In many ways, Botswana is an African success story, boasting the world’s fastest-growing income per capita over the past 35 years.
But this has done little to stop Japanese politicians from dismissing its achievements or picking on its problems.
Ever since Moody’s Investors Services Inc. downgraded Japan’s sovereign credit rating to a notch lower than that of Botswana, the southern African nation has been a favorite target for Japanese politicians striving to discredit the U.S. credit rating agency.
The most recent barb came from trade chief Takeo Hiranuma, who said it was “outrageous” that Japan should be rated lower than “such a country.”
In defending its actions, Moody’s cites Japan’s growing public debt, which stands at 157 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and its festering deflation.
Hiranuma responded Sunday by focusing on Botswana’s serious AIDS problem and its continuing reliance on developmental assistance from countries such as Japan.
Before Hiranuma launched this latest tirade, Oteng Jenamo Tebape, Botswana’s ambassador to Japan, told The Japan Times in an interview: “We believe such comparisons are unfair, not only to Japan but also to Botswana. We look at (Botswana’s) rating not in relation to Japan, but on its own merit.”
In truth, pitting Japan against Botswana is like comparing apples and oranges.
Botswana lacks Japan’s wealth, technology and high rate of savings, while its economy relies heavily on the diamond industry, which makes up roughly one-third of its GDP. Japan also continues to be its largest aid donor.
“Japan is the world’s second-largest economy, while we are in the middle income bracket,” Tebape said. “There is no way we are in the same league as Japan.”
Botswana’s economy is still in transition and is moving toward a more diversified and broader self-sustaining structure, he said. In this regard, he stressed the importance of continued assistance from Japan, especially in the fields of education, health and technology.
The industries that Botswana has pegged for development include textiles, tourism, ceramics, pharmaceuticals and small component assembly.
Just because Botswana’s economy is operating at a different level from Japan’s, however, it does not follow that its finances are less sound, or that Japan’s are more sustainable.
Nor does a higher credit rating mean that the challenges facing Botswana are less demanding.
As Hiranuma pointed out, Botswana has the world’s highest rate of HIV infection, with the virus now threatening the development of the nation’s human resources, the primary focus of the government’s investment.
According to statistics compiled by the United Nations, 35.8 percent of Botswana’s most productive and most sexually active population (aged between 15 and 49) are HIV-positive, while well over half of those between the ages of 25 and 29 are infected.
Average life expectancy has fallen from 60 years to 40, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census.
Furthermore, Botswana will probably have 214,000 orphans by 2010, according to the International Monetary Fund, lowering the growth rate from its current 7.7 percent to some 2.5 percent.
In response, Botswana is waging an all-out war on the pandemic, with the government offering free antiretroviral drugs that combat the opportunistic disease and reduce patients’s chances of being infected by others.
Meanwhile, posters and radio dramas across the country proclaim the virtues of condoms and abstinence.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Merck Company Foundation are each contributing $50 million over five years toward the campaign, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Harvard University are offering laboratory research assistance.
The aim is to achieve an AIDS-free generation by 2016.
“We don’t give ourselves any rest, until we have won,” Tebape said. “We have mobilized the whole community of Botswana to fight the disease.”
But in Japan, Tebape sees his mission as boosting the public’s awareness of Botswana, which he has noticed is sometimes confused with Bosnia or Bhutan.
“Japan provided assistance before we even had a credit rating,” he said. “Now, as a developing country, Botswana still has enormous challenges and requires the continued friendship, goodwill and support of countries like Japan.
“So, come visit us! Get to know us!”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.