Keynote Speech

JOCV at 50 - Lessons for Volunteering and the SDGs


2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, which is widely recognized as a representative of Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA). Since its establishment as one of Japan’s technical cooperation schemes in 1965, the program has adopted many changes to meet both foreign and domestic expectations, building on lessons learned and good practices. What achievements have been made by JICA volunteers? What are the key points for JICA in working towards the SDGs through its volunteer program?

Full Speech

Good morning everyone.

Thank you all for coming.

I am delighted to be here with you today. Japan International Cooperation Agency, or JICA, is the implementing arm of Japan’s Official Development Assistance. Guided by its vision of “Inclusive and Dynamic Development,” JICA is engaged in various activities to address the global challenges facing developing countries.

JICA provides a wide range of tailored and context-specific assistance to meet the needs of partner countries. We finance large scale infrastructure development projects via concessional loans, as well as implement community development initiatives at the grassroots level through technical cooperation.

Probably much like the organizations represented here, people-to-people interactions is one of the pillars of Japan’s international cooperation efforts. Through these personal interactions, JICA’s activities foster relationships of trust with partner countries. This level of trust helps contribute to their human resource development and strengthen the foundation for nation-building. JICA supports human resource development by using various cooperation schemes, including the dispatch of experts to countries and inviting participants to professional training programs in Japan. Another key modality is our international volunteer program.

The JICA volunteer program provides Japanese citizens the opportunity to engage in a range of activities that support the economic and social development of a country. This year, we are proud to celebrate JOCV’s fiftieth anniversary. In 1965, we dispatched our first volunteers to Laos, Kenya, the Philippines, Malaysia and Cambodia. To date, more than 48,000 volunteers have been dispatched to 96 countries, their presence has become a symbol of Japan’s international cooperation.

JICA sets three goals for its volunteer programs. They are: (1) to contribute to the socio-economic development or reconstruction of developing countries and regions, (2) to strengthen friendship and mutual understanding between developing countries and Japan, and (3) to cultivate global perspectives and give back to Japanese society the fruits of volunteer experience. As you can see, the volunteer program aims to benefit both host countries and Japan. Working towards these goals has produced successful results, and our approach has been applauded by various development stakeholders.

Looking back on over fifty years of engagement, there is a sheer multitude of volunteer success stories that I wish I could share today. The activities carried out by individual volunteers are much smaller in scale than those implemented by large development cooperation programs. However, they have an undeniable long-term impact on the lives they touch. Over time, volunteer activities have facilitated behavior change and improved community members’ skills. Through community engagement and tireless effort, the sum of these activities have contributed to the socio-economic development of each country, in sectors including education, health, environmental sustainability, gender equality, governance and poverty reduction.

I think that the greatest value our volunteers bring forth is fostering people-to-people interactions at the grassroots level. Our volunteers are conscious of respecting local practices and value systems, and they carry out innovative, creative activities in close collaboration with local community members. By immersing themselves in the local community, the volunteers can have a better understanding of the community needs. They can work with residents to respond to meet their needs quickly and in a flexible manner. One illustrative example I would like to share is that of the village of Atwa, in Ghana, where a volunteer worked with the community members to start a pineapple farm. Although the village had cultivated pineapple before, it had not done so in a systematic way. The volunteer proposed creating a farmers’ association to improve production and sales. After founding the association, the volunteer and 70 local farmers established a pineapple farm that eventually grew into a thriving local business. Today, the pineapple farm has become a key source of income for the village, and farmers in surrounding communities have also turned to pineapple farming. The success of the initiative is highlighted by the fact that these communities are now exporting their product as far as Europe.

There are also examples of volunteer-initiated projects that were scaled-up and eventually evolved into JICA flagship projects. One such example is that of JOCV volunteers’ contributions to producing the mathematics textbooks currently in use in Guatemala. When volunteers saw the children doing even large addition by drawing sticks on the edge of their notebooks, the volunteers were inspired to develop improved textbooks and teaching guides that better explained mathematical concepts. These new learning and teaching materials have contributed to making math more enjoyable for students. As a result, the students’ level of engagement in class and their test results have also progressed. The Ministry of Education recognized these vast improvements and the textbooks were adopted as the national textbook in 2007. Currently, students are using these textbooks in schools throughout Guatemala.

In addition, by having volunteer programs collaborate with other JICA cooperation schemes, we can more easily reach local communities. One example is our nurse training program in Laos. JICA dispatched training experts to nursing schools, financed the construction of hospitals, and had JOCV members supporting on-the-job training of nursing students in a local hospital. Through these multiple mechanisms, we were able to contribute to strengthening the health sector by improving nurses’ skill level at various points of intervention.

Over the last fifty years, these volunteer initiatives have been implemented in a range of ways and have produced many positive results. Developed in collaboration with local community members, JICA’s volunteer programs have truly aspired to promote inclusive development.

Last month, the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted at the UN General Assembly. As you all know, the SDGs contain 17 goals and 169 targets. To address the increasingly diverse, complex and wide-ranging developmental issues, JICA will continue to make use of various cooperation schemes.

Amongst the many aid modalities, I believe that volunteer programs play an important role. One of the strengths of the volunteers is that they live in and work closely with local communities. In other words, volunteers can contribute to giving voices to those who are not often heard, including marginalized groups, and ensure that they resonate at the national level.

In order to leverage volunteer programs so that they can contribute to achieving the SDGs, it is important to improve the quality and impact of volunteer programs moving forward. To achieve this, we must consider several important points. I think these points will be discussed in the next presentation, but I would like to bring your attention to three major ones:

  1. Collaborating with diverse actors in development cooperation
  2. Providing returned volunteers a platform to give back to their community, and
  3. Measuring and disseminating evaluation results of volunteer programs

(1) Collaboration with diverse actors in development cooperation On the first point about collaborating with diverse actors, we must note that emerging economies have begun to provide development assistance and volunteer programs through their own development institutions. Today we have representatives from institutions managing volunteer activities from ASEAN, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Mexico, and Togo. JICA has been promoting South-South Cooperation with many of these countries, though we have not done as much to advance collaboration with volunteer programs. Moving forward, I believe that we must work more closely with institutions that manage volunteer programs to produce a synergistic effect and build on each other’s strengths. We do have some on-going partnerships, including the JICA – KOICA collaboration in the Philippines, where our volunteers are supporting disaster-affected areas. JICA and KOICA volunteers are collaborating to provide an education to children affected by Typhoon Haiyan. Another example is the collaboration between the African Union and the Japan Overseas Cooperation Association (JOCA). JOCA is an organization that promotes the activities of returned volunteers. Under the AU-JOCA Collaboration Program, young volunteers from Africa visited Japan and worked with returned Japanese volunteers. This allowed participating African youth to collaborate with their Japanese counterparts and deepen their understanding of Japanese culture.

JICA has also concluded partnership agreements with many Japanese corporations, local governments, and universities. These arrangements facilitate these institutions’ staff members’ participation in JICA volunteer programs. Their experiences, knowledge, and technology has allowed us to strengthen the reach and quality of our volunteer program. JICA can continue to serve as the hub for mobilizing local knowledge, technologies, and human resources in development cooperation.

(2) Second, I would like to address the promotion of activities for returned volunteers and giving back to society.

While the MDGs are focused on developing countries, the SDGs are broader in reaching. They encompass goals and targets for developed countries. Therefore, we think that volunteers have an important role to play in contributing to reaching Japan’s SDGs upon their return to Japan.

Returned volunteers apply many of the skills, perspectives and experiences they gained while working abroad in the jobs they take up in Japan, be it in domestic or foreign businesses, local governments, educational institutions, international organizations, and NGOs, among others. For example, over one hundred returned volunteers have taken staff positions at the Reconstruction Agency and other NGOs supporting the community-led reconstruction efforts in the areas devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Many others have come to engage with JICA after returning to Japan. To date, about 2,700 experts and 300 JICA staff members are former volunteers who have invested in Japan’s development cooperation activities. Moreover, 1,100 former volunteers have become teachers in Japan, thereby sharing global perspectives to their students. Therefore, it is undeniable that volunteer programs produce professionals who are very aware of the global agenda.

It is important to give them a platform to continue engaging in volunteer activities both locally and abroad. JICA will continue supporting returned volunteers so that they can participate in a wide range of activities making use of their overseas experience upon their return to Japan.

(3) Dissemination of evaluation and results of volunteer programs

Finally, we think it is important to properly evaluate our volunteer programs and disseminate the results. Based on clear evidence, we must assess how they engage with communities, their achievements, and their impacts. The achievements of volunteers’ activities tend to be captured mainly by human stories that are difficult to quantify, but it is important to collect data as well. We must also refer to quantitative data and supplement success stories with hard evidence that we can disseminate widely. We should develop indicators that can measure the volunteer programs’ contributions towards each SDG target and monitor and evaluate them closely.

Measuring and evaluating volunteer programs will help track how volunteers are contributing to the SDGs. It will also allow many citizens, including volunteers themselves, to recognize the significance of volunteer activities. This could motivate more individuals to participate in volunteer programs. It also brings to light that though volunteering can at times be trying and challenging, it is a truly life-changing experience that is in every way worth the time and effort.

At this meeting, I hope you will all participate in active discussions and share effective proposals and suggestions on how our volunteer programs can better work towards the achievement of SDGs.

Last but not least, the circumstance surrounding people are increasingly becoming complex and threatening, as evident in the occurrence of natural disasters, intensified conflicts, and outbreak of cross-border epidemics. I sincerely hope that we can also work together to extend effective measures to assure safety of the people and their livelihood, including that of the volunteers.

In closing my speech, I would like to express my great respect to all the volunteers and related institutions, for their noble spirit of volunteering. Thank you