For years, the world has looked to Asia as a leader in many areas, particularly business and technology. Now Asia is serving as an important example to follow in the international race to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Economic growth in the region has raised annual per capita incomes by 75 percent since 1990 and lifted hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty. While the various approaches differed, one common lesson is clear: Asian countries that saw the most growth were those that made significant investments in agriculture and rural development.

As the region’s leading economy and largest source of aid, Japan has been a pivotal partner in Asia’s “miracle” transformation. For more than 50 years, Japan has been delivering development assistance throughout Asia and successfully linking it to trade and investment. Today, Japan is the second-largest source of aid in the world and one of the most active bilateral donors.

The world needs Japan to continue to play its critical role in global development. Despite economic advances in countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam, Asia is still home to more than two-thirds of the world’s 1.1 billion poorest people — almost half of them living in South Asia.

Human rights go hand in hand with development and security. No country can hope to maintain security within its borders without peace and prosperity beyond their shores. And in today’s increasingly globalized world, once-distant shores are now far more accessible, making endemic poverty and the problems it breeds everyone’s shared responsibility and risk.

The current crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, calls for global cooperation. Poverty and malnutrition levels are on the rise, as armed conflict, disease and poor governance continue to wreak havoc in the region. There has been some progress in Africa in recent years, including increased food production, but inefficient institutions and insufficient infrastructure are inhibiting the continent’s ability to lift itself out of poverty and achieve the MDGs.

For this reason, Africa is now looking to Asia to learn more from their last 30 years of growth. Japan is well positioned to help guide this important process and has already demonstrated its support by hosting the Tokyo International Conference on African Development.

There is a special affinity between Asia and Africa. Both have large rural populations that rely on agriculture for their survival. Together, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa account for about 70 percent of the world’s poorest people. In these regions and elsewhere, countries that are making the most rapid progress toward meeting the MDGs are channeling high shares of public expenditure to agricultural and rural sectors.

Broad-based development in rural areas can boost small-scale agriculture, which increases the demand for seeds, irrigation, fertilizer, tools, processing and transportation — which in turn leads to more jobs in the off-farm sector. With increased incomes, hundreds of millions of rural people are better able to enter into the global economy and purchase manufactured goods and services.

I applaud Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s recent pledge to double Japan’s aid to Africa over the next three years. But for official development assistance to be truly effective, Japan and other donors must ensure that sufficient levels are targeting the rural and agricultural sectors.

At the African Union Summit in Maputo in 2003, African leaders set an important example when they pledged to spend at least 10 percent of their national budgets on agricultural development. It also signaled the aspirations and commitment of Africans to take charge of their own future.

At the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), our experience has shown that countries — particularly local communities — need to be at the helm of development activities if they are going to be successful. As a specialized agency of the United Nations dedicated exclusively to eradicating rural poverty, IFAD aims to support the capacity of governments to respond more effectively to the needs of rural poor people. By focusing on country-specific solutions, IFAD develops and finances programs and projects that give rural poor people access to the resources they need to overcome poverty themselves.

IFAD has had the privilege of working with Japan in many activities, particularly in Asia, but also in Africa and Latin America. Over the last 28 years, Japanese contributions to IFAD have helped build rural roads and markets in Bangladesh, improve food security in Rwanda, provide microcredit services in Sri Lanka, care for poor women’s livestock in Yemen — and more.

IFAD and Japan also work together to support the New Rice for Africa initiative, which uses biotechnology to combine the hardiness of local African rice species with the high productivity of Asian rice and has already reduced hunger, boosted nutrition levels and increased incomes in seven pilot countries in Africa.

The international community must act to meet MDG targets this year — or let them pass. The good news is that we have the tools and the technology to ensure that MDGs are met in every low-income country in the world. But we still need more supportive policies.

Unless efforts are made on an international level to address the special needs of poor countries, globalization will continue to increase poor people’s vulnerability and make them less able to cope with catastrophes, be it a tsunami, flu epidemic or an economic crisis.

There are 192 ongoing IFAD-supported rural poverty eradication programs and projects, totaling $6.5 billion. IFAD has invested about $2.8 billion in these initiatives. Co-financing has been provided by governments, beneficiaries, multilateral and bilateral donors and other partners.

At full development, these programs will help more than 100 million rural poor women and men to achieve better lives for themselves and their families. Since starting operations in 1978, IFAD has invested almost $8.7 billion in 690 projects and programs that have helped more than 250 million poor rural men and women achieve better lives for themselves and their families.

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