YOKOHAMA — The defining phrase of this year’s Tokyo International Conference on African Development was “Towards a Vibrant Africa.” But what does this mean to the TICAD participants?
For the Japanese government and many African leaders, the word vibrant seems to convey the idea of achieving greater economic growth by boosting direct investment, official development assistance and infrastructure-building.
Indeed, the African leaders and even the heads of most nongovernmental organizations at TICAD welcomed Japan’s pledge to double ODA and Japanese private-sector investment in Africa over the next five years.
But some observers and nongovernmental organizations argue that TICAD failed to address two key factors to achieve stable growth in Africa — democratization and redistribution of wealth.
“What’s most important is (Japan’s) decision to double ODA, and we welcome this. We NGOs have continually called for increased ODA since the last TICAD” meeting in 2003, Minoru Obayashi, a leader of TNet, said in an interview with The Japan Times. TNet is a network of 43 Japanese citizen groups that proposed policy ideas for TICAD IV.
“But too much emphasis was put on assistance to help African economic growth, and there was not much mention of poverty (in the TICAD speeches and documents), which is a problem,” Obayashi said.
Noting the repressive and corrupt nature of many African governments, Obayashi argued that the fruits of the booming economy some nations on the continent are experiencing may only be enjoyed by the rich.
Obayashi cited Nigeria as an example. According to the World Bank, the major oil-producing country posted 5.9 percent economic growth in 2006. But 71 percent of its population, as of 2003, still individually lived on less than $1 a day.
“The problem of poverty has not been solved and the corruption is getting worse. Situations like this could spread to other countries” if Japan and other donor countries only keep pushing for economic growth in African countries, he said.
To be fair, Japan’s attention to human rights records in extending ODA is probably much better than China’s. Beijing has made no bones about aggressively extending assistance to African governments, including Sudan and Zimbabwe, notorious for corruption and human rights violations, experts say.
Japan has substantially reduced assistance to Sudan and cut off all but humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe.
But none of the documents drafted by Japan, and revised and adopted Friday by TICAD, explicitly addresses corruption and democratization issues. Instead they are full of pledges to increase investment and spur economic growth.
“Japan should send a clear message calling for democratization” because it has no history of colonial rule in Africa, unlike some European countries, Obayashi argued.
Toshio Watanabe, a noted economic development expert and president of Takushoku University in Tokyo, also believes Japan failed to raise politically sensitive issues in the adopted documents.
But it is generally difficult for a host country to express strong political opinions as the organizer of such a large international conference, he said.
Watanabe serves as the head of an advisory panel on international cooperation for the Foreign Ministry.
The future of sub-Saharan African economies, which collectively have posted economic growth of more than 6 percent annually since 2004, may be more fragile than TICAD participants claim. Much of the rapid growth can be attributed to recent price hikes in oil, gas and other mineral resources.
Watanabe also admitted Africa’s economy will remain vulnerable as long as it depends on primary commodities, and not on value-added products.
To truly strengthen the African economy, what’s required are investments in infrastructure, including roads, and foreign direct investment, Watanabe argued.
Another duty left for Japan in the wake of TICAD IV is to monitor the implementation of the pledges made by donor countries and institutions during the conference.
Many of the NGO delegates who participated in sessions on the sidelines of TICAD expressed concern that much of the ODA pledged by Japan will end up helping governments and not ordinary people suffering dire poverty.
Meanwhile, many African government leaders, too, are skeptical of assistance pledges, having become all too familiar with the broken promises that follow showy political events, said a senior Foreign Ministry official in charge of African affairs.
To counter this concern, Japan has proposed a followup mechanism to check and monitor the implementation of pledged assistance.
According to the proposal, a permanent secretariat would be set up within the Foreign Ministry and regular followup meetings would be held with African countries.
An annual report will be also compiled to monitor the progress of pledges until the next TICAD meeting. The meetings are held every five years.
“This is very assuring indeed, because after a meeting like this, the biggest challenge is implementation,” Tanzanian President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete told reporters at the Friday close of TICAD.