Japan is offering African countries a lifeboat to help keep them from drowning as the IT tsunami sweeps around the globe.

The rescue effort takes another step late next month when a government mission heads to South Africa and Tunisia to explore possible areas of economic assistance for these and other African countries, government sources said Friday.

The sources said the mission, headed by Wataru Nishigahiro, deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Economic Cooperation Bureau, will make the trip for about 10 days, starting around June 20.

The mission will be sent as part of efforts to implement a $15 billion Japanese aid initiative in the area of information technology, announced last summer at the Group of Eight’s annual summit, in Okinawa.

The G8 comprises the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Russia.

Then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said Japan will extend the IT aid to developing countries over five years.

The initiative is aimed at helping bridge the so-called “digital divide,” new economy jargon for the widening economic gap between rich and poor countries, which these days can be seen in a nation’s ability to join the IT revolution.

The aid money will be used primarily for the fostering of human resources and the development of telecommunications and other infrastructure.

While IT is now synonymous with Internet infrastructure in industrialized countries and in some economically advanced developing nations, the buzz phrase means nothing more than the laying of telephone lines for most of the heavily impoverished African countries.

How much of the $15 billion will go to Africa remains up in the air.

When he met with his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for an annual Japan-ASEAN summit in Singapore in late November, Mori also pledged that the bulk of the $15 billion initiative will go to ASEAN members.

ASEAN groups Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

The government has already dispatched aid missions to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia to explore potential projects to be financed by the IT-aid initiative.

During his tour of South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya in January, the first trip to Africa by a Japanese premier, Mori also promised to apply the $15 billion IT initiative to African countries.

According to the sources, IT is also a main pillar of the Millennium Africa Program, which top leaders of South Africa, Nigeria and other major African countries are promoting to resolve persistent problems on the continent, such as conflicts, infectious diseases and infrastructure development.

Junichiro Koizumi, who succeeded Mori in late April, and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo agreed during a Tokyo meeting on Tuesday to build a “special partnership” between Japan and Nigeria to deal with various African problems, including the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases.

Koizumi also told Obasanjo that Japan expects Nigeria to take a leadership role in discussing the Millennium Africa Program during a ministerial-level meeting on African development scheduled for December in Tokyo.

The December meeting will be held to prepare for the third Tokyo International Conference on African Development, or TICAD-III, in 2003. TICAD-I was held in 1993 and TICAD-II was held in 1998, with top leaders of African countries attending the Tokyo meetings.

Under the $15 billion IT initiative, Japan will also establish a global network of some 30 “IT centers” within five years to provide long-distance training programs to developing countries, using satellite and other technologies.

During fiscal 2001, which started in April, two IT centers will be set up in Japan — one in Tokyo and another in Okinawa. Four more centers will be created in unspecified developing countries during the same fiscal year.

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