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Saturday, Dec. 31, 2005

Overseas challenges attractive for JICA senior volunteers

Staff writer

When Setsuko Inoue was 57 years old, she quit her job as a principal at an elementary school in Tokyo's Suginami Ward and served as a volunteer worker for a day-care center for physically and mentally disabled children in Nepal.

News photo
Senior volunteer Joji Noguchi (center right) poses with villagers at Lastic Hill in St. Lucia's capital in November 2003 after helping to clean up the village with ther Japanese volunteers.

It may have seemed a big change for her family and friends, especially since Inoue never lived overseas, but the decision was natural for Inoue, who has taught in classes for physically and mentally disabled children throughout her career.

"I wanted to be more involved with children in the classroom," said Inoue, who is now 59. "But as an administrator, I no longer had that chance."

So she quit her job, applied for the senior volunteer system sponsored by the government-affiliated Japan International Cooperation Agency and flew to Nepal after passing JICA's screening process.

An increasing number of people in the older generation eager to make use of their knowledge and experience are attracted to JICA's senior volunteer system overseas.

In 1998, JICA sent 58 people as senior volunteers but the number jumped to 368 in 2004. More than 4,000 people attended JICA-sponsored meetings on senior volunteers held last October and November nationwide.

With their expertise, senior volunteers between 40 and 69 years old are sent abroad for two years to give advice, draft manuals and transfer technology to local staff.

The system was introduced in 1991 as part of the government's effort to curb unemployment when many workers in the older generation were laid off after the burst of the bubble economy in the late 1980s.

Although participants are volunteers, JICA covers living expenses and housing fees for them that are, at times, criticized as lavish.

Naoaki Omiya, director for JICA's recruitment and assignment team, admitted the ample expenses lured applicants who considered the post as a job instead of volunteer work.

But the number of applicants decreased this year after JICA decided to slash monthly living expenses by $800 on average due to the government's tight budget, Omiya said. They now receive between $560 to $1,300 per month, depending on the nation they are sent to, plus housing fees.

"We hope to shift the system into one more volunteer-oriented," Omiya said.

However, the cutbacks on expenses are making potential applicants like Eiki Kanome, who would not have a second income, such as pension, or those who need to support their family, think twice.

"It may be easier for pensioners and retirees who have other means of income to participate," Kanome said. "But those in the 40s and 50s would be reluctant to take part" if the benefits are cut more.

Kanome, 59, a potter from Mashiko, Tochigi Prefecture, well-known for pottery, was dispatched twice as an adviser for pottery workshops and factories: once between 2000 and 2002 to Thailand and again in Malaysia from 2003 to November.

He also served as JICA's overseas volunteer in Ethiopia for three years when he was 26.

Kanome and many others feel the senior volunteering system is a good way for Japan to help developing countries and nurture friendly relations at the grassroots level.

Despite their aspirations, many face difficulties in adapting local customs and, at times, persuading local staff to change how they have been doing their work.

Joji Noguchi, 69, was surprised at how "carefree" locals were about work when he was sent to the Caribbean nation of St. Lucia as a construction adviser for an organization aimed at building social infrastructure until March.

The mission for Noguchi, who has worked in a construction company for 40 years as an architect, was to check construction procedures with local staff, including planning, making estimates and placing orders.

"But workers would start digging holes before the blueprint was ready," Noguchi said. "They would play it by ear and their bookkeeping was sloppy."

Noguchi made a checklist to help staff monitor the procedures, but he couldn't persuade them to use it.

In another case, Inoue, who was dispatched until October to Bhaktapur, Nepal, near Katmandu, said she had trouble persuading local staff not to inflict physical punishment at the day-care center for physically and mentally disabled children.

"They tied mentally disabled children to their desks and chairs so they won't move around when trying to teach them to read and write," she said. "So the first thing I did was to stop that."

Inoue also thought that the center's curriculum was too difficult for the children with disabilities, so she made it easier, using colored blocks and picture cards instead of letters and words.

At first, the staff did not listen to her.

"After about six months, the children became more cheerful," Inoue said. "That was when the staff recognized I was doing the right thing."

Inoue is considering going back to Nepal for several months next spring as a short-term senior volunteer.

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