Global powers China, the United States and the European Union are fiercely competing to expand their market share in Africa — the world’s last major economic frontier.
Japan has long been a big supporter of African nations and in 1993 launched the Tokyo International Conference on African Development.
More than 20 years after its inception, this year’s TICAD, the sixth, will be held in Africa for the first time, on Aug. 27 and 28.
We look at what TICAD this year means for Japan and nations in Africa:
Why did Japan start TICAD?
During the Cold War, Africa was strategically important for global powers. But the collapse of the Soviet Union marked a strategic shift to Eastern Europe, which became geopolitically crucial in terms of global security. At the same time, the United States and Europe became more reluctant to give financial assistance to African nations due to their economic malaise.
That is where Japan came in. The government set up TICAD in 1993 in an effort to bring the global focus back to Africa and help Africans fight challenges, including poverty, disease and conflict, and provide economic planning in cooperation with international organizations, particularly the United Nations.
The forum was started with a spirit of African ownership and partnership, meaning African states should decide what they need and pursue their goals through partnership with the international community.
Why is this year’s meeting significant?
TICAD was initially intended to be held every five years, allowing stakeholders to assess goals set at the previous meeting. The past five conferences were held in Tokyo and Yokohama.
At the last conference, held in Yokohama in 2013, African participants said the five-year interval was too long, given the continent’s accelerated development and economic growth.
Instead, they proposed that it be held every three years. They also said it was time to host the conference in Africa, with meetings held alternately in Japan and on the continent. African delegates picked Nairobi for this year’s TICAD.
This African initiative and leadership signified a turning point. The nations now hope to get more private-sector investment than just government-led official development assistance, given that the collective African economy, with its abundant natural resources, has been booming.
Africa’s young and surging population, which is projected to double to 2 billion by 2050, also means the continent represents a big global market.
What does TICAD mean for the Japanese side?
Holding TICAD in Nairobi is a win-win for Japan and African nations.
More than 100 Japanese businesses and their CEOs are scheduled to attend the Nairobi event, which will give them a firsthand look at the potential of African businesses and help countries there seek investment.
At the same time, the conference will provide leverage for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will attend TICAD, in seeking support from African nations for Tokyo’s bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
What will be the focus of this year’s TICAD?
TICAD will look to adopt the Nairobi Declaration, laying out goals to be achieved by the next TICAD in 2019.
Given TICAD’s shift to more private-sector investment, one goal will be the industrialization of economies in Africa by expanding the role of the private sector.
Creating sustainable economic structures that do not solely depend on natural resources or official development assistance (ODA) is crucial for Africa, where nations have suffered after recent falls in commodity prices.
Other pressing issues include health and prevention against pandemics such as Ebola and Zika. Japan has offered $184 million in assistance to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
The fight against terrorism has also become increasingly important for nations in West Africa, where Boko Haram, the regional affiliate of Islamic State, and al-Qaida ally al-Shabaab in Somalia has accelerated attacks.
The declaration is likely to include measures to educate and empower poverty-stricken youths to prevent them from being lured to extremist groups and terrorism.
Will there be any new pledges by Tokyo?
Most likely. At the last TICAD, the Japanese government offered up to ¥3.2 trillion in assistance over five years with an emphasis on infrastructure and human resources.
Some 70 percent has already been provided. Tokyo will probably deliver a new pledge depending on progress. It will also agree a program for the next three years.
Is Japan the only country with a program like TICAD?
No. China, the United States, Turkey, India and South Korea, as well as the European Union, have held similar international conferences in recent years.
China’s increasing influence in Africa is significant. Since the 1990s, China has been pursuing the continent’s natural resources.
But Beijing’s ODA approach has faced international criticism as being unethical. The aid meant Chinese workers were brought in to work on ODA projects instead of providing employment for Africans.
And in cases where local workers were hired, they faced harsh labor conditions and low wages.
Local industries also suffered as cheap Chinese goods flooded the region and forced them out of business.
Partly to fend off such criticism, China launched the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000, which also focuses on assistance including pandemic prevention and student exchange programs.
Another focus of FOCAC is debt forgiveness.
Does Japan have an advantage in the hunt for economic windfalls in Africa?
Japan became Africa’s largest ODA provider in 1989 and maintained its No. 1 position until 2000, every year except for 1990.
While Japanese ODA receded after the burst of the bubble economy and during the following two stagnant decades, China rolled out a massive ODA campaign in which Africa has been a beneficiary.
Last year Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion in assistance for the continent.
China’s infrastructure projects are often criticized for being low-quality.
That is why Japan emphasizes its ability to provide high-quality infrastructure.
Japan also says it will train people and offer quality maintenance for infrastructure projects such as roads.
Additionally, it excels in pandemic prevention.
Tokyo officials, though, say Japanese companies need to speed up their decision-making to win business opportunities against other global players.
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