To go or not to go — that may be the question for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Earlier this year, Koizumi declared his intention to join other world leaders at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. But concerns within the government about Koizumi’s planned trip to Johannesburg began to grow after the collapse of the WSSD’s ministerial-level preparatory meeting, which was held on the Indonesian resort island of Bali from late May through early June.

The summit will open in Johannesburg in late August and run through early September to mark the 10th anniversary of the so-called Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Topping the WSSD agenda will be poverty and underdevelopment.

A rather unexpected development at the preparatory conference cast a dark cloud over the WSSD’s success. Sharp disagreements over official development assistance resulted in a failure to agree on the draft of a key document to be adopted in Johannesburg.

Developing countries demanded that the document include a specific target date for industrialized countries to fulfill the pledge to boost their ODA to 0.7 percent or more of their gross national products, a promise made more than two decades ago at the United Nations General Assembly.

But the industrialized countries, led by Japan and the United States, vehemently rejected the demand. Some officials believe it is unrealistic and would be almost impossible to meet.

“Japan and the U.S. have been blamed as primary culprits for the collapse of the Bali conference,” a senior government official said, requesting anonymity.

“U.S. President George W. Bush will probably not attend the WSSD. Therefore, we worry that they may gang up against Koizumi in Johannesburg,” the official said. “Japan may have to come up with additional assistance measures for developing countries, especially those in Africa, in the areas of aid and trade in order to help Koizumi save face diplomatically.”

It is still unclear, however, whether Bush will actually skip the WSSD, another senior Japanese government official said. Speculation concerning his absence has increased since he said recently that he will visit Africa sometime next year, the official added.

The world’s 22 major aid donors together annually dish out about $50 billion in ODA to developing countries. This amount is half what U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has said he wants to see in the near future and less than one-third what they would have to dole out to achieve the 0.7 percentage target.

At around 0.22 percent, the average of the 22 major aid donors’ ODA level in terms of a GNP ratio is well below the 0.7 percent target. Only a few states have achieved the U.N. goal.

Since early this year, the U.S. and the 15-nation European Union have pledged to sharply increase their ODA over the next several years. This apparently reflects renewed post-Sept. 11 seriousness about addressing poverty — which is widely seen as contributing to terrorism — and underdevelopment.

The administration of President Bush promised to increase ODA by $5 billion over the next three years, while the EU has committed itself to raising the average of its member countries’ ODA to 0.39 percent of their combined GNP. The current level is 0.33 percent, which means about an extra $7 billion is needed.

Despite these pledges, however, the already low U.S. ODA in relation to GNP is expected to inch up to a mere 0.16 percent in 2006. “The U.S. does not want to see a repeat of discussions made in Monterrey, Mexico, in March,” a senior Japanese aid official said, requesting anonymity.

At the Monterrey U.N. International Conference on Financing for Development, the industrialized countries agreed to increase financial assistance for those developing countries that are firmly committed to clean governments and market-oriented economies.

They also reaffirmed their commitment to make efforts to increase ODA as a percentage of GNP to 0.7 percent. Yet they did not give a specific target date. As its officials made clear at the Monterrey conference, the U.S. also prefers private foreign investment and trade to ODA as a tool for combating poverty.

Japan lost, to the U.S., its status as the world’s largest single aid donor for the first time in 11 years in 2001. Sharp cutbacks in its ODA budget and a weaker yen were given as reasons for the decline.

The U.S. provided $10.8 billion in ODA in 2001, up 9.3 percent, while Japan extended $9.6 billion, down 28.4 percent. Because of continued tight fiscal conditions, Japan cannot afford to follow the U.S. and the EU by pledging to increase aid.

While some Japanese government officials apparently worry about the wisdom of Koizumi’s planned trip to Johannesburg, other government officials seem rather optimistic.

“Even if Japan continues to reject any specific target date for achieving the 0.7 percent ODA goal and fails to come up with additional assistance measures for developing countries, it will be able to avoid a situation in which Koizumi loses face diplomatically in Johannesburg,” the senior aid official said.

Not until the WSSD actually opens will it be known whether this official is correct — or overly optimistic.

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