The past decade has seen a gradual convergence between the modernizing, top-down development agendas associated with “new donors” to Africa and the human development agenda more commonly linked to traditional donors. But while instruments such as the Sustainable Development Goals now demand both industrialization and empowerment, donors still struggle to reconcile these competing expectations. This article uses a variety of qualitative data to examine one such project: the attempted transfer of Japanese management techniques (or kaizen) to workplaces across Ethiopia as part of Japanese official development assistance. Asking why and how the Japanese and Ethiopian governments pursue these aims, the article finds an intervention that is low modernist in design: its goals and logics are modernist but tempered by a respect for local knowledge and a preference for evolutionary over revolutionary change. The fact that Japan is the donor to promulgate such a paradigm is no coincidence, I find, given the historical origins of kaizen and Japan’s long-standing hybrid role in international development debates. Low modernist interventions such as Ethiopian kaizen demonstrate the utility of moving beyond dichotomies (China/West, growth/equity, efficiency/empowerment). But in both Ethiopia and the Japanese aid apparatus, powerful centrifugal forces still make low modernism a difficult balancing act to achieve.

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