Reaching out to the world

It takes a special person to become one of Japan's skill ambassadors to developing countries

by Yuko Naito

Japan is often criticized for simply doling out large sums of money to international relief and development activities and rarely contributing human resources. There are, however, more than a few Japanese who become actively involved in international cooperation as overseas volunteers.

One measure of the interest is the fact that every year 8,000-10,000 people apply for the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers program, an official technical-assistance program that annually dispatches 1,100-1,200 volunteers with special skills to developing countries.

All volunteers have special knowledge or skills in fields the recipient countries need help in, such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries, manufacturing, civil engineering, health and welfare, education and sports.

Simply having a special skill in one of these areas, however, is no guarantee that a person will be accepted as a JOCV volunteer, as can be seen from the large number of applicants the program turns down every year. Sponsored and organized by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, JOCV has dispatched more than 21,000 young men and women to 71 developing countries since the program was established in 1965, but the acceptance criteria are tough.

When Yoko Kuroki, for example, applied to JOCV in 1996 for a post as a swimming coach, she was rejected, despite extensive experience in competitive swimming and having a license to teach high-school physical education. She tried again the following year, though, and this time passed the screening test and was posted to Nicaragua to work for two years as a race coach at a private swimming school. She was the third Japanese coach to teach at the school.

Kuroki’s mission was to help raise the standard of competitive swimming in Nicaragua. She soon discovered that her job would be much more difficult than she had imagined. “Local people expected to see immediate results if they had a foreign coach. It was a lot of pressure. You can’t expect drastic changes in only one or two years,” she explains.

She tried hard to improve the students’ swimming technique and felt accepted by them and their families, but the language barrier caused difficulties, and she clashed with the director of the swimming school. Then, six months before she was due to return to Japan, the school invited a new coach from Cuba, and Kuroki was dropped from the race project and assigned to teach beginners.

She took the demotion hard. “I didn’t want to admit that I lacked ability, and I was jealous of the Cuban coach. Fortunately I consulted with a JICA staff member stationed in the same city who told me that confronting one’s weaknesses was a way of maturing as a human being. That really helped me deal with the situation,” Kuroki says.

At the end of her term, she returned home. The next year she heard that one of her former Nicaraguan students had been selected to compete in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

“I was so excited. What one person can do in such a short period of time is limited, but I felt that the efforts of the three JOCV coaches may have helped them get to the Games,” Kuroki says.

Young people are not the only ones who contribute to international volunteer activities. JICA’s “senior volunteer” program, which it launched in 1990, has to date dispatched 511 people aged 40 to 69 to 16 countries; currently, 263 senior volunteers work abroad.

The special skills and knowledge of these senior volunteers are often specially sought after in developing countries, as older volunteers are more likely to have expertise in key areas such as agriculture.

Makoto Saito, a drainage and waterworks specialist, worked in Laos as a JOCV volunteer in 1966, and two years ago he was once again dispatched to the country as a senior volunteer to instruct the local people on how to maintain 118 deep-drilled wells that had previously been dug with aid from Japan.

When Saito arrived, however, 70 percent of the wells were no longer in use, because the iron tubes had become heavily rusted due to local water acidity, and the rusty water was not suitable either for drinking or washing clothes. Some unused wells were infested with mosquito larvae, and others were being used as huge garbage cans. Saito fixed two wells at his own expense, taking out the rusted iron tubes and replacing them with plastic ones at a cost of $1,000.

He inspected all the other wells, wrote a report and sent it to JICA with photos of each well, asking for their help. His request was soon accepted, and the 80 wells were repaired using Japanese aid money at the end of March.

The local villagers were very happy that the wells had been repaired, and Saito also explained to them how to use and maintain them. “When I’m working, I don’t think of myself as a volunteer. I’m just an engineer who wants to improve the situation.”

Although Saito’s mission was a success, volunteer work doesn’t always turn out so well.

Kaneko admits that there are many JOCV members who return to Japan before achieving anything significant.

“It is never easy to help others,” Kaneko says. “Even so, our volunteers do manage to contribute something worthwhile, and the volunteers themselves learn many things through their activities.” (Y.N.)