It was a strange weekend in Tunis.
At the opening ceremony of the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD 8), a cornerstone of Japanese economic, political and developmental influence in the region that is intertwined with the legacy of the late, tragically slain Shinzo Abe, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida did not mince words.
“The rules-based international order is essential”, he told delegates, accusing both China and Russia of undermining this order in a strong statement of his intention to win back ground for what was repeatedly termed a distinctly “Japanese” approach to development, rooted in peace, democracy and human flourishing, with an emphasis on social, political and human rights.
Ukraine in particular loomed large, with almost every intervention – from African Union Commission chair Moussa Fakih Mahamat to Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, and the multitude of statements from the 48 African countries represented at the conference – commencing with reference to the terrible costs Russia’s invasion has imposed on the African continent.
The Tunis Declaration, adopted as TICAD closed on Sunday, went further still, opening with a commitment to “maintain international peace and stability” before shoehorning in a direct challenge to China; taking “good note of the initiative of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”
But as several speakers pointed out, the global economic environment is not necessarily conducive to an ambitious reset in Japan-African relations.
“Things have gotten more complicated,” says Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), one of the co-organisers of TICAD. He listed a now-familiar set of headwinds facing the organisation as it battles to arrest Africa’s rattled development prospects.
“The pandemic knocked many countries off their trajectory; tens of millions of newly impoverished people, and on top of it…the enormous disruption of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. We were trying to invest in development, we were trying to invest in the digital economy in Africa, instead we [now] have to focus on how people even have access to food and fertiliser. Never mind dealing with a global economic recession where the cost of capital is exploding and hitting African economies at a point of maximum indebtedness.”
Even beyond economics, Steiner says, “we are facing a moment where issues of inequality and political polarisation, the lack of trust in government is really tearing at the seams of social cohesion and the functionality of government.”
It is amidst all this that Japan is attempting to reassert itself, and carve out distinctions with China as its regional rival’s loan-heavy approach to African development draws accusations of “debt-trap diplomacy” from across the continent.
Amid perceptions that TICAD has lost its lustre – the number of top-level officials from African countries attending more than halved to just 20, compared to TICAD 7 in Yokohama three years ago – Japan’s elevated pledge of an additional $30bn over the next three to help fuel African development was welcomed.
While the intention is that the funding will be jointly mobilised from public and private sources, following the ongoing reorientation toward private-sector led development that was established at TICAD 7, the breakdown thus far leans heavily toward government and other official development institutions.
Beyond a ¥10bn ($70m) fund established by the Japanese business community with the intention of supporting African startups, $4bn is dedicated to a new Green Growth Initiative with Africa, $5bn will be provided as co-financing with the African Development Bank (AfDB) to tackle electricity, connectivity, health, agriculture and nutrition, as well as debt transparency and sustainability, with an additional $300m for the AfDB’s Emergency Food Production Facility, $1bn will go to a global fund for infectious disease prevention, and finally, an additional 300,000 African professionals will be trained in Japan.
Japan could do more
As well-intentioned and valuable as Japan’s support may be, however, it is doubtful whether TICAD 8 was a grand reset in Japan-Africa cooperation. Even less so if it was intended to be a defiant, bilateral bulwark against the global, multi-dimensional forces exerting pressure on the continent.
For all Japan’s references to the quality, not quantity, of cooperation and growth, and its sorely-needed emphasis on the importance of agency, peacebuilding, justice, sustainability and human capital, the uncomfortable reality is that the step change in Japanese investment to Africa – the primary intended lever for the delivery of positive development outcomes – is yet to materialise.
The US invested $44bn of FDI in 2021, the UK and France around $60bn each and China $43bn, with Japan’s $5bn lagging well behind even as its political and business leaders extolled the continent’s youth, dynamism and untapped economic potential.
While Japan cannot be expected to do it all on its own, it remains the third largest economy on earth by GDP, and boasts a rich, shareable legacy of high-tech industrialisation, effective public administration, transformative infrastructure and supportive contributions to global affairs.
It can certainly do more. Meanwhile, frequent recourse to changes in the global system, such as Kishida’s insistence on Africa having permanent seats on the UN Security Council – which dovetails with Japan’s own ambitions in the arena – was a constant reminder of just how enormous the oscillations of international politics, economics, finance and diplomacy are.
Climate change, economic deterioration, inequality, democratic backsliding and nuclear aggression are truly global challenges, the sharp end of which Africa feels more than any other continent.
As I listened to Prime Minister Kishida’s opening speech, I sat across from the bureau chief of a major international news agency. On a Skype call with colleagues in neighbouring Libya, he told me over the popping of gunfire that militants had begun shelling near their office.
Amid difficult national elections, mounting economic deprivation, drought and tussles over control of the national oil industry on the back of sky-high, war-induced prices, it seemed a resurgence in the violence that has plagued the country for over a decade, and involved countless regional, international and multinational players, was inevitable.
Japan may – or may not – be doing its best, but through the rousing speeches, plenaries, pledges and genuine, abundant goodwill at TICAD 8, its lofty ambitions for Africa continue to feel frustratingly out of reach.
Hear more about Japanese investment in Africa from Angus Chapman on the BBC’s Newsday programme. (Angus speaks from minute 36:50. Sign-in required.)
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