JICA Ogata Research Institute

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【JICA-RI Focus Vol.21】 Interview with Research Associate Mine Sato

April 20, 2012

Promoting Interdisciplinary Research on Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers: Research Associate Mine Sato talks about the first full-scale research on JOCV in Japan.

What impact does the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) program have on the Japanese youth who have joined it? A unique research project is underway, following changes in their awareness, and attempting to create an encompassing and interdisciplinary summation of the outcomes and agendas of JOCV program. Mine Sato, Research Associate as well as JOCV alumna, has been deeply engaged in the research from the start. She talked about the approach JICA-RI has taken and about the interdisciplinary research on JOCV.


The Concept Started with “People”

You joined JOCV for two years between  1997 and 1999. Was this your first experience with living in developing countries?

I worked in Nicaragua, in Central America, as a Rural Development Facilitator.  It was my first experience to live and work in a developing country. Looking back my two-year engagement, it is definitely a great asset as it has changed my perspectives on developing countries. When I was an undergraduate in Japan, and later a graduate in Wales of UK, I researched the effects of micro-credit scheme such as the Grameen Bank on empowering women. During this period, my concept was somewhat like; “women in developing nations face a number of social and economic hardships, and we need to offer them solutions, or when our guidance doesn’t work well, we must advise them indirectly.” I, however, found that people with limited economic opportunities had knowledge of how to live well on low incomes and sometimes had more skills than us. I also found that developing countries are rich in resources at least in many Latin American countries, although we were told that they aren’t. As far as the developing countries utilize the resources efficiently, a lot of things could be done, which I found out during my stay as a JOCV.

Having spent two years in Nicaragua as a volunteer, I headed to the United States to get my doctorate, a PhD in Humanities (Social Anthropology). Then, I went back to Nicaragua to serve as a JICA Expert in Participatory Development in a public health project. I also gained working experience at UNICEF and the then JBIC as a Social Development Expert/Country Officer, while working as a part-time lecturer at universities and as a collaborative researcher at a research institute.

What types of work were you engaged in at UNICEF and JBIC?

At UNICEF, I was assigned to the Pakistan Office, and mainly responsible for HIV/AIDS programs. What I particularly focused on was how we could design prevention activities especially for youth in consideration of Pakistani culture and tradition. So I needed to come up with prevention plans that matched the local culture and to create educational materials for raising awareness. I also managed awareness programs for influential religious leaders so that they could disseminate appropriate knowledge on HIV/AIDS preventions for the youth. At then JBIC, I was mainly responsible for reinforcing social development elements in ODA loan projects. For example, my work includes not only just loaning the necessary funds for an afforestation project, but including a complete social development package such as community organizations and micro-finance components.

In a word, all of my researches start off with “people.” My starting-point is how people and groups in the developing countries can develop their abilities to tackle their issues autonomously and how systems and institutions could be shaped for this purpose. With this idea in mind, I have engaged in qualitative researches, utilizing my specialty of developmental anthropology at JICA-RI.

What sort of research projects are you involved with at JICA-RI?

I am involved with a project related to capacity development (CD). In this research I conceptually examine previous approaches and learn from case studies, furthermore drawing out more effective approaches in order to help individuals and groups develop their abilities.  As a concrete example, I dealt with a case study of an urban slum re-development in Columbia and analyzed the process of how the residents learn, improve and enhance their living environment with indirect support from previous donors.

Another project that I was involved with is a research on irrigation development and farmers’ organization in Malawi where a totally opposite perspective to that of Columbia was used. In contrast to the presupposition of the participatory development that premises “residents are bound to cooperate,” a question was raised that “why people don’t cooperate.”  The research took a rather skeptical approach: it tried to explore what kind of struggle was taking place over resources after the arrangement of a small-scale irrigation and why cooperation among people works well when the cooperative relationship among residents is well built up.

I am currently working on finalizing the Working Paper (WP) on CD, and I have already published a co-authored WP on Malawi last November. I hope that many people will read them and am planning to submit them to domestic and foreign academic journals.

JOCV Research Using JICA-RI’s Comparative Advantage

An interdisciplinary research on JOCV is one of the planned research projects. Do you feel attached to it since you served as an overseas volunteer before?

JOCV is a research theme which I have been involved with since the launch. Its aim is to analyze the results and agendas of JOCV program comprehensively. We have already started a survey, handing out questionnaires to all the volunteers at a pre-assignment training. I will look into how their awareness changes in a cycle; pre-departure, dispatching period, and a period of a couple of years after their return. Analyzing the outcomes, we will observe how JOCV program changed their awareness over a long period. It will probably take at least five years for a completion of one cycle.
What I want to concentrate on most is the research area related to cross-cultural understanding. What I have learned from the response of the questionnaires was that one in five volunteers still did not feel that they could culturally adjust themselves, even after one and half a year on their return to Japan. I think this is a pity since they had an intensive training and served as volunteers, investing their two years. As one of ex-volunteers myself, I feel that it would be ideal if they could reduce stress and enjoy their time to maximize their capacities as volunteers. I would like to find out what some relevant policy recommendations are regarding this issue.

Currently, I am reading through the past materials and reports of JOCV volunteers to analyze how they have recognized the local people they associated with. Although this finding is preliminary, the volunteers are unlikely to recognize the people as “the others.”  In general, we tend to think that it is difficult to understand a different culture and its people since Japan is an island nation. But, judging from linguistical and cultural point of view, I’m not sure about it. I would like to give a message to new volunteers with the interdisciplinary evidence that the places where they will stay are unique but aren’t much different from Japan. Verifying the hypothesis is one of the objectives of my current research.

The other objective is to specify criteria of “what good volunteer activities are,” so that  the volunteers’ could share a similar vision. A JOCV program has three goals: contributing to the economic and social development and restoration of developing countries, deepening ties of friendship and mutual understanding and fostering an international viewpoint and giving something back to society through volunteer experiences. However, the criteria of good volunteer activities are vague when this goal is applied to the individual level. Using frameworks of developmental anthropology, I am trying to generate a hypothesis that transposes this vision to the individual level, and analyze good case examples publicized in the media in an attempt to verify the hypothesis.

I also would like to conduct a further research on what situation volunteers feel cross-cultural stress in by analyzing and classifying the results of the questionnaires, reports and interviews. On top of this, I am hoping that my research could be of some help to onsite coordinators who consult with volunteers.

A five-year-long cycle is quite a long-term research project. What stage are you at now?

The research was launched at last December, and we have created a system for the questionnaires and made them accessible on the Web. I am intending to go ahead with my analysis of the results, coordinating the areas I am interested in with the meaning in society, and trying to present the first-year result in Working Papers.

This is the first example of interdisciplinary research on JOVC, and I believe that JICA-RI’s comparative advantage enables researchers in political science, quantitative analysis, and qualitative analysis, such as me, to collaborate and work together.

In the Triangle of Research, Education, and Field Work, can you tell us your future goal?

I would not put too much importance on where I belong as I have involved with all the triangle of research, education, and so-called field work, depending on my interests and job opportunities. In the research field, the job market is quite tight and just speaking up that I want to conduct research doesn’t automatically guarantee a position as a researcher. I may carry on with my research at a university, teaching students at the same time, doing the fieldwork, or getting involved with international cooperation projects. It depends on a job opportunity.

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