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Japan in Africa: a distant partnership

Kweku Ampiah
6 June 2008

The fourth Tokyo international conference on African development (Ticad IV) was held on 28-30 May 2008 in the neighbouring port city of Yokohama. Japan, which initiated the "Ticad" process, has dutifully funded and hosted this series of summits every five years since 1993. Thus, as one Japanese observer has noted, it was in Tokyo - rather than in Addis Ababa or New York, for example - that leaders of African states first met directly with the relevant development partners to discuss the continent's problems and future (see Hirano Tatsumi, TICAD no shoten to wa? [Africa Report, IDE-Jetro, March 2008]).

Kweku Ampiah is academic fellow in Japanese studies in the department of East Asian studies, University of Leeds But this very historical primacy is now also a source of doubt for those interested in building strong development connections between Japan and Africa: for the Ticad process was inaugurated during the golden age of Japanese overseas development assistance (ODA), when Japan was the world's leading aid donor. By April 2008, it had slipped into fifth place among aid donors.

Meanwhile, the rapid growth of China's economy and global ambitions has seen the aspiring superpower invest enormous energy in cultivating links with Africa, not least by hosting its own summit of African leaders in Beijing - the Forum on China Africa Cooperation - in November 2006 (see Ian Taylor, "China's African rise: the democracy dimension", 2 November 2006) Thus, the slippage in Japan's aid expenditure and its relative influence is part of a wider transformation in the context of development policy in Africa.

An end to optimism

Also in openDemocracy on African economies, development, aid policy - and China:

Chris Melville & Olly Owen, "China and Africa: a new era of 'south-south cooperation'" (8 July 2005)

Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie, "African agency vs the aid business" (6 July 2005)

Ben Schiller, "The China model" (20 December 2005)

Leni Wild, "China, Africa, and the G8: the missing link" (11 July 2006)

Ian Taylor, "China's African rise: the democracy dimension" (2 November 2006)

Onyekachi Wambu, "Africa's Chinese challenge" (30 January 2007)

Paul Collier, " The aid evasion: raising the ‘bottom billion'" (11 June 2007)It is significant in this respect that Ticad IV will be followed in under six weeks by the G8 summit of 7-9 July 2008 in Toyako, on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, and that the outcome of the conference will be fed into the later summit's deliberations - which highlight "development and Africa" as one of the principal themes (see "Japan to champion Africa's cause", IPS, 8 June 2008). With this in mind, participants at Ticad IV committed themselves to work together towards achieving the following four interrelated goals:

* boosting economic growth

* achieving the Millennium Development Goals (which include ensuring human security, education and health)

* peace consolidation and good governance

* addressing environmental issues and climate change.

Forty African presidents, vice-presidents or prime ministers from Africa's fifty-three states attended the event, whose scale fuelled speculation that Japan is competing for African resources and support not just with a rising China but in regard to Tokyo's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (see Kweku Ampiah, "The Ideological, Political and Economic Imperatives in China and Japan's Relations with Africa", in Kweku Ampiah & Sanusha Naidu, eds., Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? China and Africa: Engaging the World's Next Superpower [University of Kwazulu Natal Press, (forthcoming) June 2008]).

Ticad was devised in the already distant era of the post-cold-war as an attempt to counter the "aid fatigue" that seemingly afflicted donors at a time when international attention was more focused on events in east-central Europe and the Soviet Union. But Ticad was also designed for consensus-building around African development priorities. In this respect the Japanese government , even though it has funded and orchestrated Ticad from the start, has always stressed the role of the process's co-organisers - the United Nations (including the United Nations Development Programme [UNDP]), the Global Coalition for Africa and the World Bank. There is a contrast here between Tokyo's emphasis on collaboration with development partners in relation to Africa and its more single-minded approach toward southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ticad I in 1993 reminded the international community that Africa's development problems endured even in a transformed global environment. In that sense Japan is the unsung hero of post-cold-war efforts to find solutions to Africa's economic malaise. This pioneering role was reflected too in Ticad 1's introduction of the idea that Africans themsleves should be the initiators and managers of their own development. The key text here is the concluding Tokyo Declaration on African Development which prescribed economic reform through diversification and liberalisation, poverty reduction, and above all the creation of better life-chances for the citizens of Africa through increased employment and better healthcare.

The declaration's Paragraph 5 affirms that "political, economic and social reforms must be initiated and carried out by African countries themselves, based on their visions, values and individual socio-economic background". True, the document contained other elements: it endorsed the continued application of neo-liberal "structural adjustment" economic policies, and spoke of the need for political reforms, especially in regard to democratisation, respect for human rights, and good governance. These reflected the then voguish belief of Japan's development partners that there was a linear relation between democratic/good governance and economic development (in full self-awareness of the fact that Japan's economic rise from the late 19th century onwards did not take place under a democratic governing order; something echoed by China today).

A gap between rhetoric and reality is evident here. Japanese policy-makers are well aware of the productive base of African economies (as suppliers of primary goods) and that the tariff walls, non-tariff barriers and subsidies that surround the markets of developed countries make it impossible for Africans to penetrate. In essence, as former Japanese ambassador Shinsuke Horiuchi points out: "The trade rules of developed countries are impediments to what they advocate: free trade" (see Shinsuke Horiuchi, "TICAD after 10 Years: A Preliminary Assessment and Proposals for the Future" [Africa and Asian Studies, 4/4, 2005]). In this light, Japan's policies on African development are afflicted with what might be described as "cognitive dissonance", in that Tokyo - from an apparent wish to please its development partners - prescribes policies which it does not itself fully believe in.

Ticad II in 1998 adopted the Tokyo Agenda for Action (TAA), intended to help guide the implementation of substantive policies for Africa's development. Paragraph 9 of the TAA further emphasises Africa's agency here: "Ownership is derived when development priorities, as set by Africa, are pursued". Ticad II also identified a number of goals and priority actions for economic growth and poverty-alleviation. Among them, the state is urged to create employment opportunities, improve and enhance income distribution, revitalise rural communities, improve public expenditures, and expand social services - all of which suggest (in Shinsuke Horiuchi's words) a "significant departure from the rules advocated by the liberal economies".

Ticad III in 2003 - as usual preceded by a number of preparatory meetings - re-emphasised the Africa-centred theme, while also highlighting the newly current concept of "human security". The idea of security as inhering as much or more in the citizens of a country and their overall well-being rather than in the state and its institutions reflected broader shifts in development thinking, of which indeed the Ticad process has been something of a mirror.

The then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi declared in his keynote speech at Ticad III that "human security" can be addressed through three pillars: "human-centred development", "poverty reduction through economic growth", and "consolidation of peace". These are all laudable aspirations, but there has been little in the ensuing five years attributable to Ticad in the way of implementation. The ethos or achievements of Ticad were still far from fulfilling the optimism with which Africa's leaders and policymakers embraced the process at its inception.

A new relationship

This pessimism is echoed in the view of the African ambassadors' group in Tokyo that: "...measured against the broader yardstick of the Millennium Development Goals, it is not clear that the TICAD Process has met Africa's expectations - in terms of making a significant impact in driving or progressing sustainable development on the continent." In particular, the group queries the practical operation of what Japanese policymakers describe as a unique aspect of the Ticad: the idea of Africa's ownership of its own development as a crucial aspect of the process.

The point becomes warning - in a clear reference to China's recent initiatives in Africa - as the ambassadors continue: "TICAD is no longer alone in terms of Asia-based fora focused on Africa...the action-oriented approach, and the aggressive, highly-visible character of some of the other initiatives to have emerged over the past few years [make] it clear the TICAD Process risks being overshadowed - especially in terms of delivery and effectiveness on the ground."

These comments reflect the fact that the originating optimism of African leaders who expected immediate and tangible outcomes from Ticad is becoming ever more distant. Perhaps these hopes were misconceived, for - despite the grand gestures and high-profile initiatives - Ticad has always been what Tokyo saw it as from the outset: a process and a developmental framework, not a pledging conference. In this sense donor and "recipient" seem to have had different visions and to have been talking at cross-purposes.

Amid these different viewpoints, it can be easy to forget how insignificant Japanese investment in Africa has become. Between 2002 and 2004 Japanese foreign direct investment (FDI) in sub-Saharan Africa amounted to only $415 million, roughly 0.4% of Japan's total FDI during the period. Moreover, 85% of these investments were concentrated in two countries, Liberia and South Africa. Liberia alone accounts for 50% of all Japanese investments in the region; and since these investments have nothing to do with development promotion or wealth-creation - because they are mainly concerned with Japanese ships that use the Liberian flag of convenience - they have no relevance to the issue of sustainable growth and development.

By contrast, China's frantic procurement of natural resources from Africa has brought some momentum to the African economies. China's total trade with Africa came to $73.5 billion in 2007, far exceeding Japan's $26.6 billion. This reinforces the question posed by Hirano Tatsumi of whether the principle behind Ticad has not passed its sell-by date. China's dramatic economic incursion into Africa - fuelled by hunger for its raw materials - has changed the environment in which Ticad is operating; alongside this Africans' own perception of themselves and their circumstances has changed at least since Ticad II in 1998, and continues to evolve (see Chris Melville & Olly Owen, "China and Africa: a new era of 'south-south cooperation'", 8 July 2005)

A process in flux

The African ambassadors' statement indicates that the continent's leaders are now less interested in abstractions about the efficacy or otherwise of contending "development softwares" and more in the kind of action-oriented initiatives and concrete outcomes represented by China's proactive economic engagement with Africa. By Ticad IV, the African leaders were desperate to find out how best to attract Japanese firms to invest in Africa; and keen to know what sort of investment-promotion policies (if any) the Japanese government has devised to attract Japanese investors into the region.

At least part of the answer lies in the way that several Japanese companies - spurred on by Japan's domestic economic malaise as well as the desire not to lose out in competition with China - are exploring investment opportuities in Africa's mineral resources and electrical-power sectors in the region (see David Pilling, "Tokyo shows mettle in the race for Africa's ore", Financial Times, 21 May 2008). The Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda promised at Ticad IV to establish a $2.5 billion Facility for African Investment in 2008-12 (to be inaugurated with the Japan Bank for International Cooperation [JBIC]) to enable Japanese investments in Africa. In other words, the Japanese government is aiming to use aid to prod Japanese companies to become more active in the region (see "ODA Fall Poses Africa Policy Dilemma: China Filling the Vacuum", Japan Times, 4 April 2008).

The prime minister - finding some respite from his domestic political troubles - also pledged to secure up to $4 billion of soft loans to Africa "to help increase momentum for infrastructure improvement", as well as doubling its grant aid and technical assistance for Africa over the five years until Ticad V. It remains to be seen if the "Yokohama Action Plan" can, this time, begin to reconcile rhetoric and reality. Meanwhile, African policymakers will be looking at how Japan implements its side of the Ticad process's partnership, while keeping one eye on other development opportunities.

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