by Virgil Hawkins
The Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) opened today in Yokohama, Japan. It is the fifth such TICAD conference, in which African heads of state and other representatives are invited to Japan by the Japanese government every five years, ostensibly for the purpose of furthering and supporting Africa’s development.
Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has pledged a hefty sum of money in aid for Africa, and, provided that this pledge is followed through and put to good use, it should certainly contribute to the development of Africa. But we should harbour no illusions that the conference (or the pledge) is an altruistic gesture, or that African development is the primary objective of the process. The Prime Minister has scheduled, for example, a summit with African leaders on UN Security Council reform (not a topic that one might readily associate with African development) – Japan hopes to receive support for its bid for a permanent seat on that Council. More importantly, the summit has much to do with securing African natural resources for Japan, promoting Africa as a market for Japanese goods, and competing in this regard with rivals in Asia – China and South Korea.
The choice of venue (outside of Africa) has always raised questions. With no apparent irony, the statement produced in Japan after the last such conference in 2008 stated in its introduction that “…from its inception in 1993, the TICAD Process, with Japan at its center … stressed the importance for Africa to exercise full ‘ownership’ of its own development agenda…”. It seems somewhat difficult to reconcile the notion of full African ownership with the fact that this particular process has Japan “at its centre”, is held in Japan, and is wrapped up in a text entitled the ‘Yokohama Declaration’.
The media in Japan seem to have very clear ideas about what TICAD V is all about. A television program (Close-up Gendai) aired by the national broadcaster (NHK) two days before the conference kicked off, for example, focused primarily on Japan’s public and private partnerships being employed to maximise Japanese benefits from Africa’s current economic growth. The program, whose title roughly translates as “Capture Africa’s Growth: Team Japan’s New Strategy”, featured a segment (‘Secure soy beans through Team Japan’) showing how the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA: Japan’s governmental agency that coordinates official development assistance) was strategically using training and infrastructure projects to help secure a large supply of soy beans from Mozambique for Japanese trading companies and producers. A JICA official involved in the project went on record proudly stating that he was serving as a “businessman for Team Japan”.
There is nothing wrong with the self-interested promotion of business as a win-win means of furthering development – Africa certainly needs trade more than it needs aid. But the key question that is not being addressed here (apart from the unabashed use of ODA to directly support business interests back home) is – is it a fair deal? It may well be true that Mozambican farmers can benefit from growing soy beans and selling them to Japanese trading companies. But poor farmers becoming slightly less poor is not the same thing as those farmers getting a fair price for their produce. The exceptionally cheap cost of production (read exceptionally cheap labour) is, of course, the prime reason why Japanese companies are attempting to procure soy beans from farmland 13,000 kilometres away from their intended market.
If government statements and media coverage in Japan are anything to go by, TICAD is seen in Japan primarily as a vehicle to take advantage of growing African economies for the furthering of Japanese economic and political interests. And although a large pledge of Japanese aid to Africa has been made, very little has being mentioned in the lead up to the conference about actual African development. The narrative has been dominated by the perceived need to get in on the action and benefit from a rising Africa, and to counter the influence on the continent of China and Korea.
With all this in mind, one is tempted to rename the process from TICAD to TICJAD – the Tokyo International Conference on Japanese and (hopefully also) African Development.