Table Speech

Volunteer Activities with the Spirit of Mutual Help

August 24, 2016

Ms. Mari Christine
Inter-Cultural Communications

 I visited the mountainous areas in northern Thailand about 20 years ago and learnt that children fall victim to child trafficking and exploitation. I interviewed local school teachers and was told that parents wouldn’t need to sell their children if schools were built and children were taught to read, write and calculate. Different hill tribes inhabit along the borders of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. As they speak only indigenous languages, children cannot enroll in Thai-speaking schools. They become vulnerable targets for brokers and end up in the sex industry.

 I myself being a mother, I felt a strong urge to address this issue and established a non-governmental organization “Asian Women and Children’s Network” in 1997. Thanks to generous contributions by companies, we could build 10 schools in the first 10 years where about 6,000 children got enrolled. After the Great East Japan Earthquake, I received an encouraging letter from a student who had graduated from one of these schools. I learnt the student majored in Japanese at university and became a school teacher of Japanese and English. I realized anew the importance to focus on long-term objectives. When I started our activities 20 years ago, the European terms like “volunteer” and “CSR” didn’t really click with many Japanese. But we have a long culture of helping one another in time of need. This exactly is “volunteer” for Japanese people.

 We launched the “henhouse project” to improve the nutritional status of children in rural areas of Thailand. I noticed children had brown hair caused by iodine deficiency. I learnt eggs were a rich source of iodine and launched this eco-friendly project. We started by building latrines with a three-stage sanitary chamber using gravel, sands and palm leaves to filter human waste into liquid waste. The wastewater is not potable but can be used for fish breeding. We placed the henhouse above the wastewater tub with fish, so chicken droppings turned into fish feed. It is surely a superb old-fashioned sustainable ecosystem.

 Through many years of activities, I realized that we were providing assistance not only to the children in rural areas but to the people of all generations. We were actually building and networking the whole community centered around the school. All villagers shared the value of school and education to improve their standard of living.

 My experience of community building in Thailand led me to become the Goodwill Ambassador of UN-HABITAT in 2000. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (commonly referred to as “HABITAT”) is an UN agency to address various challenges of urbanization and to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities. We launched an authorized NPO “Japan HABITAT Association” in 2001 as a partner organization to further promote various initiatives taken by UN-HABITAT.

 One initiative was to implement reconstruction assistance for Afghanistan. Radical Muslims oppose women’s education and insist women should stay home for child-rearing. When the war finally came to an end in Afghanistan, however, we witnessed on the news many women were rushing for enrollment in Kabul University. These women had secretly continued their studies at home, without attending high schools. UN-HABITAT had actually played an instrumental role in assisting women’s education by advocating the importance of child-care and hygiene directly to women, taking advantage of the Muslim culture which separates men’s community from women’s. This case shows it is more effective to assist community building through culturally-competent initiatives which respect local culture in an inclusive manner.

 We tend to think that we share common values based on a global standard. But we could end up creating a gulf between our counterparts if we try to impose our values on them or instruct them based on our way of thinking. It is important to understand and respect other cultures and try to work in concert.

 I was impressed to see many Japanese athletes representing our country at the Rio Olympics this month. They acted confidently as true cosmopolitans. I hope Tokyo will become a true international city by 2020 when we host the Olympic Games. We hope to raise young adults with a global perspective, while having a sense of pride and self-awareness on the affluence of our country. It is also my sincere wish that they feel motivated to work towards bringing affluence to other parts of the world.

 I visited the largest urban slum in the world Kibera on my UN-HABITAT mission to Kenya. As I walked through the passages, I was constantly looking down to be extra careful not to step on filth scattered everywhere. But I was told to keep looking up to avoid the “flying toilets.” I learnt that people lived in dwellings without proper toilets, so they used plastic bags to collect human waste and threw them as far away as possible at nighttime. I was astounded to witness the reality of slum life. But I also thought Japan could provide its excellent water and sewage treatment technologies to improve their living. Japan has superior technologies and mechanisms gained through overcoming hardships and difficulties. We can make contributions for the betterment of the world by rendering service with the spirit of mutual help.