Japan Wakes Up To Africa

Japan has started to view Africa more as a potential economic partner and less as a perennial receptacle for international aid. The Keidanren, the Japanese Business Federation and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, apparently waking to the business opportunities, were heavily represented at this year's Tokyo International Conference on African Development.

Japan may be trying to match China's recent contributions to Africa's economic dynamics. While it must realize that is an impossible task, China's emergence as a significant actor in development may lead Japan to be more confident about projecting its ideals onto African countries. Before the conference's third meeting in 2003, Japan preferred to defer to the World Bank and Africa's traditional partners, but since then it has given clear advice to a number of African countries affirming the relevance of the state in development and the usefulness of industrial policy, for example.

Unlike the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the economic ministries and the Japanese business community seem now to be assessing whether Africa can provide benefits for Japanese traders and investors. But on the other hand, the ministry has its own agenda, which concerns how the conference could be used to advance Japan's profile and prestige in international affairs.

In principle, the conference is a conglomeration of development ideas, objectives, methods, and of course development experts. Its raison d'être is to provide Africa with integrated assistance for infrastructure development, institutional capacity building, education, peace-building and all the basic but necessary requirements for economic growth. The process was initiated by Japan in 1993, when following the end of the Cold War major aid donors appeared apathetic toward Africa and its developmental malaise.

The 20th anniversary of the summit was held in Yokohama from 1–3 June, and attracted a throng of delegations: 51 from Africa, a host of representatives from 35 other countries and 74 international and regional organizations from Africa and Asia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which led the initiative, saw this as an opportunity to showcase Japan's leadership capabilities as a crusading developmentalist and divert attention away from Japan's notoriously reactionary tendencies in international affairs.

Consequently TICAD, which meets every five years, is single-handedly financed and orchestrated by the Japanese government, although it is in principle designed to operate as a multilateral initiative involving the World Bank, the United Nations, United Nations Development Program and, since 2010, the Africa Union Commission.

And while, according to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 'the forum is founded on an approach that seeks to avoid the "top-down" hierarchy of the donor–recipient model and to opt instead for African "ownership" and international "partnership"', in fact Africa's ownership of the TICAD process is, at best, a work in progress. For years, African agencies in the process have tried to impress upon MoFA the major goal of African countries: a true economic partnership with Japan similar to the one they have with China.

Until TICAD IV in 2008, the process essentially emphasized grant aid and technical aid as disbursed and managed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). More significantly, as a development package, the TICAD process lacked private sector initiative. While Japanese businesses contributed a great deal to the development of Southeast Asia, they didn't seem interested in Africa.

This led to much disillusionment among African countries and claims that the forum was merely "development software." But TICAD IV adopted something called the Yokohama Action Plan, which recognized the strategic importance of private sector investment as a necessary component for Africa's development. Since then public–private partnership (PPP) arrangements for development have been introduced into TICAD's discourse.

For example, Tokyo more than fulfilled the pledge it made in 2008 to assist in doubling the amount of Japanese private sector investment in Africa, to US$3.4 billion since the five-year average figure until 2010 came to $5.2 billion. At TICAD V this year, Prime Minister Abe struck a bolder note as he spoke to the summit's theme, Hand in Hand with a More Dynamic Africa. The Yokohama Declaration of 2013, among others adopted at the event, reaffirmed the determination of TICAD partners 'to urgently reform UN bodies, including the Security Council', a recurring theme in the TICAD process. That statement could provide a clue as to why MoFA is so interested in African development: it is hoping to attract Africa's support for a permanent Japanese seat on the UN Security Council.

Compared to most Japanese foreign policy programs the TICAD initiative is proactive. It has a good chance of success, but whether and how African countries can gain from it ultimately depends on leadership in Africa, not Japan.

(Dr Kweku Ampiah is Associate Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Leeds. This appeared originally in the East Asia Forum, based at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University)