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April 1, 2012

It's been a long and exciting journey.

After serving as president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency for more than eight years, Mrs. Sadako Ogata officially retired on March 31, 2012. Previously, she was an academic, diplomat and, during the1990s, the High Commissioner for the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. In the following interview she looks back at some of the professional milestones and personal highlights of a distinguished career.

When you took the helm at JICA near the start of the new millennium, what were your views about the organization and the global development situation?

Mrs. Ogata: I had no idea! When JICA's staff council approached me about the position, I told them ‘I have no idea what this is all about.’ I said it was very nice that the staff had asked about me but I could not take a job just based on popularity.


Many things were happening. JICA was about to become an ‘independent’ agency within the government. There were world events—the aftermath of 9/11 in the United States; the Afghanistan issue; the concept of human security for millions of vulnerable people. If I had clearly foreseen all of the major challenges awaiting me, maybe I would have said no. I said yes. (with a laugh).

When you took over UNHCR, you were faced with the immediate crisis of the plight of Kurdish refugees at the end of the first Gulf war. What was the situation when you became JICA President?

At UNHCR it was literally a question of life and death for thousands of people. It was a different situation at JICA, but nevertheless we had the ongoing problem of Afghanistan. I was thrown in at the deep end and expected to be immediately active.

How has JICA evolved during your stewardship?

JICA (which merged with a section of the then Japan Bank for International Cooperation in 2008) has become much better organized and action orientated. When I arrived we were very active in Asia. On the other hand Africa was a ‘big open space.’ No Japanese prime minister had even visited the continent until 2001 when I accompanied Prime Minister Mori to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya before my own appointment to JICA in October 2003. We are very active in Africa now.

And your last official trip was to be to Africa/the Middle East, Egypt and Tunisia.

The Middle East has become a very important area for JICA. Initially there was Asia and other areas such as Latin America. Then we began to be more active in sub-Sahara Africa. But what is happening in the Middle East now will affect the whole world and JICA is beginning to get more and more involved. And in the next three years we will be working closely with the Brookings Institution in Washington on both research and policy issues which will be very important for us.

After the Arab Spring began JICA offered immediate assistance to Tunisia and Egypt to help them strengthen the fragile democratic processes. More than one year later what is the situation from your perspective?

Tunisia of course was the start. What happens in Egypt will have a very major impact. I have said from the beginning that the Arab Spring will follow a very bumpy road, but even as donors we are already learning a lot of lessons. JICA has concentrated on helping to educate and train people—students, teachers, IT specialists, plumbers, electricians. We have collaborated with Egypt for several years to launch a new kind of university called the Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology (E-JUST).


But what happens if you don't give those same people the opportunity to actually get a job? Maybe we have not focused enough in the past on job creation and we know that this particular frustration was one of the underlying causes of the Arab Spring. E-JUST will encourage the region's best and brightest brains not to leave the area and will offer the kind of education that will suit industry's needs. We are helping to reshape vocational training centers in some countries to again emphasize the need to give students the kind of skills that economies need. The world in general has a lot of lessons to learn from what is going on there now. And because Japan has not been heavily involved historically or politically in the Middle East, that actually gives us some advantages as a neutral partner agency with regional countries.

JICA is the steward of the Corridor of Peace, a concept to try to forge closer ties between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories by encouraging economic cooperation.

Yes, Japan began the project in 2006. A major component will be the creation of an agro-industrial complex in the Jordan Valley to allow farmers to gain export markets for their fruit and vegetables. Construction has begun and already other industries such as a steelworks have been attracted to Jericho (reputedly the world's oldest city, located in the Palestinian territories). We have also been active in training thousands of local farmers and officials, building physical infrastructure such as roads, irrigation schemes, schools and clinics.

Your career has spanned many decades. Has the world changed a lot during that period?

Communications—physical travel, electronic media—have changed the world. We are becoming one big community-based world. You can no longer do things totally different to your neighbor simply because you are bigger or more powerful. We all have to share. Unless you share the world is a very dangerous place.

How have you personally changed?

I am more impatient. Because of the nature of responsibility I assumed, it always seemed to get bigger and bigger, so I always want quick actions and results. So I become impatient.

After such a long career as a ‘public’ person what are you going to do privately?

First, clean my office. There are a lot of housekeeping needs. I have to then organize my own thinking. And then I will probably write another book (her last book called The Turbulent Decade described the 1990s and concentrated on her role as the world's principal spokesperson for tens of millions of refugees). But it will be more about Japan this time. I have to be careful not to be too critical! (Laughs)

What is Japan's role in the world?

As the country's development agency and link with many overseas countries, JICA is at the edge of Japan and at the edge of the world and this can be a very worrying situation. Japan has many privileges and JICA's mission has been to share some of these with the rest of the world. Japan is an island country but we must change more. We have to become wiser, quicker in doing things. After World War II many people, including myself, went abroad to study and we began opening up to the world. In the wake of Japan's earthquake and tsunami, a project called tomodachi (friendship) began between the U.S. and Japan. And I suddenly think ‘This is like post-World War II all over again.’ We have become more globalized but not quite enough.

What one particularly poignant incident do you recall from such a long career?

We were trying at UNHCR to bring so many people back to their homes in the Balkans. And there was a little boy. He came along to me and he said "Mrs. Ogata, would you take me home?" I still remember that little boy. He must have been seven or eight. "Would you take me home?" That was our job.

Did you get him home?

Eventually. But a little boy trusting you to that extent. That's pretty overwhelming.

Final word?

It's been a long and exciting journey.


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