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Japan must put TICAD ball in play

by Kaho Shimizu

Japan held the first Tokyo International Conference on African Development in 1993 to get the international community to reengage with poverty-stricken Africa.

Since then, Japan has hosted the TICAD meetings every five years. The fourth will be held in Yokohama in late May amid growing international interest in Africa’s fast economic growth and abundant natural resources.

Following are answers to basic questions about TICAD:

Why hold TICAD?

In the early 1990s, the amount of foreign aid to Africa was decreasing as frequent regional conflicts outside Africa after the Cold War ended were drawing more attention from donor countries.

To get Africa under the international spotlight again, Tokyo hosted the first TICAD in 1993 together with global development institutions, including the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank.

But some observers say Japan’s true intention was to secure African votes for its bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

What was discussed at the past TICAD meetings?

The first TICAD aimed to get the international community’s attention, resulting in a declaration of political will to consider African development a global priority.

In the second TICAD, in 1998, participants adopted an action plan to promote human and social development, support economic development and spread democracy.

The third TICAD, in 2003, was intended to outline the basic direction of the TICAD process. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced three Africa policy pillars: Consolidation of peace, human-centered development and poverty reduction through economic development.

What will be the main agenda item at the May meeting?

Many resource-rich African nations are enjoying rapid economic growth thanks to rising commodity prices, with annual GDP growth rates in 23 out of the 53 countries averaging more than 5 percent between 2005 and 2007.

As host nation, Japan wants to coordinate aid from donor countries and international organizations to develop a wide infrastructure network that connects coastal and landlocked areas.

Another item is to once again focus on supporting the least developed countries in sub-Saharan Africa and help them achieve the Millennium Development Goals established in 2000 at the U.N.

Many of these countries have little chance of achieving the goals, which include halving the number of people who live on less than $1 a day by 2015 from 1990 levels.

According to the U.N., 46.8 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa lived on less than $1 a day in 1990. That figure only fell to 41.1 percent in 2004.

Another topic is helping Africa combat global warming, an area in which Japan can play a leading role with its environmental technologies.

What outcome are African countries expecting from TICAD this year?

The government invited all African nations except Somalia, which is in a state of anarchy. So far, about 40 African leaders will attend, the highest number ever, and nearly double the 2003 conference.

A Foreign Ministry official said this is probably because TICAD and the Group of Eight summit will both be held in Japan this year.

African countries want to use this opportunity to draw pledges for as much financial aid as possible from the G8 members and other donor countries, while also hoping to draw private investment to boost economic growth.

They also want a review of the process to monitor progress in action pledged at previous TICAD conferences, which Japan hopes to incorporate in the planned “Yokohama Declaration” to be adopted at the coming meeting.

What do Japanese businesses face in Africa?

To respond to African demands, the government has been pushing Japanese businesses to invest more in Africa. Japan’s investment in Africa only accounted for 2.5 percent of the total foreign investment there in 2006.

Japanese companies argue that they cannot suddenly boost investment in Africa because it is risky to do so.

“There are many other attractive countries as investment destinations,” said Takashi Yoshimura of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren). “There is little information about Africa because not many Japanese firms are there, while it is too risky and costly to go there.”

What are Japan’s challenges?

The foreign aid budget has been decreasing over the last decade, given Japan’s tightening national budget.

At the strong initiative of Koizumi, however, Japan’s ODA for African countries nearly doubled to $1.14 billion in 2005 from the previous year and expanded to about $2.52 billion in 2006.

But the figures are still much lower than other donors, including the U.S., Britain and France, as they flock to Africa to secure resources amid rising commodity prices.

Foreign Ministry officials lament that it is difficult to gain public support for boosting African aid because people in Japan have little interest in a continent so geographically remote.

Izumi Ohno, a professor of development studies at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said TICAD is losing its sheen as other donors rush to host similar African aid conferences.

“When Tokyo hosted the first TICAD in 1993, it was a novel idea. But now, it’s time for Japan to think about how to differentiate TICAD and its African aid policy from that of other countries.”