JICA Ogata Research Institute

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【JICA-RI Focus Vol.5】Interview with Research Fellow Megumi Muto

May 12, 2009

Unique data empowers Japan's aid objectives -- Interview with Ms. Megumi Muto, JICA-RI Research Fellow

MUTOOH, Megumi

At the "Cities at Risk" workshop hosted in Bangkok in February 2009 by the International Council for Science and other academic institutions, JICA-RI Research Fellow Ms. Megumi Muto presented an interim report on the impact of climate change on Asian coastal cities under the global warming scenario by 2050. Her research, which also considers adaptation measures to alleviate this impact, is part of a joint study with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Ms. Muto’s case study on Manila, integrating climate, hydro and socioeconomic analyses, intrigued specialists in climate change and urban planning alike.

As she often crisscrosses various sectors, from climate to education to infrastructure, in tackling a wide range of topics, we asked her about her intended research direction.

Recent Studies

Your analysis of the climate-change impact on Asian cities is quite innovative. What prompted you to start it?

JICA retains various survey data from its many years of official development assistance (ODA) activities, but these have largely been underused to analyze and identify effective measures to face new challenges in development because they are scattered among different departments. In my analysis of climate change, I integrated this data to demonstrate a unique JICA approach to the issue.
In climate change analysis, socioeconomic issues, such as the impact of rising temperature and sea-level on human activities, are increasingly seen as important. They lead to the issue of adaptation, asking what sort of flood-control infrastructure or community disaster prevention measures are best considered to protect people. This in turn requires a review of infrastructure planning, including flood control and urban transportation, with reference to changes in climate.

Other international aid organizations have long been inactive in infrastructure projects amid the trend prevailing since the mid-1990s of direct countermeasures against poverty. JICA, however, has remained continuously involved with infrastructure building through its three aid schemes (yen loan, grant and technical cooperation) and thus is now well-armed with relevant data compared to its counterpart organizations elsewhere.

Due to this circumstance, I was able in my study to integrate Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) analysis with flood control and urban traffic data accumulated through JICA’s activities. Furthermore, by incorporating newly collected urban poor household and firm data, I was also able to fine-tune the socioeconomic analysis on the impact of climate-change on Asian coastal cities. Integrating this data is harder than it sounds, as it requires aligned analysis of utterly different specialty areas including climate change, flood control, urban socioeconomics and poverty. With guidance from Japanese academics and experts, we are now on the final phase of this joint study with the World Bank and ADB. Presentation of the interim report at the Cities at Risk workshop boosted my confidence in this challenging study.

You are currently involved with a wide range of research topics, from the environment to education to infrastructure. Is there an underlying theme among them?

There are many examples of bottlenecks in development resulting from the mingling of different research sectors. When we go deep into the mountains of a developing country on an education project, for example, we may realize immediately that the lack of proper roads is discouraging students from attending school and teachers from commuting.

Nonetheless, the relevance of road connectivity to the education sector has only recently reached the discussion table. Education specialists seem to have difficulty accepting or analyzing the concept that infrastructure provision has an impact on education; similarly, infrastructure specialists rarely include the travel patterns of students and teachers in their traffic analyses.

The strength of Japanese development assistance staff is that their initial training is in field work. I have been involved with many on-site aid activities, including infrastructure, education and agriculture projects as a staff of the former Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund and Japan Bank for International Cooperation. We have focused on our clients without a sector bias. We didn’t wait until we became area specialists to visit the field.

Yet that strength turns out to be a drawback at international conferences. Staff of aid organizations of other countries or of international aid organizations are lauded as specialists in a specific area. But these specialists tend to pursue a black-and-white, two-dimensional approach to development tasks, praising one area (e.g. education) and denying another (e.g. infrastructure). I am constantly thinking of measures which we, as a Japanese aid organization, can adopt to disrupt this unrealistic approach and promote the best interests of our clients.

Through trial and error I have learned that the most effective means for persuading specialists is to present them with dissertations of data-rich, empirical analysis in conjunction with viewpoints that transcend specialties. For example, the World Bank presented an empirical analysis demonstrating that electricity helps increase children’s study hours, thereby shedding light on the nearly forgotten infrastructure sector.

Another example is provided by a JICA-RI paper on Indonesia published as part of the companion volume of the World Development Report 2009, subtitled “Reshaping Economic Geography.” The JICA-RI paper demonstrated that even in remote villages small-scale businesses such as agro-processing industries can benefit from expansion of the regional road network. Empirical analysis like this enhances the credibility of Japan’s ODA program in the international community.

Ambitions as a JICA Researcher

What kind of personal contributions would you like to make to Japan’s ODA?

I consider my researcher role to be equivalent to the role of the setter in volleyball. Setters process balls from the receivers into offensive form for the attackers to spike into the other court. To continue my analogy, the receivers are the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, senior professionals or representative office staff who address various assistance needs on site, and the attackers are those who engage in discussions with international organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank.

How do you differentiate your style from previous development aid research?

Previously there have been many receivers in Japanese ODA who pick up balls (development issues) on site with keen awareness, and there have been attackers who speak up for the Japanese position at international conferences. But good setters to process the receivers’ balls have been few, so that not many balls (i.e., persuasive empirical analytical papers) reached the attackers. Even when a receiver passed a salient issue on to an attacker, the ball was often disregarded as a single, unique case without wider relevance.

International communication requires a team with each member playing a different role. The receiver picks up issues, the setter processes them into solid papers and the attacker hits them into the international fora.

Do you mean that you have been creating a new position, one which did not previously exist in Japan’s aid program?

I think it is a brand new position. This institute itself is new and just beginning to breathe, so the lack of such a position is not surprising. I believe that other researchers are also seeking their own setter presence through trial and error. A good setter is able to advise the attacker on effective offense and also alert the receiver not to drop certain issues.

What are your hopes for the researcher’s role as a setter in Japan’s future ODA?

We are still warming up as a team at the new JICA-RI. Now that our plays are starting to reflect good teamwork, research is more enjoyable than ever. My ultimate goal is to properly bridge the receiver and the attacker in Japan’s aid program so that those in the other court will not only be able to see our faces but also to understand fully what is inside our minds.

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