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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Helping Hands in Foreign Lands

Jun. 3, 2015

Japan’s international aid program has reached a milestone. It’s now 50 years since the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) sent its first group of aid workers overseas. Since then, about 40,000 volunteers have helped out, in fields ranging from farming to medicine.

NHK World’s Miki Matsumoto spoke to some of them about what they achieved and how it changed them.

Last month, aspiring volunteer aid workers gathered in Nagoya for an orientation. More than 100 young people came to learn about life in developing countries. Some said they were looking for a way to contribute to society. Others said they wanted to work with children.

JICA launched its overseas volunteer program in 1965. Japan had recovered from the destruction of the Second World War and was experiencing rapid economic growth. Five young volunteers went to Laos that year to support work in agriculture and education. Since then, JICA has sent volunteers across Asia, and to countries in Africa, the Middle East and Central and South America.

Ichiro Muto volunteered in the 1970s. He studied livestock farming at university and went to Tanzania after graduation. He found that people there had little access to fresh, quality meat products. He met with government officials and food dealers and helped them set up a meat processing plant.

Most volunteer assignments last only 2 years, but Muto extended his stay to oversee construction of the plant. He ended up staying for more than a decade.

“If you have the chance to put time and effort into a task, and sweat over it, I think that becomes a valuable experience for you yourself,” he said. Muto returned to Japan to join the Foreign Ministry, and they sent him back to Africa to put his experience to use.

Tsuyoshi Yamada joined the program in 2009 and asked to go to Ghana. He was following in the footsteps of his father, Yasunori, who was sent to Ghana to work in radio communications. Yamada was 10 years old when he visited his father there, and it left a big impression.

“When I reached the same age my father was when he went to Ghana, I wanted to see with my own eyes what he was doing there -- what he saw and what kind of people he worked with,” he said. “That’s the main reason I went.”

In Japan, Yamada was a nurse in the emergency ward of a general hospital. In Africa, he saw how people struggled to get access to, or be able to afford the medical treatment they needed.

“There are people who need an examination or treatment but can’t get to a hospital because they live too far away or don’t have money for transportation,” he said.

Yamada began visiting people where they lived, no matter how remote. His experiences changed him, and when he returned to Japan he wanted to keep helping those who had no means to get to a hospital.

“I really learned a lot from everyday life,” he said. “It was so stimulating that I think I gained more from the people in Ghana than I was able to give, even though I was sent there to teach.”

Japanese volunteers have been sweating it out on the ground with local people in developing countries for half a century now. And for just as long, they’ve been bringing back fresh perspectives and new ideas.


NHK senior commentator Aiko Doden covers developmental affairs. She spoke with Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: Aiko, 50 years is a long time. How has the volunteer program changed over the years?

Doden: As we saw, the program began by sending Japanese youth with practical skills to help with things like farming, fisheries or forestry. Those early volunteers were born around the end of the Second World War. They were keen to show the world that a “post-war Japan” was willing to commit itself to helping others, not just be a recipient of aid. More than 40-thousand young men and women have been sent abroad since then.

The program has been gradually changing as the needs of developing countries change. Some of the countries aren’t as desperately poor as they used to be, and they have more diverse needs now. Volunteers are training people in sports, for example, and with some success. The student of a JICA volunteer in Mongolia won the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. And as many as 10 athletes trained by volunteer instructors are expected to take part in the South East Asian Games in Singapore this week.

Another notable change is that senior volunteers can now take part. Most are retirees, or people about to retire. They’re eager to use the skills or expertise they acquired professionally, in fields such as health, agriculture or public management. And since Japan’s population is graying, with 1 out 4 people already 65 or over, this trend might become more pronounced in the years to come.

Beppu: Taking a broader perspective, we heard earlier how Japan’s leaders are backing firms that provide infrastructure abroad. Is that the future for Japan’s aid policy?

Doden: Possibly. Direct overseas aid isn’t growing much. Japan used to be one of the leading providers of official development assistance back in the 1990’s. But that’s no longer the case. It’s much more about infrastructure now. There is no doubt that things like bridges, ports, railways, roads, and tele-communication systems are crucial for development. They lay the foundations for a strong economy. Japanese companies are building infrastructure in Asia and Africa, but this should not be an end in itself. The infrastructure should become a catalyst for attracting further investment so the growth can be more durable.

For example, Thailand’s GDP per capita exceeds $5,000 and the country has changed from a developing nation into a middle-income country. Countries like that want to attract investment to secure growth, and for that, it’s essential to have both infrastructure and skilled human resources. In this regard, the donor-recipient relationship is becoming more equal. It’s a win-win situation.

Beppu: Given that changing relationship, what will be the principles that direct aid from Japan in the future?

Doden: One key concept is human security, which is the pursuit of a world where people live in safety, free from fear and hunger. In the past 30 years, the number of people living on less than $1 a day has decreased from 1.9 billion to 1.2 billion. That’s a positive development, but the figure is still staggering. The reality is that economic disparity is a big challenge.

I think the concept of human security needs to be revisited, especially if Japan aspires to be what the Prime Minister calls “a proactive contributor to peace.” As we saw in the report, providing medical assistance, schools, education, and helping improve agriculture also contribute to securing peace. This year was the target for the UN Millennium Development Goals. They were supposed to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Now the UN is moving to Sustainable Development Goals. The aim is to “leave no one behind.” I think Japan could be a key player in this effort to bring inclusive and equitable growth to the developing world, where no one is left behind.