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Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006

International role of NPOs


All over the world, culture is being pushed to the sidelines. I am not referring here to commercialized, globalized culture produced purely for entertainment. By "culture," I mean the provision of culture as a public good, such as through foreign-language education, intellectual exchange or groundbreaking theater with little commercial appeal. Nonprofit organizations that engage in exchanges of culture in this sense of the word, such as Germany's Goethe Institute and the Japan Foundation, are having a very hard time.

These organizations conduct more activities abroad than in their home countries, and in this age of fiscal restraint and personnel cutbacks they are losing out on financial support from their governments back home. Is this an acceptable situation? Even while cuts are being made, both the Goethe Institute and the Japan Foundation are being told to focus on activities that contribute to the foreign policy of their respective countries. Cultural exchange is expected to function as an effective foreign-policy tool.

How should NPOs such as the Japan Foundation and the Goethe Institute deal with these challenges? Above all, NPOs involved in cultural exchange around the world need to highlight to the whole world the importance of their work by joining hands to tackle common tasks. To persuade people of the importance of their activities, however, they must start by demonstrating to the citizens of their respective countries that they are striving to make their activities as economical and efficient as possible.

The first challenge for these NPOs is to deal with financial cutbacks. The primary means of coping with reductions in government support is to appeal to the private sector for donations. However, general appeals within an NPO's home country for private-sector donations to support activities abroad are unlikely to elicit much response from domestic enterprises. To attract corporate support, NPOs need to appeal to businesses implanted abroad to help them in implementing specific projects. For example, an NPO might work with local Japanese Chambers of Commerce and Industry to survey the corporate social responsibility programs that Japanese companies are carrying out in different countries. The NPO could then propose to carry out projects linked to corporate CSR activities.

A further possibility is to oblige NPOs to match the projects they carry out to the corporate donations they receive for such projects. It might also be possible to institute a policy of matching corporate donations to the projects that the NPO's program officers wish to plan and carry out.

When dealing with personnel cutbacks, outsourcing is an important tool. The staff of the Japan Foundation's headquarters, for example, are all professionals who have graduated from university -- a third of them with an M.A. or a Ph.D.

The second major problem facing NPOs engaged in cultural exchanges with government grants is the coupling of cultural exchange policy and foreign policy. On the one hand, if the link between cultural exchange and foreign policy were severed, governments would have little reason to fund these NPOs with tax revenues.

On the other hand, if the activities of an NPO, such as the Japan Foundation, are seen as little more than publicity for government policy, not only would this damage the NPO's international credibility, it would also mean that the activities of the NPO were at odds with its original purpose of cultural exchange. Striking a balance between these competing demands is a challenge. Academics or cultural figures who oppose the government line should not be denied the chance to take part in international exchange activities in a way that maintains an appropriate balance.

The third issue facing NPOs carrying out exchange with other countries is the level of recognition they enjoy at home. This is the area where differences of opinion between governments and international NPOs are most liable to occur. From the point of view of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the government, it is quite natural for the Ministry to insist that the Japan Foundation or similar organizations should focus on activities abroad, such as Japanese language education and showcasing Japanese culture overseas.

From the point of view of the Japan Foundation and other NPOs, however, it is not possible to gain domestic support for their works unless people in their home countries are aware of their activities. One way to overcome this dilemma is to expand the opportunities for contact between the NPOs and the public by holding lectures on understanding foreign culture -- much like the adult classes held by universities for the public. It is also important to provide opportunities for citizens to exchange views and ideas about topics relating to international exchange by setting up blogs and bulletin boards on the Internet to which anyone can contribute.

All of these problems facing NPOs engaged in international exchanges are rooted in a single, key issue -- namely, the age-old question of whether culture is a means for diplomacy or whether it is a mistake to see culture as a short-term diplomatic tool since cultural exchange is valuable in and of itself. This is a crucial issue with wide-ranging implications. Culture may at times be regarded as a diplomatic tool, but at other times it must be recognized that cultural activities have worth in and of itself because they generate new value and new inspiration. I believe that these two perspectives are not necessarily incompatible. The Japanese language, for example, is at times used as a skill or tool, but at the same time it contains cultural value that those who study Japanese learn and absorb, whether consciously or unconsciously.

This conflict between the view of culture as a diplomatic tool and the view of cultural exchange as a worthy end in itself is inherent to all cultural exchange activities; individual activities cannot necessarily be categorized as either one or the other. To unite the two viewpoints, we must adopt the stance that Japanese culture is an asset that can be shared by the whole world and that propagating this culture not only increases national prestige by showcasing Japan to the rest of the world and promoting understanding of Japan but also contributes to the international community. Surely we need to take the view that spreading Japanese language and culture to the world is a means of enhancing the diversity and enriching the culture of the international community.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation. He has served as Japanese ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea and France.


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