• The Associated Press

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Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pledged $1 billion in new aid for education and health care in Africa at the opening Monday of a major donor conference for the continent.

The funds, to be dispersed over five years, will go toward building schools, supplying drinking water and expanding vaccinations.

The announcement opened three days of talks at a Tokyo conference on fighting poverty and promoting sustainable development in Africa.

Heads of state from 23 African countries and representatives of leading donor nations and international aid bodies were due to discuss infectious diseases, the prevention of conflict and investment on the continent during the meeting.

The conference is the third such meeting Japan — the continent’s biggest international donor — has hosted since 1993. At the last Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) five years ago, Japan donated $776 million to African countries for health, education and other development projects.

“Japan hopes to act as a bridge between Asia and Africa,” Koizumi said in an opening speech.

The pledge was the centerpiece of a three-tiered program to promote development, poverty reduction and peace. That program also included previously unveiled initiatives to earmark $300 million over the next five years for loans for Japanese investment in Africa and to forgive up to $3 billion in yen loans to the most heavily indebted poor nations on the continent.

Koizumi said Japan has provided Africa assistance totaling $12 billion since the first TICAD conference a decade ago.

Highlighting the need for help, Malloch Brown, head of the U.N. Development Program, told delegates that one in six African children dies before the age of 5 and that elementary school enrollment is below 60 percent.

And while experts say Japanese aid is critical for addressing urgent issues in Africa such as HIV/AIDS, it also furthers Tokyo’s strategy of assuming a more prominent role in global diplomacy — including its aim to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

“Even if Japan’s economy is in a slump, the country is still a power,” said Makoto Sato, a professor of international relations at Ritsumeikan University and expert on Africa. “To a certain degree, the aid is trying to promote this.”

Koizumi spent Sunday greeting Ghana President John Kufuor and 18 other leaders in a series of bilateral meetings. He was due to meet South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki and three other leaders separately Monday.

Priorities at this year’s meeting include discussions on improving governance, securing peace and promoting agriculture, the UNDP said in a statement. Other issues include the building of infrastructure, improving water supplies and mobilizing against HIV/AIDS.

The UNDP and the World Bank are helping Tokyo organize the event.

The Foreign Ministry said the conference is charged with supporting a recovery plan, known as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, which grew out of a collaboration between leaders from South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria and Senegal.

While the plan has the backing of the Group of Eight countries, some donor nations have expressed concern to African leaders about the need to eliminate corruption and see the aid gets to where it needs to go. That, in turn, has caused concern among potential recipients about the aid being tied to the donors’ political objectives

More than half of Africa’s population lives on less than $1 a day and more than 24 million Africans are infected with HIV/AIDS but cannot afford expensive drugs designed to slow its effects.

Focused aid promised

Japan hopes to provide African countries with focused assistance in priority sectors to help promote effective development, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told visiting King Mswati III of Swaziland on Monday.

While noting the need for African countries to secure self-sufficiency in food production, Koizumi told the king, “Japan will provide focused assistance by examining what is necessary for African countries,” according to Japanese officials.

Koizumi met with the king on the sidelines of the three-day meeting of the third Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), which began in the morning with 23 African leaders and delegates from about 140 countries and international groups attending.

King Mswati III expressed appreciation for Japan’s assistance, and called for Japanese investment in his country, the officials said.

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