction of movement of people,” says Minister Sinarimbo. “It has also impacted on the economy and health system. But we are taking it as an opportunity to take a closer look at areas where we are weak.”

With the spread of COVID-19, a “COVID-19 rapid assessment” was implemented as part of the project from July through August, organized jointly by JICA and the Ministry of Interior & Local Government. The survey used a simple “yes-no” questionnaire to ask about lifestyle changes before and after the spread of COVID-19. Briefings to local government, preparation for online questionnaires and answer forms, and the distribution and collection of questionnaires were all conducted remotely . Responses have already been collected from about 1,800 government workers and residents in the various areas. At present, the results are being analyzed and the report is being written.

“This assessment is very important for developing a recovery plan for COVID-19. We expect JICA to help development of the system to analyze data quickly. We need to know what exactly happens in the region,” says Minister Sinarimbo. “JICA has always been a strategic partner for us. We look toward partnering on development of infrastructure, economy, agriculture and fisheries.”

Improving Refugee Camps: Palestine

Many refugees live in refugee camps in Palestine in the Middle East. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), about 800,000 of the 3 million population in the West Bank and about 1.4 million of the 1.9 million population in the Gaza Strip are refugees.

Members of the Old Askar Camp Improvement Forum. Yaser T. M. Abukeshek, DoRA General Director of Camps Affairs, stands back center. COURTESY OF ABE YUSUKE/JICA

It is seventy years since the Palestinian refugee situation emerged, and issues of aging infrastructure, unemployment, and poverty in the refugee camps have become more serious in recent years. Because of this, JICA has implemented the Refugee Camp Improvement Project (PALCIP) with three UNRWA-recognized refugee camps on the West Bank as its project sites from 2017 to 2019. JICA worked with the Department of Refugee Affairs (DoRA) of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to support improving capacities of DoRA as well as to formulate and implement “Camp Improvement Plans” (CIPs) in each camp.

The formulation of CIPs principally involves residents and is done by Camp Improvement Forums (CIFs), consisting of representatives of women, youths, elderly people, persons with disabilities, and other residents with diverse attributes, under DoRA leadership. The CIFs gather the challenges and needs of each group, on which basis they set a vision and strategic goals as well as decide on improvement actions needed to achieve those goals.

“Outsiders can’t identify the real needs of residents of camps. Residents are the best people to tend to their needs,” says Yaser T. M. Abukeshek, DoRA General Director of Camps Affairs. “We’ve given an opportunity for all residents, especially vulnerable people, to raise their voices.”

A Camp Improvement Forum (CIF) workshop at the Aqbat Jabr Camp

One of the project sites is the Aqbat Jabr Camp in Jericho where about 8,500 refugees live. A CIF was established there in May 2017 following a basic survey of the living environment and a briefing about camp improvements to the residents. The progress and results of discussions at the CIF were made public in social media and newspapers to solicit feedback from the public as the CIP was formulated. The CIP was finished after about two months of discussion. Two high-priority, implementable improvement actions were implemented as pilot projects. One had the aim of improving accessibility to public facilities by restoring the people’s committees (PC) building, and doing construction work to improve accessibility to three mosques and a women’s center, including the installation of slopes and handrails by the entrances. The other project had the aim of improving young adults’ life skills through teamwork and leadership training. After the training, the participants were divided into three groups to conduct activities like cleaning the camp and holding social meetings for children with disabilities. Following the conclusion of the pilot projects in March 2018, a “refugee camp improvement manual” was created based on the experiences from the camp.

“Everybody can say their needs. That’s why they can feel ownership of their camp improvement plan,” says Abukeshek. “We will disseminate the concept and methodology of the participatory approach to other camps.”

Children’s playground equipment installed in a park in the Old Askar Camp as part of the Camp Improvement Project COURTESY OF JICA

In December 2018, JICA invited Abukeshek and five other key DoRA officers to Japan to learn about community participation in local governance and social inclusion as well as participate in lectures on monitoring and other subjects. The participants learned about community disaster prevention training and meal distribution services for senior citizens by the neighborhood associations in Yokohama City as well as restoration initiatives in the areas hit by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

“We also learned how to manage crises. Japanese people try to change their future peacefully and positively,” reflects Abukeshek. “It was an amazing experience. My experience in Japan motivated me to serve my community.”

In September 2019, before the end of PALCIP, the relevant ministries and agencies, donors like Denmark and South Korea, Italian and Swiss NGOs, university staff, and refugee camp representatives were invited to attend a knowledge-sharing seminar. PALCIP results were presented and panel discussions held. During the panel discussions, DoRA staff, CIF members, and others took part and engaged in lively discussion.

 “JICA opened a new horizon for us,” says Abukeshek. “We can open new paths for networking to other donors to mobilize more funds.”

PALCIP phase 2 covering twelve more camps started in 2020 and preparations have been made for projects in three refugee camps on the West Bank. However, it was then that COVID-19 started spreading in Palestine. DoRA has received JICA assistance and distributed face masks, gloves, hand soap, medical thermometers and other health articles to the camps in the West Bank.

“CIFs have a real involvement in identifying people’s needs inside the camp which has been infected by COVID-19,” says Abukeshek. “JICA is our best partner. We have a continuous partnership between JICA and DoRA for building the future of the camps.”

Promoting Social Cohesion: Côte d’Ivoire

Sakane Koji, senior director of the Office for Peacebuilding at JICA (center), with staff involved in the Project for Community Reinforcement towards Social Cohesion in Grand Abidjan (COSAY Phase 2) COURTESY OF JICA

Greater Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire’s biggest city in the West African country’s south facing the Gulf of Guinea, has been greatly affected by turmoil resulting from the post-election crisis in 2010, in terms of social infrastructure destruction and animosity among residents. This is why the Côte d’Ivoire government requested social cohesion support from the Japanese government. In response to this request, JICA implemented the Project on the Reinforcement of Communities for Promoting Social Cohesion in Greater Abidjan (COSAY Phase 1) from 2013 to 2016 as well as the Project for Community Reinforcement towards Social Cohesion in Grand Abidjan Phase Ⅱ (COSAY Phase 2) from 2017.

The aim of the projects is to reinforce residential relations and promote social cohesion by developing social infrastructure in the Abobo Commune and Yopougon Commune in Abidjan that were greatly affected by the crisis. An organization called “CCGPP” (Pilot Project Joint Management Committee), which consists of representatives from  communes, religious organizations, women’s associations, youth associations, traditional village chiefs and other local residents, plays an important role in promoting social cohesion in the projects.

“Residents whose relationships have been affected by the crisis are also taking part in the CCGPP. As a diverse group of people who have not spoken to each other after the crisis come together and discuss community development, we are creating opportunities for social cohesion,” says JICA’s Sakane. “Especially, young people can be a driving force for both conflict and peace. When young people become dissatisfied with the government and society, they contribute to social instability. By involving young people in societies as implementers of community development, this becomes a conflict deterrent.”

In Phase 1, four primary schools were rehabilitated and built, and four roads were rehabilitated. The staff at the Abobo and Yopougon commune facilitated and coordinated the discussions in the CCGPP with support from the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization. The implementation of various projects through cooperation between the commune and the CCGPP continues as part of the on-going Phase 2.

 “Communication between the commune staffs and residents as well as among residents is enhanced by these projects,” says Sakane. “There is a growing momentum for building a community for everyone together.”

COVID-19 information poster made as part of the Project for Community Reinforcement towards Social Cohesion in Grand Abidjan (COSAY Phase 2) COURTESY OF JICA

Also, in the central and northern parts of Côte d’Ivoire, which is where the conflict started in 2002, JICA has implemented the Project on Human Resource Development for Strengthening Local Administration in Central and Northern Areas of Cote d’Ivoire (PCN-CI) since 2013. The country’s central and northern areas have been cut off from the south because of the conflict which erupted in 2002, causing a continuous situation of dysfunctional public services. Through a pilot project set in the Gbeke Region, which was the base for the rebellion force during the civil war, local government officers have been trained as well as institutions and systems built in order to realize public services that meet the needs of residents. In Phase 1, as part of a pilot project, 11 primary schools and 77 well facilities were constructed and renovated in the region, and a committee through which residents themselves maintain and manage the schools and wells was also established. Phase 2 started in 2019, and projects are on-going in Gbeke Region and Haut-Sassandra Region.

“Poverty and economic disparity can be the causes of conflict,” says Sakane. “It’s extremely important to ensure local governments have sufficient ability to provide public services for the sake of resilient state-building.”

It was amid all this that COVID-19 started spreading in Côte d’Ivoire in the spring of 2020. In April, there was an incident were a COVID-19 testing facility under construction was destroyed by local residents in Abidjan as residents’ concerns about COVID-19 were growing. In order to deal with this situation, health experts’ explanations about basic COVID-19 knowledge, infection prevention and stigma (discrimination and prejudice against infected persons) countermeasures were broadcast on radio in Abobo Commune and Yopougon Commune as part of COSAY Phase 2 in Greater Abidjan.

Still from the COVID-19 information video made as part of the Project for Community Reinforcement towards Social Cohesion in Grand Abidjan (COSAY Phase 2) COURTESY OF JICA

Furthermore, commune staff and members of the fourteen CCGPPs established for the project are being trained in infection prevention measures, such as wearing face masks, washing hands and social distancing, as well as measures against stigma. Posters on infection prevention measures have also been made and posted on billboards set up for the project. A two-minute information video on COVID-19 infection prevention and stigma countermeasures has also been made and is broadcast on the cities’ social media websites.

“Economic disparities were widening and foreigners and minorities were being ostracized around the world since before the spread of COVID-19. With COVID-19, such issues have become all the more evident,” says Sakane. “Some developing countries lack proper capacities to deal with COVID-19. In countries like that, there is a risk that the vulnerable are greatly affected in a way that reinforces economic and social disparities. Also, it’s possible that COVID-19 can reverse peacebuilding processes. To prevent this, it will become increasingly important to provide support for COVID-19 measures in developing countries and conflict areas.”

SAWAJI Osamu, The Japan Journal

Note: This article first appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of the Japan Journal.

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