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Volunteers for Japan - World's Best and Brightest Take up the Challenge

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2000-04-08

In the field of international aid Japan is the world's largest donor country. It disburses over 13 billion dollars annually in foreign aid.

This generosity is in response to one of humanity's most urgent needs. Of the earth's 6 billion people 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty.

Other countries' contributions look niggardly in comparison. The USA, with twice Japan's population, gives less than 10 billion. The UK, half Japan's size, gives just over 3 billion.

Japan helps 140 countries under four strict conditions. These are: the aid is not put to military use, the money and help will contribute towards international peace and social stability. It also has to promote good governance and a market oriented economy. It also must contribute to sustainable development.

There are three types of Official Development Assistance (ODA).These are grants to other countries, which don't have to be paid back, loans which do, contributions and subscriptions to international organizations.

Most of the grant aid is the responsibility of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). JICA supplies engineers and administrators and also runs training programs in third countries. Participants come from neighboring countries as well as the host country. Grant aid is in the area of Basic Human Needs, covering medical care, public health, domestic water supplies, rural and agricultural development and human resources. There are follow up grant aid programs where necessary.

JICA organises activities such as inviting young people from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other countries to come to Japan for a month to get to know the way of life here and young Japanese.

Most volunteers who want to go overseas are between 20 and 39 and they are sent on two year assignments. They live like the local people and the range of skills they bring covers over 160 technical fields.

One of JICA's main activities is Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) which began in 1965 and has sent over 17,000 volunteers to 66 countries, mainly in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

There are various qualifications demanded by the different countries. Twenty three year old Takuo Oshiro had never been to the mainland before he went there for JOCV training. He has never visited a foreign country before and will shortly be working in Malaysia as a car mechanic. He opted for this job in an industrial area outside Kuala Lumpur because it fits his two years mechanical engineering experience. If he had wanted to go to some countries in Africa, the requirement would have been five years experience. He was trained in the Malay language for three months and will have a further one month's instruction when he arrives in the country.

Twenty six year old Taeko Tokuyama is an Okinawan nurse who has worked at two hospitals in Tokyo for eight years. She has however been abroad. When she was 18 she visited Mother Teresa's home for the dying in Calcutta and spent a few days there helping. Four years later she went there for six months as part of her nursing training. This experience still did not qualify her for JOCV's program but finally her dream of going overseas as a volunteer nurse has come true. She is soon going to La Paz in Bolivia. She has done a Spanish course and will also do a one month booster course on arrival.

Volunteers cannot go exactly where they choose but can indicate preferences about types of location. Taeko asked to go somewhere by the sea, but La Paz is far inland and surrounded by mountains. She is philosophical about this, realising volunteers' skills have to fit where the need is greatest.

A returned volunteer from Vietnam who now works for JICA in Okinawa, Sanae Taba, taught Japanese at Hanoi University for two years. She says when she came back from Vietnam she had learnt a lot from her time there. Her main lesson was the realisation that she had to motivate the locals rather than just spoonfeed them. This applied as much to her Vietnamese colleague teachers at the university as to her students.

At the moment there are around 2,200 Japanese volunteers serving in 59 countries. Their selection process is rigorous. The most important requirement is technical expertise and they are given intensive training before they are sent on their overseas assignments.

Personal qualities are important and candidates are screened for their ability to understand the behavior patterns of people in different cultures. Their flexibility and tolerance is tested too, necessary for operating in societies which may have practices and customs alien to them.

Volunteers must also have a talent to express themselves verbally and be good at explaining facts. They must too have the ability to sustain enthusiasm for whatever activity they are involved in.

Some JOCVs, particularly those in cities, find themselves living near or working with colleagues from Japan. Almost all young people going overseas for the first time, experience some home-sickness. Others find themselves in remote settlements, hundreds of miles from any other Japanese. These particularly need to be mentally tough to last their time.

If at the end of their two years they want to stay, they can extend the assignment for a further six months or a year, but no longer. If they want to stay in the field, another option is to work for JICA at home, as Ms Taba did after her stint in Vietnam.

Overseas volunteers' jobs are very varied. Here is a small sample of the 160 work categories: forestry, poultry farming, ceramics, beekeeping, mushroom growing, shell work, jewelry, welding, printing, mining, computers, navigation, aircraft maintenance, film production, aikido, karate, town planning, architecture, midwifery, pharmacy, X-ray technology, radio communicationns, electrical engineering, geohydrology, botany, photography, diving instruction and industrial design.

The countries volunteers have been sent to include early participants in the scheme like Laos (1965) Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippinnes and India (1966) late entrants such as Vietnam and Saint Lucia (1995), Poland, Bulgaria and Mexico (1993) Egypt (1996) Romania (1997) and many countries which began to participate in the 1970s and 1980s, including Zambia, Syria and Nepal (1970) Ethiopia and Samoa (1972) Tonga and Bangladesh (1973) Colombia and Dominica (1985) Jordan (1986) Indonesia and Vanuatu (1988) Jamaica, Guatemala and Micronesia (1989).

There is also a scheme for volunteers aged 40 to 69, which now has some hundreds of participants. The senior voluntary program was set up to take advantage of the valuable skills older people have, the desire of some to take a couple of years away from their normal work and now perhaps, for some who are not in full employment. They get better pay and conditions than the younger volunteers and because of family committments, get more return trips to Japan during their assignments. Their motives though, are mostly the same as their younger colleagues. Coming from a rich and priveliged society, they realise they have some responsibility for the rest of the world. They would like to do something practical to help the shamingly large percentage of the earth's humans who do not have enough to eat, nor access to clean water nor to the simplest medicines routinely available on more fortunate patches of the globe.

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