Building Bridges Between Japan and Developing Countries (March 2, 2005)
As director of the United Nations Development Programme's Tokyo Office, Yuge Akiko's job is to build and strengthen partnerships with Japanese government, businesses, academia, and NGOs with the aim of assisting developing countries in their nation-building efforts. Yuge, who has previously worked for the UNDP in Thailand, Indonesia, and Bhutan, is especially keen to stimulate interest in developing countries among young Japanese.
Explaining how Japan and the UNDP work together, Yuge says, "Together with Japan we can do so much in the area of development cooperation. Japan is a major donor, and it has a lot of experience and resources - technology, people, and funds. We, as a UN agency, also have those, but we are different. Japan is a bilateral donor, while we are a multilateral donor, and there is a lot that we can combine to assist developing countries, especially in peace building and poverty reduction."
Public relations and advocacy on behalf of the UNDP and people in developing countries is another side of her job: "I want more Japanese people to know about what's happening in developing countries - the poverty situation, post-conflict situations, the situation of many rural people living in very difficult conditions. I want them not just to think about it but also to do something, such as joining an NGO, becoming student volunteers, or preparing to join the UN."
The Impact of Japanese ODA
Praising Japan's efforts to help developing countries through official development assistance, Yuge says, "Japanese ODA is helping in a major way. Japan has been the number-one donor in many Asian countries over many years, providing assistance in infrastructure development, rural development, economic growth, human resources development, and health and medical care. It has really helped these countries to develop and to gain the ability to manage their own economies and nation-building efforts."
She has seen the impact of this assistance first-hand: "I saw many different examples when I was based in developing countries. One of Japan's particular strengths is in the area of infrastructure. In Bhutan, for instance, the UNDP and Japan worked together to develop a telecommunications network. The UNDP developed a master plan for the system, and Japan came in with the hardware, the engineers, and the microwave stations to set it up. We also worked with the Japanese government in human resources development, because once you have the system, you need people to maintain and repair it when something breaks down. The UNDP helped the Bhutanese government to set up a training unit, and our experts trained trainers, who then trained technicians. The Japanese government continued to provide equipment to expand the system, and the telephone system has spread all over the country, so now international phone calls can be made and faxes can be sent from every district. The impact has been phenomenal."
Yuge is optimistic that Japan's ODA will continue to benefit people in developing countries: "One area that Japan has been focusing on more is poverty reduction. The medium-term policy for ODA, for example, focuses on human security, peace building, and poverty reduction through sustained economic growth. These are key areas. Peace building is an area in which Japan is now much more active. I think the whole international community should focus more on conflict prevention, including Japan and the UNDP. Another area that is very important is the poorest countries. Sub-Saharan Africa has so many countries that are really in very difficult situations. Measured by socio-economic indicators they are at the bottom, so these countries need a lot of assistance, and I know Japan is focusing on Africa through the TICAD (Tokyo International Conference on African Development) process and other means."
The UNDP has played a central role in helping those affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. "Within 48 hours we provided $100,000 each to the five affected countries for emergency relief goods, transportation, and damage assessment," explains Yuge. "We have since been working in different countries. In Banda Aceh, Indonesia, the city was covered with mud and debris, which has to be removed before any recovery or reconstruction can take place. The UNDP is working with the government and the local community to hire people who have been affected and have no employment. With our support, the government has hired these people, and they are working on removing the debris. This has two benefits: One is that it cleans up the city, including the hospital, roads, and the city center. The other is that it provides employment for people, and they can use the money they receive to start to rebuild their lives."
She explains that the UNDP's relief efforts are firmly focused on the future: "In the Maldives, we are helping people to rebuild their homes by providing cement, steel pipes, and other materials. But what's important is that they should not just rebuild the same homes. The opportunity should be taken to rebuild safer, stronger homes, in case there's another natural disaster. The location of the homes may have to be changed, to move them a little further from the coastline or on to higher ground, and the structure of the houses should be strong enough to withstand natural disasters. What we're doing is not just rebuilding but taking the opportunity to prevent or reduce the risks if another disaster occurs."
Yuge notes that previous disaster-mitigation efforts by the UNDP have helped to save lives: "There were some villages in India that were struck by the tsunami. In one village, the villagers had received disaster training, so they knew how to form rescue teams, they had learned survival skills, and they knew how to communicate with people. This village suffered much less damage and fewer casualties than another village nearby, which did not receive any training. Disaster preparedness is what's important, and this is what we're trying to reflect in all the UNDP projects.
The Importance of Meeting People Face-to-Face
When she worked in developing countries, Yuge was known for her hands-on approach, insisting on visiting areas where the UNDP was active to see for herself what was needed and to meet and talk with local people. "You have to know what's happening on the ground," she explains. "Of course, I have to work in the capital city to discuss national development strategy with the government. But when it comes to specific projects in a particular village or area, I want to know what that village looks like, what those people are thinking about, what their needs are. When you read documents, you don't get the feel of the situation. I felt that I had to go there and meet the people. By talking to them you discover something different. You discover that what the village chief says is not necessarily what the other villagers say. Or sometimes it's the men who talk in meetings, but when you talk to the women you discover something else. I feel that I have to be in touch with people, because these are the people who are the real participants in a project. I really enjoyed those trips, not just meeting the people but seeing how they live, what kind of houses they have, what they eat."
Yuge sees lessons for developed nations in the lives and culture of people in poorer countries: "In many villages in Bhutan that I visited, there is a spirit of helping each other, a spirit of a community working together to improve the lives of people, to improve the village. If someone is walking to his field and sees some people building a house or trying to fix a ditch that is broken, usually he will ask, 'Do you need any help?' They may say yes, so he stops and helps them, and the help may take several hours, so he cannot do any farm work because the day is gone. But then, when he needs help, they will come and help him. Many houses are built together, it may be five or six people in the family, and the neighbors will come and help, and they will sing a song as they work. That kind of a community spirit of working together to help each other is very important, and I feel that in a big city like Tokyo, the habit of helping each other is not there. The desire to help is there, but people simply don't have time."
Encouraging More Participation
Yuge is keen for more Japanese people to enter the field of development cooperation: "I would like people, especially young people, to go out there and experience a developing country. Use the summer vacation - even a week is fine. This is what I told my students when I was teaching in a university. Use your summer holiday. Go to a developing country. It could be a study tour with an NGO, or sometimes organizations arrange work camps to construct elementary schools or to visit rehabilitation center for child laborers. When people come back, they have a renewed interest in the world and a realization that things are so different. They also have many doubts about what they thought was correct. I think more young people should get out and see the world. It opens up the eyes, the mind, and networks and friendships, which leads to so many different options."
As for the qualities needed to succeed in this field, she lists focus and determination as important, as well as flexibility: "In this kind of work you have to be quite flexible and open. In the area of international cooperation there are so many different types of work and so many different opportunities. You could be flying off to Afghanistan for a three-month job. It may not be a very secure job, but that three months could really change your perspective, it could open up other opportunities because of the people you meet, the experiences, the different world that you see."
Director, Tokyo Office, United Nations Development Programme. Born in Spain. Earned a B.A. from Barnard College, Columbia University and a master's in development economics from New York University. Began her UN career in Bangkok, Thailand, where she worked for the UNDP and the UN Population Fund. Worked as a development consultant based in Tokyo from 1983 to 1988. Rejoined the UNDP in 1988 and served in three countries: Thailand, Indonesia, and Bhutan. Returned to Japan in 1999 to assume a professorship at Ferris University's Department of Global and Inter-Cultural Studies. Appointed to her current post in April 2002.
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