Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Continental drift

from Asahi



As Japan looks ahead to hosting a Group of Eight (G-8) summit that will focus on Africa, along with a major international conference on African development, it is being forced to rethink its own aid program for the continent.

At a time when the United States and European countries are expanding poverty alleviation efforts in Africa and when China, with an eye on Africa's natural resources, is also pouring in more money, Japan is the odd one out.

Overall foreign aid budgets have been slashed in recent years and Tokyo is finding it increasingly difficult to come up with the cash to increase aid to Africa.

Japan has hosted the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) every five years since 1993, and it will hold the fourth conference in Yokohama next year.

Speaking at a symposium commemorating Africa Day earlier this year, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said Japan is committed to helping Africa break free of poverty.

"The idea of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is that Japan will help to make Africa vigorous," said Mori, who serves as chairman of the Japan-African Union parliamentary league for friendship.

However, a diplomat from an African country who spoke on condition of anonymity said a new framework needs to be set up to replace TICAD. What is needed now, the diplomat said, is a mechanism to put the conference's ideas into action.

Another diplomat agreed, saying TICAD should be more than a talk fest.

The African Diplomatic Corps (ADC), which consists of ambassadors of African countries in Tokyo, expressed its doubts about the efficacy of TICAD in a letter to the Foreign Ministry.

What irritates the African envoys is that Japanese assistance to Africa is not increasing.

An official of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, who is in charge of diplomacy to Africa, lamented the situation.

"When money is not offered, the ties end. Japan's diplomacy to Africa is now stalemated," the official said.

Amid Japan's overall reduction in aid to developing countries, official development assistance (ODA) to Africa decreased for four consecutive years from 2000. In April 2005, however, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced that Japan will double its ODA to Africa in three years.

Under that policy, Japan's ODA to Africa increased drastically from about $650 million in 2004 to $1.14 billion in 2005. However, most of the increase was used to write off debts or to offer yen loans.

The amount of grants was almost unchanged.

According to the World Bank, the number of extremely poor people around the world decreased by nearly two-thirds in the 30-year period from 1970. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, the number of extremely poor increased by 40 percent during the same period. Now, 300 million people are living on less than $1 (about 115 yen) a day in that region.

African poverty has been a major item on the agenda of G-8 summit meetings for the past several years. The United States and European countries have increased their aid, but Japan, constrained by budgeting concerns, has not.

China's efforts to expand its role in Africa have forced Japan to rethink its own approach.

In recent years, China has drastically increased ODA to African countries to secure natural resources, such as oil and rare metals. Its assistance to Africa, which is estimated to be nearly 50 billion yen, now accounts for as much as 44 percent of its entire foreign aid budget.

According to the China News Service, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce announced in May this year that China's total investments in Africa reached $11.7 billion at the end of last year.

The ministry also said that China will further increase its assistance to African countries, write off their debts and open its market to their products.

China's political leaders, including the president, the premier and the foreign minister, have visited Africa one after another. China also hosted the general meeting of the African Development Bank in Shanghai in May this year.

In Tokyo, the Foreign Ministry fears that Japan might get sidelined diplomatically if China continues to expand its influence in Africa. In particular, it could spell the end of Japan's ambition to get a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The Japanese government's council on overseas economic cooperation has proposed offering yen loans to African countries to improve infrastructure, thereby stimulating economic growth.

The council hopes Africa can follow in the footsteps of some Asian countries, which were able to achieve economic growth with the help of ODA and private-sector investments.

If Africa's infrastructure improves, private companies in Japan and elsewhere in Asia will be more willing to invest there.

However, some experts remain doubtful about this approach.

Motoki Takahashi, professor of African issues at Kobe University, supports the promotion of investment in and trade with Africa. But before resuming yen loans to Africa, he said the government needs to re-examine how past lending left Africa swamped by debt.

"Poverty in Africa cannot be solved by economic growth alone," he said.

TICAD Civil Society Forum (TCSF), a nongovernmental organization working on Africa policy, also said that placing too much importance on economic growth will make the gap between the rich and the poor bigger.

Tsuneo Kurokawa, an official of state aid organization, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), conceded, "So far, aid has not reached the general public."

JICA is now looking into new ways of distributing aid that put the "focus both on government and the grass roots," Kurokawa said.(IHT/Asahi: August 21,2007)

No comments: