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Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012
A new phase in reconstruction
The Reconstruction Agency was established Feb. 10, 11 months after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastated the Pacific coastal areas of the Tohoku region. Political confusion has delayed the establishment of the agency that will serve as a command center for reconstruction from the disasters and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear crisis.
With the establishment of the agency, the administrative system designed to push forward the reconstruction efforts is now laid out. The ability of the new agency will be put to a severe test. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Mr. Tatsuo Hirano, the state minister who serves as chief of the agency, must exercise leadership to promptly carry out the reconstruction efforts.
The agency, especially, must break the bureaucratic red tape and the walls between various government ministries and agencies so that they will quickly respond to the voices of local governments and residents concerned and meet their needs.
The devastated areas are left with deep scars. As of the day the agency was established, the bodies of 15,848 victims had been found. But the identity of more than 500 bodies remains unknown.
In addition, 3,305 people are missing in four Tohoku prefectures — Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, and Aomori — and two Kanto prefectures — Ibaraki and Chiba. Unemployment is high and the revival of local industries has been slow in the devastated areas. People in Fukushima Prefecture are suffering from radiation problems caused by the nuclear catastrophe.
Under a law enacted in December 2011 by the Diet, the Reconstruction Agency will exist for 10 years until March 31, 2021. It is above other government ministries and agencies because it is under the direct control of the prime minister. Two senior vice ministers will help Mr. Hirano.
The agency is empowered to unify reconstruction-related budgetary requests from other government ministries and agencies. It submits the budget demand to the finance minister and distributes budgetary funds to other government ministries and agencies with plans for budget execution attached. Other government ministries and agencies are required to respect recommendations by the agency. It will screen applications from local governments for special grants for reconstruction and for the establishment of special economic zones in their areas.
The agency must be careful not to become an organization that just bundles budgetary requests from other government ministries and agencies. A big problem is that its workers, who number about 250, came from other government ministries and agencies. They should shun any attempts by their former organizations to influence them and refrain from acting as "representatives" of their former organizations. Instead, they must think and act from the viewpoint of promoting the interests of areas and people hit by the disasters.
The agency must strive to ensure that local governments concerned can easily use reconstruction-related budgets. There exist cases in which different government ministries and agencies oversee and use different budgets for similar projects. This means that local governments have to contact different government organizations to execute budgets at local levels. The agency should breakdown these inconvenient budgetary walls between central government organizations.
It would be desirable if the agency had its own budget not linked with other government ministries and agencies. Such a budget would enable it to fund the emergency projects of local governments as well as to smoothly connect separate but similar projects.
There were calls for the head office of the agency to be set up in the Tohoku region. But it was established in Tokyo to ensure better communication with other government organizations. About 60 percent of the agency workers will work in Tokyo. Reconstruction bureaus have been established in the cities of Morioka, Sendai and Fukushima and smaller branches at six places in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures and in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, and Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture.
Local offices of the Reconstruction Agency will have the key role of hearing requests from local governments and residents, and conveying them to the agency and eventually to other government organizations. The various requests will be related to construction of roads and housing, establishment of new communities in highland areas, improvement of agricultural land and revival of local industries. But as only about 30 workers are assigned to each of the reconstruction bureaus, it seems unlikely that they will be able to handle the enormous amount of requests in a timely manner. Therefore it is imperative that staffing be boosted at these bureaus and smaller branches.
The agency will coordinate with other government ministries and agencies on the basis of local requests. To do that, agency workers must have close communication with local governments and residents, and share a clear vision for reconstruction with them. A failure to do so will mean that local governments and residents will have to take the trouble of contacting separate ministries such as the agriculture ministry and the land, infrastructure and transport ministry.
Most importantly, the agency must do its utmost to revitalize local agriculture, fisheries and other industries so that local people in devastated areas can once again earn a living. The agency should help local governments to find businesses capable of establishing new enterprises in such areas. It should also cooperate with nongovernmental organizations that are assisting local businesses with their revival projects.