Looking back on the Tokyo International Conference on African Development and its achievements over the past 20 years, Masaki Inaba touched on the number of flights that now directly connect Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
“Korean Air provides flights straight from Seoul to Kenya. Ethiopian Airlines also provides access between China and Africa without any transit,” said Inaba, a program director at the Africa Japan Forum nongovernmental organization.
Yet despite the TICAD platform marking its 20th anniversary this year, there are still no flight services that directly connect Japan with any destination in the continent’s sub-Saharan areas.
“Unfortunately, I think this fact illustrates how 20 years of effort has failed to construct a strong connection between Japan and Africa,” Inaba noted.
“The key for this TICAD meeting will be on changing that and figuring out how the two sides can truly interact to build a relationship toward a new era,” he said.
The fifth TICAD conference kicks off Saturday, but with a different mindset compared with previous meetings. Whereas the last four events focused mainly on eradicating poverty, strengthening economic partnerships is expected to take center stage at this year’s confab, as Africa continues its strong economic growth seen in recent years.
However, NGOs involved in African development fear that focusing too much on economic cooperation and overlooking other areas will result in Japan failing to build strong ties with the continent.
Inaba acknowledged that TICAD has made some achievements, most notably by contributing to the creation of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve extreme poverty rates and provide universal primary education by 2015. Since its launch in 1993, TICAD has also provided Japan and international organizations with a unique platform to discuss strategies and ideas to support Africa.
“Still, we believe that TICAD has its flaws. It hasn’t been able to create a scheme in which NGOs can play the role they should and are willing to play in assisting Africa,” Inaba, whose group is in charge of managing 47 NGOs involved in this year’s event, pointed out.
His view is that Japan should be supporting the nonprofit sector so as to supply distinctive aid to Africa and set it apart from other donor nations and international groups. Such an approach is especially vital since countries such as China and South Korea have continued to beef up their financial assistance to the continent in recent years.
Money plowed in by China has contributed to Africa’s recent economic expansion, with the combined sub-Saharan economy growing more than 6 percent annually between 2004 and 2007 and at a 5 percent clip since 2010, according to the International Monetary Fund.
But Beijing’s efforts have often been criticized for lacking consideration for locals, most notably the lowest income segments of societies, and for not helping to lift their communities out of poverty.
NGOs can fill the void created by business-oriented development, according to Inaba. Although not as visible or grandiose as constructing buildings and roads, if Japan focuses on aiding Africa through soft power, it could drastically improve many of the acute problems the continent still faces, particularly education and health care.
How the TICAD participants address that aspect will be the key to the meeting’s success, he said.
Hiroaki Nagaoka, president of the Tokyo-based Community Action Development Organization (CanDo) NGO, agreed with Inaba, saying that “top-down development in Africa leaves many parts of society behind.”
Nagaoka’s group, consisting of around 30 people operating in both Japan and Africa, has focused on building schools in eastern Kenya, helping to conserve the local environment and advising on health care systems.
“The rush of infrastructure building may have aided Africa’s growth, but from what I can see from living there, I feel the gap between the rich and poor is spreading,” said Nagaoka, who divides his time between Africa and Japan.
For instance, the cost of maize, corn and vegetable oil has risen in the region his group works in, Nagaoka noted.
The TICAD meeting is expected to touch on boosting the agribusiness sector of sub-Sahara Africa. That should provide income for many countries and their agricultural industries.
But some small-scale farmers have expressed concern about excessively quick development, and pundits question whether simply increasing crop production and profits will resolve the continent’s many other pressing problems. Pointing out that TICAD participants should seek an optimal mix of economic growth and assisting those in poverty, Nagaoka said NGOs can play a pivotal role in such areas.
“Trickle-down economics shouldn’t be the way to do this,” he said.
Then there are other issues, such as the spread of HIV among Africans, that have taken a backseat as the focus of TICAD shifts to economic partnership.
“About 70 percent of the global HIV-positive population is still concentrated in the Sub-Sahara region,” Inaba of the Africa Japan Forum said, urging developed countries like Japan to place the primary focus on preventing infection and increasing education about the disease. “There’s groundless understanding that we are done with (HIV), but that isn’t true.”
As the host of TICAD, Japan should shed light on such topics as well, and not focus solely on maximizing economic growth and profits for the two sides, he argued.
“TICAD shouldn’t be about just holding the meeting every five years or about Tokyo demonstrating that it still plays a role in the global community,” Inaba said.