Interview With Executive Director Mine Yoichi: Becoming “Translators” to Co-Create Knowledge by Bridging the Gap Between Different Stakeholders
Mine Yoichi was appointed as executive director of the JICA Ogata Sadako Research Institute for Peace and Development (JICA Ogata Research Institute) in April 2023. Fuu Yuzuka, a staff member of the Research Program Division, interviewed Mine to ask him how he would like the institute to grow and about the significance of human security in a world facing multiple, compounded crises.
Fuu Yuzuka, staff member of the Research Program Division, interviews Executive Director Mine Yoichi
Fuu: Please tell us about your area of expertise.
Mine: This is not an easy question to answer. In my high school days, I was often reading philosophy books. At university, I studied history. Over time, I developed a desire to study something that could directly contribute to making the world a better place, so I majored in development economics in graduate school. I made South Africa—at the time plagued by the apartheid regime—my base for fieldwork and started doing research on Africa. When I began to teach at universities, I joined different departments as offered, from international relations to political science to sociology. I think I was wandering around in search of ways to solve problems instead of immersing myself in one area of expertise. In my twenties, there were times when I was not sure about my career plans. How about becoming a Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteer (JOCV)? What about finding a job at an NGO? But in the end, I decided to pursue an academic career because I thought there would be ways to contribute to the world as a professional researcher by writing things that other people would find useful. I think it all turned out well, fortunately, but my young days were full of trial and error.
Fuu: What first got you interested in development?
Mine: As a university student, I became interested in race relations in South Africa. Observing what was happening there, I realized how humans could be both ugly and noble. When I first visited South Africa in 1989, I realized that colonialism and racism are so complex and deep-seated that poverty in developing countries is not simply a matter of being slow in growth or having people who did not work very hard. I think my starting point was around that experience. South Africa is a microcosm of the world. I thought if this country gets better, the world would get better. Starting with field trips to South Africa, I went on to visit other African and Asian countries and gradually broadened my perspective.
Fuu: I heard you also taught at a university in South Africa.
Mine: Yes. As part of a scheme by the Japan Foundation, I worked at the University of Stellenbosch from 1998 to give lectures on the Japanese and Asian development experience . For one year, I did this from Japan by traveling to South Africa and then moved there for two years. At that time, Nelson Mandela was still alive and the atmosphere in the country was optimistic and forward-looking. Many people wanted to overcome racial differences and help build a new nation. It was a turning point for me to work as a member of a local tertiary institution where there was almost no other East Asian faculty member or even student. So-called Japanese common sense did not apply. In addition, since my wife and small children accompanied me, I was able to see how local society functioned through things like school activities. In South Africa, I saw blatant inequality and poverty, but one gets used to their presence the longer you stay. Habituation is frightening. In retrospect, by traveling back and forth between Japan and South Africa, I avoided getting used to South Africa’s situation, or in other words, I kept my interest in both societies alive. Most of my colleagues at the university were scholars of political science, which was not my discipline. I was able to learn a lot from them.
Fuu: I think you benefited from doing interdisciplinary, cross-cutting research, didn’t you?
Mine: In the course of life, it is very important to concentrate on a specific field, like craftworkers do. JICA’s diverse projects have worked thanks to the dedication of leading experts dispatched to the field. However, we should note that the challenges are complex. Think about when children are vaccinated at school. Surely teachers will not say that they are just education specialists and have no idea about health care. When the children ask the teachers why they have to get their shots, the teachers should be able to explain. If you want to address development challenges in a holistic way, it is better to have an understanding of related fields of expertise or at least an interest in them. Information about how problems are solved in other fields may also be useful. In addition, I think there is a demand for those who can professionally serve like translators between different fields of expertise. In this sense, perhaps it was not a bad thing that I did research in various fields with a cross-cutting approach. To some extent, my experience may be useful at the JICA Ogata Research Institute, where members carry out a wide range of activities.
Fuu: Please tell us about your involvement with the JICA Ogata Research Institute and the kind of studies you have conducted so far.
Mine: When Madam Ogata Sadako became the president of JICA in 2003, she introduced the concept of human security to the organization. The following year, a research project on human security and poverty reduction was launched at the Institute for International Cooperation (the predecessor of the JICA Ogata Research Institute). My first contact with the institute was when I was invited to join this project. Since then, I have been involved with the institute for nearly 20 years. Among other things, I have participated in a project on conflict prevention in Africa and a series of projects studying the dynamic process of acceptance and diffusion of human security in East Asia. Recently, in March 2023, my book, Oral History of Development Cooperation: Beyond Crises, was published in Japanese as an outcome of the research project “Japan’s Development Cooperation: A Historical Perspective.” This book draws on interviews with over 200 people. The majority of interviewees were deliberately sampled from counterparts in developing countries instead of Japanese stakeholders. Oral history based on the narratives of aid recipients is hardly available in any donor country, but I think this research method captures the true feelings of counterparts through interviews and can be used in other research projects as well.
Fuu: I feel that human security is deeply connected to both the JICA Ogata Research Institute and you. Could you tell us how the concept of human security has changed in the face of recent compounded crises?
Mine: I think the biggest change over the past three decades is that human security has become something for everyone. Human-security-based concepts such as people’s resilience to threats, the pledge to leave no one behind, and human dignity, have become popular in many countries. Human security issues are increasingly seen as worthy of serious attention as well. In the mid-1990s, when the concept of human security was proposed, it was thought to be important as an instrument to make post-Cold War peace take root. Although peace has always been fragile throughout history, back then, we thought that international order was heading toward stability. However, over the three decades since then, the challenges to human security have become increasingly complex, severe, and pervasive. We see the impacts of climate change in our daily lives. In addition, the war in Ukraine, a large-scale war of aggression by a state which is something we thought would never happen again, broke out. This war is exacerbating inflation and energy and food crises. We also clearly remember how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the economy and the lives of people around the world. I think the concept of human security is crucial in addressing these challenges.
Fuu: I think the role that research institutes should play under such circumstances is enormous. How do you think the JICA Ogata Research Institute, as an institute established as part of a bilateral development agency, can contribute to human security?
Mine: JICA is an agency under the Japanese government. As such, JICA is first of all expected to draw lessons from Japan’s own development experience and articulate and disseminate its strengths. Meanwhile, global agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and human security are important to both developing and developed countries and need to be worked on globally. Given JICA’s commitment to the development of nations in the Global South, our institute is better positioned to co-create practical knowledge through close collaboration with our counterparts in the Global South. It is important to specify the needs of people exposed to serious and pervasive risks in developing countries. This is something we are expected to do, because we are a research organization affiliated with an agency that has been committed to nation-building and capacity building for the people of the developing world.
Mine poses in front of the Nelson Mandela statue at Union Buildings, Pretoria.
Fuu: As executive director of the institute, what would you like to focus on?
Mine: I have been involved in the activities of the JICA Ogata Research Institute for a couple of decades now, but when I took up this position that allows me to see the big picture for the first time, I was surprised by the breadth and depth of the knowledge accumulated through its research activities. It was as if I were being blown away by the spectacular 360-degree view from the top of Mount Fuji. This is why I would like to begin by increasing the visibility of our activities. I want to make the research activities of the institute known nationally and globally, particularly in the Global South. On top of that, it would be wonderful if we could launch studies that not only follow global development agendas but are also ahead of the curve in creating new frameworks. In doing so, we should encourage collaboration between practitioners and researchers. I also hope to get everyone at the institute to think about the future vision of the institute, for example, about how the institute might look like in 2050. In addition, I personally think it would be great to launch a study that addresses the complex, compounded crises that Africa is facing today. Now that face-to-face conversations are doable again, I would like to promote lively discussions between researchers both inside and outside the institute.
Fuu: I suppose that in order to address compounded crises, it is important for JICA and international organizations to collaborate with other players, including the private sector, civil society, universities, and local governments. What do you think the JICA Ogata Research Institute can do in this respect?
Mine: I think the institute can grow into a hub for collaboration exactly like that. To begin with, JICA itself has various divisions working on different issues and geographical regions, which carry out a variety of operations. But if we are not careful, each section can end up in its own silo, unable to look beyond its own work. In fact, JICA is much better than universities in this regard, as a culture of openness exists and personnel shift across different sections takes place. However, I think we can do even better through the efforts of the JICA Ogata Research Institute, which is a small organization yet has a comprehensive scope. More importantly, as you mentioned, we need to network with stakeholders outside of JICA. Our institute is expected to provide a platform to a wide range of stakeholders for solving common challenges. We often say that we should do something creative. But the fact is that new things do not emerge out of nowhere. Creative ideas are born from unexpected combinations of existing things. The co-creation of knowledge through the joint efforts of different actors is the ultimate goal of the JICA Ogata Research Institute. I hope that we ourselves will become a team of translators that can bridge various communities of expertise and become a hub for an even wider range of stakeholders. The institute will attract all kinds of people from within and outside of Japan, and encourage researchers at the institute to interact more with outside experts. In this way, I hope the new knowledge will gradually take shape.
Fuu: Thank you.
Executive Director Mine Yoichi