Friday, September 29, 2006

Japan is an Imperfect, yet Beautiful Country

The training course General Management for Regional Development and Planning will take place primarily in Sapporo, Hokkaido (the region in Japan that benefited from central government-designed development), although several study visits to other regions are scheduled as well. The 2-day orientation organized by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) – the main implementation agency of Japan’s ODA – aimed to introduce us, the participants (public employees from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, Tanzania, Philippines, Macedonia and Moldova) to the Japanese education, economy, culture, society, politics and public administration. I found the brief lectures on each of these topics - well-organized and delivered in good English by university professors – very interesting. The following statements attempt to describe Japan of today, and capture its particularities:
- Education is perceived as key aspect in human development (almost100 % attendance rate in primary, secondary and high school, 50% of high school graduates get higher education).
- School year starts in April and ends in March.
- Cooperation and teamwork is highly valued and encouraged, while expressing one’s (different) opinion is not.
- Japanese people are not really religious. Zen Buddhism and Shintuism (each thing has its own god) are two main religions in Japan, and they peacefully coexist, often in the same household. Many Japanese celebrate Christmas as well, just because they find it enjoyable.
- The Japanese like small, exquisite, simple, nature-inspired and imperfect things. The find imperfection beautiful. God, nature and humans are imperfect, and the world is a collection of imperfect things.
- The communication style of Japanese is circular (they never say directly what they think), which is very different from the direct communication style of North Americans and Europeans. According to some research, North Americans talk 6 hours per day, while the Japanese – only 3 hours.
- The tea ceremony – chono-yu – is a very specific and traditional socializing event where people enjoy each other’s company in silence for hours.
- The Japanese society is ageing, the birthrate is dropping, and the youth prefer to live with their parents until marriage.
- Globalization challenges the Japanese salaryman prototype – the office worker who dedicates his life to the company for life-time employment. Moreover, the Japanese exemplary work ethics (dedication to company, own life sacrifice, long hours) leaves its toll on the Japanese workers' physical and mental health.
- The Japanese economy is declining, and the traditional ways of doing business – shikkai and keiretsu systems - are challenged by the global economy. Nevertheless, the SMEs – the backbone of the Japanese economy – are expected to regain Japan’s international competitiveness.
- The political and administrative systems in Japan have been molded on the British and North American parliamentary models after the World War II, retaining any political power from the Emperor, and promoting renunciation of war. The Prime-minister is elected by the bi-cameral legislature (Diet) which for the last forty years has been dominated by one Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
- The inter-governmental relations are highly centralized, and prefectures and municipalities enjoy a 30% quasi-autonomy. Local governments receive all revenues from the central government, and have discretionary spending authority over only 30% of their budget.

The first message conveyed to me by the lecturers is that Japan is not a perfect country, which makes sense considering Zen principles. What is striking is that the Japanese are willing to openly admit it to themselves and us, their foreign guests from the very beginning. This openness generates reciprocity, trust and constructive dialogue. This might be the first lesson that Moldova (and not only) could learn from Japan: Ok, these are our problems…let’s analyze and quantify them…then agree on a solution…then work hard TOGETHER, and, as a result, things might improve.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A New Comparative Perspective for Moldova: Japan

Konnichiwa from Japan! Moldova is one of many countries receiving official development assistance (ODA) from a number of higher-income countries, such as US, Japan, EU, Canada, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, etc. The philosophy behind ODA is that lower-income countries like Moldova need various types of assistance for their development, and the rich countries are willing to contribute. In past years, I developed an interest for and, gradually an understanding of, how ODA works from both perspectives: the donor country and the recipient country.

I am currently in Japan, representing the Moldovan government, and benefiting on behalf of my country from one of Japanese ODA programs, namely, a training on regional development and planning. This post opens a new series of articles on such topics like ODA policies and practices, Japanese experience and practices in regional and local development and planning as well as other public policies, and, of course, Japanese people, culture and society.

There is one major reason why I will bother to write about Japan and its development experience. By accepting this type of assistance, the Moldovan government acknowledged that there is something useful to learn from Japan. Similarly, by accepting to participate in this program, I made the commitment to disseminate and use in my work whatever I find interesting and applicable upon my return. So, as someone who believes in the participatory approach of the decision-making process, I want to share these things with the readers of this blog, welcoming your comments, suggestions and ideas. Arigato gozaimasu (thank you)!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

What Could Happen After an Illegal Referendum?

Perhaps everyone who reads this blog is aware of the illegal, widely-discussed and highly controversial referendum that took place in Transnistria last Sunday, 17 September. I watched several TV programs/talk shows on Moldovan television on this issue. The opinions regarding the significance, meaning and implications of this event vary greatly. On one hand, there is the every-problem-is-an-opportunity-attitude, which I also share. These people think that the referendum will change the status-quo of the negotiations, given that after the referendum, the Transnistrian authorities cannot be regarded as a serious and legitimate negotiating partner. This will allow the Moldovan authorities with the support of bigger world powers like US and EU, as well as international organizations like UN, to put more pressure on Russia to withdraw its armed forces from the Moldovan territory. On the other hand, there is a growing number of people who think that Moldova should give up Transnistria, and let it become whatever it wants, even part of Russia. Although this attitude is partly justified by the exhaustion caused by the prolongation of, and chronical failure to solve this conflict, it is still wrong. In my opinion, giving in on Transnistria would mean abandoning 550,000 people to an illegal self-proclaimed government and giving up on the very idea of achieving democracy in that area. In my view, the Moldovan government should commit even more to the goal of an reintegrated country by engaging in increasingly persistent and active diplomatic actions.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Does Moldova Need Regional Development?

A regional development policy begins with the decision of a national government to provide additional support to less developed areas of a country. Everywhere in the world, even in the richest countries, disparities in the development levels of various regions exist. These disparities are generated by various geographic, historic, economic, social and cultural factors. The governments all over the world intervene to reduce these disparities by focusing additional resources and investments into these disadvantaged regions.

Development disparities among regions exist in Moldova as well, the most pronounced one being between Chisinau Municipality and the rest of the country. The Moldovan government has made the political commitment to support the less-developed regions via the regional development approach. This commitment is reflected in its key national policy documents, such as the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (art. 67), Economic Growth and Poverty Reduction Strategy (ch.6.10), and Moldova-EU Action Plan (ch.22).

Beside an acute need for a regional development policy in Moldova, its mere existence can secure access to a great amount of international donor funds. Many donors, including EU, UK and Japan, are aware of the effectiveness of the regional development approach, and are willing to make significant financial contributions via a regional development institutional infrastructure.

Therefore, the next thing the Moldovan government must do is develop and implement the most appropriate regional development policy. Although efforts have been made during the last three years, the country cannot report any significant achievements. The recently created Ministry for Local Public Administration has been charged with this mandate. The world experience in regional development is huge, so everyone genuinely interested in regional development has the opportunity to learn from this pool of readily-available knowledge.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Economics of a Language

The 31st of August is an official holiday in Moldova. It is supposed to celebrate 'our language.' In 1989, 'our language' was considered the Romanian language, the mother tongue of the Moldovans of Romanian descent (about 70% of Moldova's population). At that time, such celebration of the Romanian language complemented the national revival of the Republic of Moldova. The mother tongue of the majority people in the former Soviet Moldavia has been neglected for a very long time, therefore the joy of those Moldovans can be well understood. It was then when the Romanian language was declared the official state language.

Since then, obviously, the languages have not changed. My mother tongue continues to be Romanian. What has changed is the government, opinions and politics. For example, the current government prefers to call the same language Moldovan, and pays less attention to celebration of Our Language holiday. In a political realm, this is understandable.

What is less acceptable is the public cost of politicizing the language issue. After 15 years of independence, the number of those who cannot communicate in Romanian is relatively large.

From among all costs that the Moldovan government has transferred on to citizens (education, health, housing, etc.) those deriving from learning the state language should have been the least problematic and painful. But judging by the continuously large number of non-Romanian speaking citizens, the incentive to learn the language has been low. Instead of bearing the costs of communicating its policies to these citizens (e.g. translating all legal and normative acts, official documentation, government web-sites, on-line publications into Russian), as it has been doing for several years now, I think the government should defer these costs on to those citizens, thus creating the needed incentive to learn the state language.