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Saturday, Nov. 3, 2007

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

International group helps shed light on shadows of injustice


Staff writer

Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, you can pretty much expect to find Akiko Mera in the second-floor Oxfam office in a gray, nondescript building in Ueno, Tokyo, surrounded by a half-dozen desks piled high with papers, pamphlets and books. It looks very much like many other decades-old offices, where the daily grind of chores seems to have seeped into the surroundings.

News photo
Akiko Mera (farthest right) and other Oxfam volunteers attend a fundraising event called Tokyo Artist Showcase in Tokyo's Iidabashi in September 2006. OXFAM PHOTO

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Mera's day involves your run-of-the-mill office chores: meetings with staff members, presentations and the checking of e-mails. But despite the seeming drabness, she and her colleagues bring to their modest chamber a certain lightness — a product of their continual efforts to brighten the lives of less fortunate people abroad.

"We do emergency work funding Darfur, we work with people in South Africa who have HIV/AIDS, we have a Mozambique livelihoods program, we do livelihood and disaster management in Cambodia, ethnic minority and livelihood work in India, and we do disaster management advocacy work in the Philippines," says Mera, who joined Oxfam Japan as a communications officer in 2005, two years after the organization was officially registered here as an NPO.

"We work in over 100 countries through what we call long-term development work in communities in need," Mera says. "Our mission statement is 'A just world without poverty' — everything leads to this belief."

Oxfam International is a coalition of agencies that tries to alleviate poverty created by social injustices. The various agencies worldwide help find lasting solutions through development programs, research, lobbying, emergency work and campaigning.

Oxfam Japan has 80 volunteers hailing from dozens of countries. None of the volunteers here are sent abroad to do work — Oxfam Japan is relatively smaller and newer than its sister agencies, so it adopts the more human resource-efficient activity of program-funding — and not everyone makes his or her way to the Ueno office.

"It depends on the volunteer's capacity," Mera explains. "For example, if someone can do Illustrator or Photoshop, they help us with fliers. Some work can be done from home: doing translation work from English to Japanese because all our information comes in English, or administration stuff like shipping and handling. Others hold monthly fundraising events in their local pub, for example.

"But being involved in an NPO is not just about volunteering," Mera says. People (should) feel that taking action is really important."

Like many involved in volunteer organizations, Mera says people who want to get involved often don't because they feel overwhelmed by the grandness of the situation.

"A lot of people have been hesitant to take part because they don't think they can make a difference," she says. "But you can. You can change lives. Even with campaigning, you make an impact on a much larger scale, by helping whole communities get out of poverty situations in a just way."

Among the projects they run is a youth employment program in Laos.

"Because many youth in Laos villages were moving to big cities, we sent students to learn trade or skills that they could take back to their village," she says. "Like how to fix a bike. When they return, they make income, and the village people don't have to travel 20 km to fix their bike, so they can spend more time at their farm (or business) instead. It improves life and makes better use of time."

Another ongoing campaign by Oxfam Japan is a nationwide traveling photo exhibit, housed in such diverse places as companies' lobbies, beauty salons and restaurants.

"We just need a wall," Mera says. "The photos have captions that tell about emergency relief in Darfur or the Pakistan earthquake; other photos focus on education, health systems and other essential services."

Whether it be raising awareness, helping with translations or running fundraising events, the first step, Mera says, is to simply get involved.

"Sign up for a newsletter so you know what's happening where," she says. "There are many things going on, so you can pick and choose. Weekend events can use help. People with weekdays off can come into the office. Be ready for action whenever something happens. Be ready to petition or be at XYZ place when something takes place."

Mera adds that she expects 2008 to be an especially brilliant time because Hokkaido is hosting the Group of Eight summit — prime time for exposure to many of the issues that Oxfam tackles.

"It's an opportunity for a lot of people to stand up and express that they care about these issues," Mera says. "Before G-8 there's always a momentum for people to take part, so we'd like to build up and mobilize people. It's important that we don't just talk about climate change. That's our main focus between now and next year. Essential services will be Oxfam Japan's main focus."

In light of this imminent momentum, and of all the things that still remain in the shadows of injustice, just how long does Mera plan to keep at the daily grind in that gray Ueno office?

"If there's work to be done, I am here!"

Oxfam Japan has a pub quiz — a trivia game in which participants pay a small fee as a donation to Oxfam — every month at Heaven's Door in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo. They will also hold a "trailwalker" meeting Dec. 14. For more information see trailwalker.jp/index-e.html and to learn more about Oxfam Japan, visit english.oxfam.jp


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