By Hori Kazuhiko
With Russia’s invasion into Ukraine intensifying, Japan’s nongovernmental organizations (NGO) are rendering support to Ukrainian evacuees in surrounding countries with the money provided by the Japanese government. But in reality, they are not able to fully meet the needs of evacuees as their activities are being “shackled” by the government.
Since March, the government has provided a total of 200 million dollars to support groups in and outside Japan to help Ukrainian evacuees. Of that amount, 32.6 million dollars has been allocated to the “Japan Platform” (JPF), which is made up by 19 Japanese NGOs (as of June 8). Some of them are already on site near Ukraine to provide emergency aid, such as healthcare and medical supplies, food and daily necessities, to people in need.
One distinctive feature of the ongoing Ukraine crisis is that many evacuees are looking for cash assistance. Those who fled their homes are not only taking shelter inside Ukraine but also leaving the country for surrounding nations. Because of that, they are in desperate need of cash. Generally speaking, it takes time to deliver food aid to those in need because this involves cumbersome steps such as the selection of manufacturers, packing, and shipment. On the other hand, cash assistance can be provided promptly and is expected to contribute to the local economy as well.
Okamoto Hiroki, the representative of “Omusubi Channel” (Ch-Omusubi), which provides live-streaming services and organizes international exchange programs, visited Poland in early May. He made the rounds of shelters where Ukrainian evacuees are staying and handed each of them 100 zloty (about 3,000 yen) out of his own pocket.
What he learned on site is that while many evacuees are offered sufficient food aid, they have difficulty finding jobs. Though they desperately need cash, cash is hard to come by. If they want to receive cash handouts provided by international organizations, they need to go through cumbersome procedures.
Meanwhile, Japanese NGOs funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) are not acting expeditiously. MOFA requires these organizations to monitor and report the use of cash provided to evacuees. As quite a few evacuees move to another country after receiving cash, it is difficult to keep track of how they use the money and to report back to MOFA.
A MOFA official shows a certain level of understanding, but the ministry maintains the stance that how the money was used needs to be monitored as it is “taxpayers’ money and an explanation is necessary.”
On this, Shibata Yuko, director of the emergency response team at the JPF, says that “[this MOFA protocol] increases the burden for cash recipients and this should be avoided.” Otsuka Eiji of “Peace Winds Japan,” which currently extends support to Ukrainian evacuees from Moldova, points out that “international organizations are providing cash without monitoring conditions.” Now Japanese NGOS are gradually moving to use donations from the private sector for cash provisions without relying on funds provided by the government.
There is another impediment to Japan’s aid to Ukraine. As the Ukraine forces are regaining ground and the war situation is changing, international organizations and other countries’ NGOs are relocating their support bases to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, from Poland and other countries. About 200 support groups have reportedly entered Ukraine to increase their cooperation with local communities and authorities.
The Japanese government does not encourage domestic NGO workers to enter Ukraine due to the evacuation advisory issued to Japanese travelers to Ukraine. Those who engage in aid programs are requesting the government to ease the travel advisory for people who enter Ukraine for the purpose of humanitarian aid. Some of them demand that if the government provides funds, they allow them to carry out aid activities under the same conditions as aid program workers from other countries. But the government is not responding to these requests flexibly.
Japanese aid programs often come with impediments if the government is involved. Why? In Japan, NGOs have a low profile and are not treated on a par with the government. By contrast, European and American NGOs often present policy recommendations to their governments and are given almost as much weight as their governments in drawing up aid programs.
International organizations have been the largest recipients of MOFA’s funds for humanitarian assistance programs. The government had initially planned to provide aid to Ukrainian evacuees through international organizations, but several lawmakers criticized the idea, saying that the government is “leaving everything to international organizations.”
In March, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Kono Taro brought up this issue at a meeting of a parliamentarians’ league where he serves as the top advisor and publicly criticized his old workplace. “Over the past several years we have devoted time and effort to fostering Japanese NGOs so that they can play a responsible role when they face a situation like this,” he said. “MOFA is insincere by leaving everything to international organizations.”
The criticism moved MOFA to change its policy, and it decided to allocate a huge amount of funds to the JPF, which is joined by domestic NGOs. Yet NGOs still face many impediments. “We are grateful to the government for providing us with funds, but there remain many issues to be addressed,” said Shibata. (Abridged)