The JICA-Bangladesh relationship that began to sprout with the dispatching of three volunteers to Bangladesh in 1973 now in full bloom with Bangladesh being the second-largest partner country of Japan’s ODA. As Japan is committed to contribute to the sustainable development of Bangladesh and achieve sustained progress, the development assistance is focused on infrastructure and business partnership under the ‘BIG-B’ initiative including Matarbari deep sea-port, Dhaka metro rail and Terminal 3 of Dhaka Airport. Once completed, these mega-infrastructures will change the face of the country. Chief Representative of JICA Bangladesh chapter Hayakawa Yuho in an exclusive interview with Ziaul Karim of Colors magazine talks about his Bangladesh experience and JICA’s longstanding and successful relationship with Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is going through a phase of infrastructural transformation with the help of development partners that include a long-time friend, Japan. The bond between Bangladesh and Japan is growing as their bilateral relations cover all aspects.
In fact, Japan is one of the first few nations that recognized Bangladesh as an independent country in February 1972, after extending immense support to the liberation efforts.
With Bangladesh’s economy growing at a rapid pace in the past two decades, the country has fulfilled the criteria for graduation from Least Developed Country (LDC) status. Japan has played a key role in helping Bangladesh attain such feat through JICA, one of the world’s largest bilateral aid agencies with its operation in more than 152 countries and regions and has 100 overseas offices.
JICA, which stands for Japan International Cooperation Agency, is mandated to contribute to the socio-economic development or reconstruction of developing countries. Its longstanding journey with Bangladesh commenced from dispatching the first of the three volunteers in 1973. Establishing the JICA office a year later in Dhaka, it has since then provided Bangladesh with technical cooperation.
JICA’s country Chief Representative Hayakawa Yuho joined this position in June 2020. “I joined this agency 30 years ago, in 1991. Back then the economy of Japan was at the top of the economic boom; after that, the bubble popped. Basically, at that time there were fewer people interested in working for the developmental agencies in Japan,” he recalled.
“I run the International Relations there; of course, I was interested in doing the international business in developing countries at that time, and especially the idea of the large-scale investment projects. I was fascinated by the prospect in this sector, which involves many complex elements such as economy, finance, and social issues. So, I wanted to work with those issues together to find out the best or better solutions for the people in the field.”
Hayakawa has served in two other overseas offices and his last assignment before coming to Bangladesh was at the JICA headquarters as the Director-General for knowledge management. He studied International Relations at the University of Tokyo, Japan, (BA), Development Studies in the University of Cambridge, the UK (M.Phil.), and Executive Management Program of the University of Tokyo.
About the Bangladesh assignment, Hayakawa Yuho said, “Actually, I came here, in the middle of the pandemic – I saw the quiet cities, fewer people in the town. But gradually I saw the activities of people. And now I’m enjoying very much to see the people and their vibrant movements resurging in the town.”
He has been amazed by the youthful Bangladesh people and their energy and full of admiration for them. “I can feel the activeness of the Bangladeshi people. They have a vision and they have a dream to achieve a better future. I came here from Japan, which has an ageing society. But this is a very young society looking upward for a better future. That is really wonderful. I can feel the strong energy from the people living here.”
Bangladesh’s infrastructure development is largely owed to Japanese assistance covering all sectors such as highways, bridges, power and energy. JICA has provided assistance in sectors such as power and transportation, disaster prevention, rural and regional development, health, education and governance. Official statistics show Japan has provided Bangladesh with more than 2 trillion Japanese yen (US$19 billion) as official development assistance and JPY 500 billion (US$4.7 billion) as grant.
Next year Japan’s diplomatic relations with Bangladesh will reach 50 years. When asked about this milestone, Hayakawa said, “Japan has always been a trusted friend of Bangladesh. So, there are some mega projects ongoing.”
The pandemic may have hampered the progress of some of the mega-projects but the JICA is trying to make up for the losses and catch up to the original schedule. Our office in Dhaka is one of the largest offices worldwide, and that reflects our commitment to Bangladesh. The volume of our operations is the second-largest among all the countries. So, it shows the greatness of our partnership with Bangladesh,” he said.
The JICA Dhaka chief added, “Japan has felt that we have shared the same values, the same thoughts about the world. The nature of the people here resembles the Japanese people. I mean, the people of Bangladesh are very gentle with a slight hint of shyness and it is very attractive to Japanese people. Whenever I saw these people walking along the streets or speaking, I was reminded of the Japanese people. You can say there is a presence of a cultural affinity – genial, forbearing and mild, cultivated by the long tradition of agrarian society”
Hayakawa was all praises for the hospitality provided by the local people towards the foreigners. Emphasising the need for a developmental plan, Hayakawa shared some of his thoughts: “Bangladesh is a sort of the mother for JICA’s assistance in the social development sector. Like health, education or development issues and so on. Japanese individuals, including NGOs and volunteers, have been working in this country for a long time. So those experiences gained in Bangladesh have given us a lot of hints and implications which contributed to the improvement and quality of JICA’s operations worldwide. So that is another reason for the importance of Bangladesh, I think, from the viewpoint of JICA.”
When asked about what kind of project Japan would be interested in investing in if opportunities are there, Hayakawa stated, “The development project is a basis for business and activities of the people, but a developmental cooperation project will end after a certain [project] period. On the other hand, business investment will continue as a going concern, which this country needs. What we are thinking now is how to unlock the inflow of private investment into this country.”
Hayakawa observed the country has sort of a gateway to Southeast Asia, apart from its important location in South Asia. This country bears strategic importance to Japan. He also underlined the need for increasing Bangladesh’s employment opportunities which should not be limited to exports only. Export and industrial diversification are critical. “There is enormous potential, there are many opportunities for the domestic market to substitute imports. But if the country can produce high value-added products, and then those products can be exported; such products may include electronic goods, IT services and pharmaceutical products.”
The interest of the Japanese companies in the IT sector or industries in Bangladesh has been growing at a gradual rate, he says. JICA is providing intensive short-term training in Japanese languages for those who will work at ICT companies.
Hayakawa revealed his love for the national fish and Bhorta which he has been familiar with since his official assignment in this part of the world.
On the future of Bangladesh and its partnership with JICA, he said: “Bangladesh should continue its direction with self-confidence. [It’s time to] invite foreign investors who have an appetite as their scope is shrinking in developed countries. This is an opportunity [for Bangladesh]. This is the chance for Bangladesh. If the government can choose the correct policies for attracting foreign investment and improve the business environment, I think we can attract good investors to Bangladesh from around the world.”
He added, “Bangladesh should pay more attention to becoming more competitive in the region. Of course, this country has a long history of export so they know very well about international competition. A competitive environment is also required for attracting investment. If the action is delayed others will grab the opportunities. I hope Bangladesh can get it.”