Human Security in Today’s Context

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has committed to work for promoting human security as one of its core missions and has been conducting cooperation to deal with a variety of complex and intertwined threats around the world. On the occasion of a symposium held in memory of the late Ogata Sadako in November 2020, The Japan Journal reports on JICA’s activities and approaches to promote human security around the world.

Ogata Sadako, who served as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and President of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), passed away on October 22, 2019. 

Born in 1927, Ogata served as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations, and professor at Sophia University before her appointment as the first Japanese national and the first woman to head the UNHCR in 1991. During her tenure, Ogata worked tirelessly on behalf of refugees and internally displaced people fleeing conflicts around the world including the Gulf War, the conflicts in the Balkans, and the genocide in Rwanda. In 1991, in response to the forced displacement of the Kurdish population in Iraq, she made the important decision to change the UNHCR policy of only supporting refugees after they had crossed national borders to also providing aid to internally displaced people fleeing within their own countries.

Ogata Sadako visits a Palestinian refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria, March 2008. COURTESY OF JICA

After retiring from the UNHCR at the end of 2000, Ogata served as President of JICA from 2003 to 2012. Ogata strengthened the field-oriented approach in which projects are carried out on the basis of the needs of local people and local context, and visited many projects of JICA in developing countries and engaged in dialog with local counterparts and JICA staff. 

Time pronounced Ogata as its “Person of the Year” in 1995. In the magazine’s March 2020 issue introducing its “100 Women of the Year” (a list of the most influential women of the past century), Time wrote, “Nicknamed ‘the diminutive giant,’ Ogata—who stood under 5 ft. tall—gained a reputation as a formidable negotiator.”

Human security is something to which Ogata concentrated her efforts during her lifetime. The concept of “human security” was first introduced in the 1994 Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In 2003, the Commission on Human Security, on which Ogata served as one of the co-chairs, published Human Security Now. The publication defines the goal of human security as being “to protect the vital core of all human lives in ways that enhance human freedoms and human fulfillment” (see box).

Japan has positioned human security as one of the pillars of its foreign policy. In 2003, when the Japanese government revised the ODA Charter defining the basic policy of Japan’s official development assistance (ODA), the perspective of human security was for the first time included, with the revised Charter stating, “In order to address direct threats to individuals such as conflicts, disasters and infectious diseases, it is important not only to consider the global, regional, and national perspectives, but also to consider the perspective of human security, which focuses on individuals.” The Development Cooperation Charter of 2015, the revised and renamed ODA Charter of 2003, also clearly states that “Japan will thus focus its development cooperation on individuals—especially those liable to be vulnerable such as children, women, persons with disabilities, the elderly, refugees and internally-displaced persons, ethnic minorities, and indigenous peoples—and provide cooperation for their protection and empowerment so as to realize human security.”

When Ogata became President of JICA in 2003, JICA adopted human security as its guiding principle in line with these policies. Ever since then, JICA has been working on realizing human security as one of its missions and promoted cooperation to deal with a variety of complex and intertwined threats around the world such as conflicts, terrorism, discrimination, oppression, natural disasters, infectious diseases, poverty and malnutrition. 

JICA launched the Handwashing for Health and Life Campaign in September 2020, extending its cooperation to developing countries in addressing water, sanitation and hygiene issues.  COURTESY OF JICA


More recently, under the leadership of JICA President Kitaoka Shinichi, JICA revisited the core principles of human security and updated its approach to this concept in 2019. The heart of this concept is that all individuals are entitled to freedom from fear, freedom from want, and the freedom to live in dignity, and the global community and each country must prioritize building a world that secures these essential freedoms. To realize it, as summarized in the document titled, “Revisiting Human Security in Today’s Global Context,” JICA focuses on the following three principal strategies: Protecting individuals’ right to life, livelihood, and human dignity; Empowering individuals, organizations, and societies to increase their capabilities; and Building resilient societies (systems) that can protect themselves against various threats.

More concretely, JICA implements various initiatives through the following approaches: (1) focusing on the needs of the vulnerable people to protect life, livelihood and human dignity; (2) focusing on prevention and resilience; (3) combining protection and empowerment of communities and people; (4) promoting the multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder approach; and (5) applying new solutions to address new challenges such as use of information and communication technology.

JICA’s Activities 

To embrace the concept of human security into practice, JICA has implemented numerous projects across a broad range of fields, including peace-building, rule of law, health, education, infrastructure, and disaster risk management in developing countries, with the aforementioned approaches.

In the Philippines, for instance, JICA has promoted empowerment of individuals, organizations and societies in the Mindanao peace process to realize freedom from fear and freedom from want. JICA has worked to build peace through socioeconomic development such as constructing waterworks facilities, building schools, developing human resources for farming, and building roads over a period of more than twenty years. At present, JICA is working on the building of institutions and organizations as well as the training of administrative human resources in preparation for the establishment of the autonomous Bangsamoro Government in 2022 as stipulated in the Bangasamoro Organic Law. 

To protect human dignity in developing countries, JICA has implemented a broad range of cooperation for the rule of law promotion, mainly in Asia, including the drafting of laws, the strengthening of the functions of justice institutions such as courts and the public prosecutors’ office, and the development of human resources related to the law enforcement. The representative projects include the drafting of Civil Codes in Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and Laos and the establishment and promotion of mediation systems in Mongolia and many other Asian countries. Through these efforts, JICA tries to build social systems to protect human dignity in those countries.

One example of JICA’s approach to focus on prevention and resilience is its effort to build resilient societies against natural disasters and climate change. In recent years, natural disasters happen more frequently and have become more severe because of the climate change. In Latin America and the Caribbean, where, similarly to Japan, natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunami and flooding are frequent, JICA is implementing various projects to reduce disaster risks and to prepare for the future threats. The Disaster Risk Reduction Training Program for Latin America and the Caribbean (2015–2020), which is conducted in Chile for regional cooperation, developed human resources through training and seminars designed to broaden knowledge and technologies related to disaster risk reduction including earthquake-resistant buildings, tsunami disaster risk reduction technology, and urban search and rescue. JICA strives to strengthen the capacity of the governments and empower local communities to be resilient to various threats.

In the health sector, there is another initiative to focus on prevention and on individuals’ rights to life and dignity, also with the application of new technology. The distribution of the “Maternal and Child Health Handbook” is one of the important initiatives in the area of health. The handbook not only records the results of pregnancy checkups, infant health and growth, and vaccinations, which ensure the continuity of quality care even under conflict and fragile situations, but it also includes information about child-rearing and precautions for pregnant women with illustrations and simple language that mothers and caregivers understand. So far, JICA has distributed the handbook in thirty-four countries and regions. In addition to distributing the paper version of the handbook, JICA has also developed the handbook as a smartphone app for Palestine in refugee camps in Jordan in cooperation with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). As a result, it is now possible to manage maternal and child health information on the digital platform as a backup of or having a synergy with the paper-based handbook. 

A Palestinian woman holds her baby and JICA’s widely distributed “Maternal and Child Health Handbook.” COURTESY OF JICA

As an initiative through empowerment of local communities and individuals in the field of education, JICA puts efforts into the School for All projects in Africa. The initiative, which began in Niger in 2004, actively engages with teachers, parents and local communities to provide better education for children together, and implements measures such as revitalization of school management committees, improvement of education for girls, and provision of supplementary lessons. As a result, there have been striking improvements in enrollment and educational performance. The School for All initiative has been rolled out in several countries including Niger, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar and Ghana.   

A health worker checks the nutritional status of an infant in Mozambique. COURTESY OF JICA

Through such activities and approaches, JICA continues its work to embrace human security into practice. 

Memorial Symposium

On November 2, 2020, about one year after Ogata Sadako passed away, JICA organized an online memorial symposium for Ogata held at a venue in Tokyo and entitled “Embracing Human Security in Meeting Global Challenges in the COVID-19/Post-COVID-19 Era.” As the world confronts a wide range of threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts, terrorism, climate change and widening inequality, speakers and panelists discussed the importance of the concept of human security in addition to Ogata’s achievements. 

The opening remarks were delivered by Takahara Akio, Director of the JICA Ogata Sadako Research Institute for Peace and Development.

Takahara Akio, Director of the JICA Ogata Sadako Research Institute for Peace and Development, speaks at the symposium. COURTESY OF JICA


Renamed in April 2020 from the previous JICA Research Institute, the Research Institute was established in 2008 under the leadership of Ogata to conduct policy-oriented research on the development challenges faced by developing countries and to strengthen Japan’s intellectual presence in the international community. With regard to the current state of the world, Takahara noted, “as issues such as conflicts, climate change, the proliferation of drugs and weapons, terrorism, and the spread of infectious diseases transcend national borders threatening the lives and livelihoods of human beings, it is becoming more and more difficult to ensure the safety of  individual human beings by ensuring the security of the state alone.” He added, “The concept of human security, which focuses on building a safe, secure, and resilient society where individuals can flourish and fulfill their potential, is more important than ever.” On the subject of COVID-19, Takahara said, “Regardless of age, gender, income, ethnicity, or region, the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic is an issue of global urgency that impacts on the health and economic activities of people worldwide. In these difficult circumstances, international cooperation based on the concept of human security should be pursued with stronger vigor and thrust than ever before.” 

In session 1 of the symposium, Sasae Kenichiro, President of the Japan Institute of International Affairs, who served as Special Advisor to Ogata Sadako at the UNHCR, made a speech that reflected on Ogata’s international achievements. He said, “Madam Ogata took a leadership role backed up by hard work, had creative ideas and courage not bound by precedence, and took on challenges while constantly thinking about the root causes of the problems.” As an example of one of her major achievements that changed international rules, Sasae mentioned her decision to extend international protection to internally displaced people, who had not been part of the mandate of UNHCR until then. 

The session also featured video messages from António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations and Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, shares a video message at the symposium. COURTESY OF JICA

UN Secretary-General Guterres stated, “She consistently raised awareness of the specific needs and fundamental rights of refugees around the world, through her strong advocacy for human security. Ms. Ogata was fearless in standing up for people, for humanitarian action and for political solutions to conflict. As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, Sadako Ogata’s strength, her principles and her values carry lessons for us all.” Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, commented, “[Ogata] advocated strongly for development actors to be engaged at the beginning of a crisis. Ahead of time, she grasped that all elements of the international response to crises–political, human rights, humanitarian, and development–must work closely together for those crises to be addressed in an effective and sustainable manner. This is the crux of the ‘human security’ approach that she championed decades ago.”

Session 2 was organized in the form of a panel discussion focusing on the topic of “The late Mme. Ogata and Japan—How has Japan’s international cooperation changed with the introduction of the concept of Human Security?” The panelists included: Takasu Yukio, President of the NPO Human Security Forum, and Special Advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations on Human Security, who had interacted closely with Ogata for about thirty years; Osa Yukie, President of a Japanese NGO—the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan and Vice President at Rikkyo University, who, as an NGO staff member, was influenced by Ogata; and Makino Koji, Director General of Economic Development Department, JICA, who endeavored to implement human security-oriented programs with Ogata during her tenure as president of JICA. During the discussion, the panelists exchanged views on how Ogata’s leadership and thinking had influenced their own work, and how to put the principles of human security into practice to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the world under the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The session 2 panel discussion  COURTESY OF JICA

Takasu said, “Madam Ogata defined human security as ‘protection and empowerment of individuals,’ and demonstrated her initiative in listening to the voices of the people of concern. Importantly, she contributed to the formulation of the backbone of Japan’s international cooperation.”

Osa said, “In contrast to the conventional concept of state security, Madam Ogata argued that the cooperation of diverse actors is needed to ensure diverse aspects of human security for people. This has helped raise NGOs’ status to become recognized as actors in Japan’s international cooperation.”

Makino recalled, “Madam Ogata often said that ‘human security has to be practical, so do not waste too much of your time in discussions, and take actions first.’ Thanks to Madam Ogata, JICA has become actively involved in peace-building activities in conflict-affected areas. As to the field-oriented approach which she so valued, instead of making all decisions at the headquarters in Tokyo, she tried to transfer authority to the local field offices as much as possible. Staff mind-set changed to one that appreciates the challenges more, and people became more willing to work in difficult circumstances as we came to realize that where there are risks, there are more needs to be addressed. This is indeed the cornerstone of mind for our current coronavirus response.”    

Video messages were also shared from the following speakers.

Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, commented, “Madam Ogata was wise, embodying a unique combination of charisma, compassion, conviction, courage, and courtesy. Her compassion encompassed her humanity, particularly the displaced, the poor and refugees and the woman.” 

Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, shares a video message. COURTESY OF JICA


Isidro. L. Purisima, Undersecretary and Deputy Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process for Operations at the Government of the Philippines, commented, “[Ogata’s] contributions as JICA President, particularly in our country, were instrumental in moving the Bangsamoro peace process forward. In the face of the difficulties we continue to face as a nation, we would like to emphasize that our government remains committed to fulfilling the commitment it has made under all peace agreements.”

Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Ebrahim, Chief Minister of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority of the Philippines, stated, “In the Bangsamoro alone, to promote human security is to change the region overall, which is the vision of the peace process. Madam Ogata helped us in understanding the importance of protecting lives, livelihoods and most importantly human dignity.”

Session 3, which focused on the topic of “Revisiting Human Security in the COVID-19/Post-COVID-19 Era (Human Security 2.0) and Cooperation in Global Health”, kicked off with a keynote speech by Kitaoka Shinichi, President of JICA, followed by a panel discussion. President Kitaoka spoke about JICA’s programs in the public health sector and the COVID-19 pandemic responses, and pointed out the importance of a combination of infection prevention, precaution, and treatment. In the area of prevention, he continued, JICA has worked for improving the quality of drinking water, distribution of long-lasting insecticidal nets as a malaria countermeasure, dissemination of the Maternal and Child Health Handbook to pregnant women, promotion of hand-washing initiatives, and advice on nutrition improvement. JICA plans to continue with these types of cooperation, he said.

Kitaoka Shinichi, President of JICA  COURTESY OF JICA

As a testing and research facility for the early detection of infectious disease and issuing alerts, JICA has promoted the development of hubs for countering epidemic disease such as the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research in Ghana. JICA will expand and reinforce these facilities, Kitaoka said. In terms of medical treatment, the Japanese government and JICA have so far worked on the building of more than 300 hospitals including the Cho Ray Hospital in Vietnam, and are planning to accelerate efforts to increase or upgrade 100 more medical facilities over a five-year term. 

After the speech, a panel discussion was conducted moderated by Doden Aiko, the senior director of NHK World-Japan. 

In addition to JICA President Kitaoka, the panelists included: Omi Shigeru, who is the head of the Japanese government’s advisory subcommittee on the COVID-19 pandemic and who previously worked on efforts to combat infectious diseases as Regional Director at WHO and Regional Director for the World Health Organization Western Pacific Region from 1999 to 2009; Susanna Moorehead, Chair of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) at the OECD; Muwanga Moses, Director of the Entebbe Regional Referral Hospital, the Republic of Uganda, who is currently working on the pandemic in Uganda; and Machii Eri, Chairperson of the NPO AfriMedico, which delivers medicines to rural communities in Africa. 

The session 3 panel discussion COURTESY OF JICA

Omi said, “The most critical measures to control infectious disease are these two: preparations ahead of the spread of infections and the initial response once infections have started. The coronavirus is widespread in developing countries, but we do not know the true extent of the situation. Unequal access to medical care is an issue in developing countries.”

Moses explained the COVID-19 response and the reality of the healthcare situation in Uganda, saying, “In order to respond to the coronavirus, the lack of medical facilities, medical equipment, and other resources has forced the country to temporarily stop treating malaria and other diseases.”

Machii said, “We not only deliver medicines, but by collaborating with health workers in every community, we have raised awareness and enhanced knowledge of local people on the importance of receiving proper medical tests and treatment. I believe this approach will be useful to combat infectious diseases as well.”

Moorehead said, “There are three main threats to human security; fragility due to poverty or conflict, inequality between men and women, and climate change. The international community should work together with all actors including the private sector.” 

The session included a video message from Saraya Yusuke, President of Saraya Co., Ltd., a manufacturer of hygiene products, who promotes the hand-washing project in Uganda. Saraya said, “Under the coronavirus pandemic, we are witnessing the spread of nationalism and a widening gap between the rich and the poor. To address these issues, implementation of SDGs, which upholds the motto of leaving no one behind, echoing the ideal of Madame Ogata, is indispensable. We would like to commit ourselves to realization of SDGs in whatever paths we are on now.” 

To summarize the discussion, President Kitaoka shared his message saying, “It is necessary to adapt the concept of human security and update the necessary measures to tackle the emerging threats brought about by the ever-changing world, including the ongoing pandemic. To foster future generations of Japan who can be as active in the international community as Madam Ogata was, it is important to think hard for yourself, imagining what you would do in a particular situation confronted by challenges if you were the one responsible for it.” 

Lastly, Muto Megumi, Deputy Director of the JICA Ogata Sadako Research Institute for Peace and Development, closed the symposium by saying, “We pledge to plant and grow ‘a grain of wheat’ left by Madam Ogata in the soil by ourselves.” 

SAWAJI Osamu, The Japan Journal

Note: This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of the Japan Journal.

Further reading: See JICA’s World, January 2021

Related post

  1. Shared Space: Keep It Clean
  2. “Act First”: Promoting the Right…
  3. From Brazil to Guatemala: Traini…
  4. Digital Transformation for Devel…
  5. From TICAD7 to the SDG Summit Ne…
  6. Yokohama: The “Closest City to A…
  7. Sport for Tomorrow: Sport for Al…
  8. JICA, Peacebuilding, and COVID-1…