Africa wants partners, not just handouts

by Kaho Shimizu

Poverty, hunger, infectious disease, conflict — words that readily come to mind when Japanese consider Africa.

But Africa is no longer a continent just of sadness, and the fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development in May will be a golden opportunity to promote awareness among Japanese about the true state of the continent, Tanzanian Ambassador to Japan Elly Elikunda Elineema Mtango said.

Tanzania currently holds the rotating presidency of the African Union, a regional organization representing 53 member states.

“What often appears in the media is that children are dying of hunger, HIV and conflicts,” but that does not tell the whole story of Africa, Mtango said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Resource-rich African states are finally getting a chance to emerge from poverty and experience high economic growth — many seeing annual GDP growth exceeding 5 percent — thanks to rising commodity prices.

At TICAD, Mtango said, African nations hope to underscore the importance of attracting foreign investment and promoting trade with other countries to ensure sustainable economic growth.

Japan has hosted TICAD every five years since 1993, and with 15 years of history, Mtango said now is the time to transform the philosophy of the conference from being aid-oriented to partnership-based.

“The TICAD process is reaching the stage of maturation. (Donors) and African countries should focus on mutual economic interest,” Mtango said.

While many countries, including China, the United States and member states of the European Union, engage in “resource diplomacy” in Africa, offering aid to secure oil and rare metals, Japan is lagging in this regard as the nation’s aid budget shrinks.

Mtango said boosting foreign investment is crucial for Africa’s development, in addition to securing enough official development assistance to improve infrastructure.

Japan, however, also lags in trade with and investment in Africa.

“The trade value between Japan and Africa is (lower than) that of the European Union and Africa and that of China and Africa,” Mtango said, noting Africa hopes to raise trade volume with Japan.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Japan accounted for only 7 percent of total trade value in Africa in 2006. The U.S., whose trade value accounted for 27 percent, was Africa’s largest trading partner. China and France both accounted for 16 percent, tying them for third as the most active.

Japanese investment in Africa in 2006 only accounted for 2.5 percent of total foreign investment there, according to figures compiled by the Foreign Ministry. Japanese businesses are concerned about the risks and costs of making inroads into the continent.

Some Western countries charge that China’s aggressive aid to Africa lacks transparency and its assistance goes to countries with flawed governance and human rights records. When asked about China’s aid policy, Mtango said it is not fair to pose that question to Africa.

“As far as African nations are concerned, we can’t be involved in the argument,” Mtango said, adding that if China is the only country that is extending financial aid, African countries will take it.

“We want to cooperate with all (donor) countries,” he said.

In emphasizing investment, Mtango pointed out that Japanese companies are reluctant to make inroads into Africa and urged Tokyo to extend the national insurance coverage for firms hoping to invest in the continent and provide them with concessional loans as incentives.

“Africa is abundant in precious metals and oil that Japan needs in order to ensure stable supply. . . . there are many business opportunities,” he said. “If we can change the way Japanese people think about Africa, I’d regard that as a success (for) TICAD.”