At 81, Japan's Outspoken Force for the World's Poor

Sadako Ogata, 81, shown in February at a school in Ethiopia, became a world figure as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in the 1990s. She runs the Japan International Cooperation Agency, soon to be the world's largest bilateral development agency.
Sadako Ogata, 81, shown in February at a school in Ethiopia, became a world figure as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in the 1990s. She runs the Japan International Cooperation Agency, soon to be the world's largest bilateral development agency. (Ray Wilkinson Via Japan International Cooperation Agency)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

TOKYO -- Sadako Ogata, the diminutive woman who is one of Japan's best-known and longest-serving public figures, is 81.

That number, though, does not interest her. Like death, taxes, and the dizzying rise and fall of Japanese prime ministers, it is beyond her managerial control.

What she can manage -- and has been managing for most of the eight years since she stepped down as the outspoken boss of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees -- is a Japanese government agency that gives assistance and expertise to the world's poorest people.

Her management job, it turns out, is soon to become a whole lot bigger.

As of Wednesday, she will ride herd on the world's largest bilateral development agency. The Japan International Cooperation Agency, which Ogata heads, is swallowing a government bank that offers grants and low-interest loans. That will give the agency an estimated $10.3 billion in available financial resources, an amount it says is about 2 1/2 times that of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Ogata will be in Washington on Oct. 10 to talk with U.S. officials and the World Bank about how her expanded agency can collaborate with them to fight poverty, especially in Africa. What she wants to do with Japan's beefed-up aid bureaucracy is to move aid and manpower into crisis areas such as Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. And she wants to do it fast.

"Unless you are there on the ground at the crucial point, you cannot meet real needs," she said in an interview, noting that for decades, Japan's aid bureaucracy had a well-deserved reputation for avoiding dangerous trouble spots, as well as for having far more employees sitting at desks in Tokyo than working in the field.

Her manner was dignified, her voice calm and her English diction impeccable. But she has a very un-Japanese habit of saying exactly what she thinks, no matter whom it offends.

Shuffling papers while people die is something that has always ticked her off.

As high commissioner for the U.N. refugee agency, a position she held from 1991 to 2000, she angered her boss, Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and embarrassed the U.N. Security Council by demanding in 1993 that the United Nations either break the Serbian siege of Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, or carry out a large-scale evacuation.

She was ignored, but she was right. Two years after her warning, 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in Srebrenica by Serbs in the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.

Ogata was born into one of Japan's most distinguished families. Her great-grandfather, Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, was killed by ultra-nationalists in 1932, an assassination that halted party politics in Japan and ushered in the military-dominated governments that propelled the country into World War II.

She came to the world of big-league diplomacy in her 50s, after raising two children. She had no choice but to wait that long. When she was young, Ogata said, women were not permitted to join Japan's diplomatic corps.

With a master's degree in international affairs from Georgetown University and a doctorate in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, Ogata became a professor of international relations in Japan.

After she was selected in 1990 as a compromise candidate to head the U.N. refugee agency, multiple regional wars erupted around the world, producing a record high 27 million refugees. With people in need from the Balkans to Rwanda to Kurdistan, her staff swelled to more than 5,000, and her budget topped $1 billion.

But unlike many high-powered U.N. officials, Ogata never mastered the art of speaking at length while saying nothing. She even chided Japan for failing to be serious about humanitarian work.

"I think it would be pretty good if Japan, in becoming an economic power, becomes a humanitarian power as well," she said just before she took office.

Years later, she is still chiding Japan. What upsets her now, she said, is the government's failure to address the country's extraordinary demographic crisis. Japan has the world's oldest population and is projected to lose up to 70 percent of its workforce by 2050.

Yet Japanese leaders have done "nothing" to increase immigration, "nothing" to ease the strain on working mothers and "nothing" to change a work-obsessed culture that keeps many young couples from having children, she said.

"Everybody knew this was happening," she added. "Nothing was done. Do we have political leaders who are farsighted? No!"

Japan's government has cut total spending on overseas development aid by 40 percent in the past 11 years. But Ogata did not complain about the cuts. She has made do, closing all her agency's offices in Europe and shifting resources to Africa, where needs are greatest.

As for retirement, Ogata laughed, shook her head and said she will stick around for at least another year to oversee the agency's expansion.

"I am used to moving people and moving things," she said.

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